Guest Blog

Promote Dialogue: Next Steps as We Navigate Education Challenges in Training for Effective Jewish Leadership

– by Mark Young

July 16th, 2019

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.

In their first-year interim report on Jewish leadership development, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) identifies five challenges facing those who wish to cultivate Jewish leadership today. One of those five, Education Challenges, encompasses, but is not limited to, the following:

  • that there is a “lack of clarity around terminology,” and no “agreed-upon definition of Jewish education;”
  • that trends in Jewish education have been towards a consumerist approach asking, “what does the market audience need (or want);”
  • that individuals also want to be, as Dr. Jonathan Woocher z’l put it, “prosumers – empowered to create their own educational experiences, and to guide them on lifelong learning journeys;” and
  • that it is not clear who “does the work” of Jewish education. Are they those whose job titles includes “Jewish educator” or those who work in a frontal classroom setting? Or, as Shuki Taylor of M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education says, “professionals from fundraisers to program directors to farmers need to see themselves as educators, who should approach their work from a learning perspective?” (I happen to agree with Shuki on this point).

Examining the above, it is clear that just within the Education Challenges bucket, CCL points to numerous challenges when thinking about cultivating leadership. My reflection after reading this section of the report is two-fold. First, we need to prioritize ongoing dialogue on these issues and second, we need to clarify the definitions many of us already know but others may not.

In regards to dialogue, CCL points out that as we think about the future of Jewish education—and its many related complex and important issues—people will articulate differing opinions and visions. Inevitably, some people’s will be strong and impassioned. Coincidentally, these three variables—an important issue, when emotions run high, and when opinions differ—often are the markers of a critical conversation between two or multiple parties that must occur to address and resolve differences. An effective and responsible leader makes it a priority to engage in these conversations head on, with transparency, a great listening ear, and kindness, no matter how fraught they may be.

The challenges stated in the CCL report should further motivate our Jewish education field to have these critical conversations. These conversations must be with diverse groups and held in public spaces.  A good example of this is the open and frequent dialogues hosted at the William Davidson School of JTS. These included conversations about the goals, purpose, and scope of education and involved colleagues from across the spectrum of Jewish life.

I suggest that an effective leadership approach to navigating the many issues CCL highlights is to prioritize discussion over determination, dialogue over absolutist decision-making, and be pluralistic and multi-faced when we decide whom to invite into conversation, gathering a diverse selection of Jewish educators and leaders and to create an environment that welcomes and appreciates various perspectives. In my view, such an approach will generate more innovation and collaboration then holding particular stances that can limit one’s impact or influence.

In regards to clarifying definitions, I was curious to see some of the challenges stated in the report, as I think at least a couple have already been resolved. For example, there are agreed upon definitions of Jewish education.  Most would commonly define Jewish education as involving the exposure to or transmission of knowledge and engaging learners in experiences between an educator(s) and learner(s) that involve or speak to a particular body of content. Now, what is included (or not) in this body of content? What are the shared goals and purposes of our work? These are great and deep questions—and ones we must discuss. Again, I don’t believe we should set a goal to determine finite answers. We will never get to consensus! Yet, we certainly can say that there is some consensus around what Jewish education is, and we should amplify this to as large an audience as possible.

A second example is the perceived conflation between informal and experiential education. Conflating these two educational approaches was an issue earlier this decade for many deeply involved in Jewish education. There is an understanding now that “formal vs. informal” references the Jewish educational setting, whereas “frontal vs. experiential” commonly relates to an educator’s approach to the educational experience or learning. These definitions, to me, are pretty clear and irrefutable, with many thanks to Dr. David Bryfman, Dr. Jeff Kress, and other colleagues who have written on this. The task now at hand is to amplify these definitions for clarity to the broader community. In our work to build the Jewish leadership field, we must effectively communicate what we already know.

Which brings me back again to the importance of dialogue. Many of the education challenges before us as outlined by CCL are indeed complex; thus our charge for leadership must be to advance the conversation, and to spur new innovations and paradigms for Jewish education to consider. We must also make our work a bit simpler by leading through the iterative process, allowing our work to constantly grow and evolve, and to communicate our work frequently and broadly so we all can respond, converse, and learn from each other.

Mark S. Young served as the Managing Director, Leadership Commons at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary