Jewish education has a long and proud history of borrowing – and modifying – ideas from outside of the Jewish world to create compelling educational experiences. It’s a practice that has served generations of learners well and one that we must redouble to confront our current challenges.
The examples are endless.
Summer camping began as an activity of the American elite, designed to build character and strength in future leaders of American society. By the late 1880s, the Jewish community had adopted the idea to serve the surging immigrant community arriving in New York from eastern Europe. The first Jewish camps served the dual purpose of taking youth out of the crammed tenements of New York’s Lower East Side and into the country while acculturating these immigrant youth to American language, culture and life.
It was not until the 1940s that Jewish camps fully grew into their own as educational institutions, designed to inculcate Jewish identity, literacy and continuity.
The postwar model of supplementary school had a similar start. As Jews left urban centres and migrated to the suburbs, they followed their Christian neighbours in creating Sunday schools for religious education. Usually based in synagogues, these flourished as bnei mitzvah became a milestone event.
The list goes on and on. Our models of youth movements, community centres and social action education all find their roots outside of the Jewish community.
The most compelling contemporary example of this educational borrowing is PJ Library. Philanthropist Harold Grinspoon invested in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, an initiative that sends free books to children under the age of five. While appreciating the program’s impact on early-year literacy, Grinspoon realized that the Jewish community has similar goals – parental engagement, childhood literacy, etc. PJ Library was born, an enterprise that now mails nearly 150,000 Jewish children’s books each month.
Too often, especially in the field of Jewish education, we’re hesitant to look at others’ ideas and borrow. We adopt a stance that our needs are idiosyncratic, making others’ approaches irrelevant to our community’s experience.
Nearly two years ago, I was introduced to a group of educators from a native community in central Ontario. They were concerned about the continuity of their native language and traditions, and an educational consultant who was herself Jewish brought them to meet with leaders of Jewish schools, camps and other educational programs. As we spoke, we both came to realize that our challenges of cultural transmission and religious continuity are not dissimilar from those of many other minority groups struggling to empower youth with strong identities that will carry them through life.
In an environment where our Jewish educational infrastructure needs to change, we would be well served by looking outside the Jewish community. Religious groups in the United States use “released time” programs and complementary religious schooling to offer religious instruction in parallel to general studies offered in public schools. Doing so has allowed them to create religious schooling experiences that are sustainable and accessible to the entirety of their communities.
Similarly, intensive educational camps and travel experience are designed not only to offer recreational and sociological experiences, but to develop religious and cultural literacy. Most powerfully, other religious groups have focused on buttressing the home as an incubator for learning and identity formation, developing the tools for empowering parents to serve as religious models and educators.
As Jewish life continues to change, we must keep an eye on our own community, its needs and challenges, while also learning from others, considering what new tactics and techniques we may borrow and adapt to fit the changing needs of our community. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it may also be the best source of compelling Jewish education for the 21st century.