Jewish Education—Zero Defects

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Joel Lurie GrishaverTo create the kinds of school-family partnerships that raise student achievement, improve local communities, and increase public support, we need to understand the difference between family involvement and family engagement. One of the dictionary definitions of involve is “to enfold or envelope,” whereas one of the meanings of engage is “to come together and interlock.” Thus, involvement implies doing to; in contrast, engagement implies doing with. (Ferlazzo, Larry “Involvement or Engagement? ”Educational Leadership.” May 2011. Volume 68 Number 8)

Zero Defects

Thirty years ago the hippest book in America was In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters. It was a time when American Industry looked towards Japanese business practices to improve our own. Two of the innovations from that period have a great potential to effect Jewish education today.

The first is the Zero Defects movement. Zero Defects was a quality control program originated by the Denver Division of the Martin Marietta Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) on the Titan Missile program, which carried the Project Gemini astronauts into space in the middle to late 1960s. It is one of the postulates from Philip Crosby‘s  “Absolutes of Quality Management“. The idea here is simple. It is easier to go for zero defects than it is to reduce defects for six to four percent. Striving for perfection gets the best results.

The second is Quality circles. Quality circles were informal gatherings of managers and works that brainstormed ways of improving production excellence.

Observers of American Jewry have noted the seismic shift during the 1980s away from communal policies mainly designed to foster Jewish integration toward a survivalist agenda. Communal leaders became less preoccupied with fostering the socio-economic advancement of Jews, and instead set themselves a new challenge: How do we help Jews maintain a strong connection to Jewish life? (Wertheimer, Jack. Linking the Silos:How to Accelerate the Momentumin Jewish Education Today.)

Engagement and Jewish Education

In secular education, (The World of Educational Leadership) “engagement” has come to mean “family connection.” (Kein Yehiyah Ratzon—May it be God’s Will). In Jewish education it has taken on more of the “involvement“ meaning. Simply put, involvement is not enough. Engagement as “participatory” involvement isn’t enough, either.

For the Jewish people to survive, we need students who will in some way join the Jewish people. Jews who grow up with an inner-sense of Judaism are not enough. A person who brags that they are one-fifth Jewish isn’t enough. Neither is having a family meal and calling it a Seder, What we need are Jews who connect regularly with other Jews and together seek to build a Jewish future.

Directly put, the primary objective of Jewish education needs to be membership. By Membership I am as good with a major gift to federation as I am with participating in a small minyan that meets in an upper West Side apartment. We need to teach belonging. Community and Leadership need to be major parts of our curriculum.

Zero Defects and Quality Circles

I think his name was Glenn. He got thrown out of his Hebrew school class virtually every day. He wound up hanging out in my youth room. I never knew how he got there. But, part of my policy as a youth director was to provide sanctuary. I got the word that he had dropped out of the Hebrew School and his parents had quit the synagogue. I made arrangements to take him out to lunch. We ate together. I put on no pressure. I just said good-bye, because I thought that someone at the synagogue needed to. It was my version of zero defects. It would probably better be labeled “an exit interview.” I just thought that someone needed to say good-bye if there was to be any hope for a “hello” in the future.

Zero Defects in Jewish Schooling means that we let no one quit, no one leave. It means that we have to fight to retain every family. And fighting to keep every family means that we need to listen and we have to change. This, by the way, doesn’t mean we have to give up our standards though we may have to rethink our methods.

Quality circles is the second part of the formula. Whether it is families or students, you need to give your clients a voice in the process. Lots of synagogues and schools have already done this in programs like S2k and Imagine (etc). And while there is an old chestnut about putting people who complain on the committee, this is not that. Here, you honestly start with the question, “What can make what we do more effective?

Here is what you are thinking. If you are not worried that they will want you to fire half your teachers and cut a day a week out of the school—then, you are thinking that there is no way you can get them to show up. You can figure out how to get them there—I know you can. I also know that first you listen; then you think about change. You will need to change—but you know that already.

Getting Engaged

Let’s assume that engagement is a maximal word rather than a minimal world. If we read the educational literature, it is more than experiential. It is experiential with a connection; ideally a family connection. This means that we have to do a lot more than run a few “station” events for families—it means we need to engage in a real partnership with them. Partnerships involving sharing responsibilities (we have to get them to take some). And partnerships mean sharing control. Think zero defects and quality circles. But, most of all, we need to teach Jewish community by creating Jewish community. There are a lot of businesses out there that are now trying to take over synagogue schools. If we think of education as a product, then we might as well let them take over. But, we have it in our power to do a couple of things they can’t do. Families that want to “buy” an education (or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah prep) can now do so on the internet. We can offer them two things they can’t buy with a i-pad. First we can be a great synagogue. Second we can be the great interactive school that synagogue offers. That is the only way we can achieve out central goal of membership.