Not So Sure About Woocher’s “New Approach”

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Jonathan Woocher is chief ideas officer at JESNA (Jewish Educational Service of North America) and director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute. He once thought that religion would disappear in the North American Jewish community and that all would be left would be secular institutions.

He has said,

“From an educational standpoint, there is good reason to welcome a situation in which learners drive the agenda. The learning itself will be more powerful and more enduring when it responds to authentic questions, when the learner actively seeks out the answers to these questions, and when there is ample room for diverse learning styles and formats.”

When he wrote that a few years ago, that sort of thinking was a breath of fresh air, and it was especially poignant for day school educators. At the time, booming enrollments and adequate funding gave them the opportunity to do some innovative things in their classrooms, and Woocher’s notion of learner-directed education was very helpful.

With the recent economic downturn spurring reports that day school enrollment is down, Dr. Woocher is now thinking about supplemental schools. In an article published in the recent edition of The Jewish Week, Woocher wrote:

“At JESNA, we believe that every family that wants to send its children to a quality day school should be able to do so. And we want the same for those choosing supplementary education. It will take some creative thinking and a lot of collaboration. But it’s doable, and we’re working now with our partners in central agencies across North America to make that vision a reality.”

He gives the following example of this free choice in action.

“Take a day school family now seeking an intensive supplementary program, perhaps one that meets eight or 10 hours per week, rather than the typical four or five, and that emphasizes serious Hebrew literacy, either for purposes of conversation or text study in the original. Or, take a very different, but not uncommon family whose Jewishness is primarily cultural, not religious, or focused on social justice and activism. Perhaps the family has a child who is passionate and gifted in the arts and wants to approach her or his Jewish learning through this lens. Perhaps the family is an interfaith one, and seeks a Jewish educational program that is uniquely sensitive to their life issues.”

There are only a few problems with this thinking. First, it does no good in Shreveport, Louisiana and places like it, where there are fewer than thirty students in the combined religious school. Filling classes, finding teachers, and enabling success is the problem. Offering alternative school models is beyond fantasy. This is exactly the problem that the Institute for Southern Jewish Life is successfully focusing on, and they are doing it by going in the opposite direction. They are doing it by standardizing curriculum while training and inspiring teachers.

Second, this is not a moment in history to have great faith in market driven economies. My Rabbi and teacher, Shelly Dorph, used to worry about Gresham’s Law that states that “Bad money drives good money off the market.”

He was saying that given the decision making ability, families that want less will always control the level of Jewish education. That is how we moved from three days a week to two or one. Believing that there are a significant number of families who want ten to twelve hours a week of “Hebrew School” is one of the fastest ways of putting a school out of business.

The idea of involving families in making choices is a good idea. All the best of congregations are doing so in their visioning and executing of excellence. In Jack Wertheimer’s latest study he says, “Good schools regard families as allies and also clients.”

Dr. Woocher is right that we need to have our ears to the ground, that we need to offer options wherever possible, and the market place has room for entrepreneurs who want to find and serve niche markets.

Where he is wrong, however, just as he was wrong about civil religion, is that Jewish life begins and progresses as community. This is not the time to follow the rules of the market place, but of the extended family who knows how to meet the needs of each member.