Mission Possible: Setting Realistic Goals For Congregational Schools
Wed, 08/14/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Wendy Grinberg
Wendy Grinberg

Does your synagogue’s religious school have a mission statement? In my years serving as a congregational educator and a consultant to synagogue schools, I’ve seen a few that look like this: 

“At Temple Olam HaBa, we teach the values of Talmud Torah (study of sacred texts), Avodah (worship), and G’milut Chasadim (ethical behavior). Our students develop a deep love of Israel, a habit of lifelong learning, and a commitment to the Jewish people. We grow menschen who know how to treat one another and make the world a better place.”

Sound familiar? I like the sound of it, but given that virtually every Jewish topic could arguably fall within the above mission, it doesn’t offer much guidance.

The function of a school’s mission statement is to guide educators and volunteer leadership as they make decisions about what is taught and how. Synagogue schools need this guidance because they operate with a very limited number of hours and resources. Take, for (a generous) example, a three-hour-a-week Sunday program that meets during the academic year for 28 Sundays. In one year, students who attend every session will get the equivalent contact time of 14 days of public school. If they attend from third through seventh grade, they’ve got just over three months of schooling under their belts. So, how exactly is the school going to achieve the goals outlined above?

Let’s compare this mission to those of youth soccer leagues, which — due to their popularity, scheduling demands and families’ seeming tendency to prioritize them above religious school — are the bane of many Jewish educators’ existence. Here’s the AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) mission statement:

To develop and deliver quality youth soccer programs, which promote a fun, family environment based on our six AYSO philosophies (EBOPSP): Everyone Plays, Balanced Teams, Open Registration, Positive Coaching, Good Sportsmanship, and Player Development.

This statement is short, sets clear priorities and outlines ways of fulfilling them. The endeavor is focused on things that families value: fun, family, social behaviors and healthy habits. In the 2005 book “Blue Ocean Strategy,” W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne describe an alternative to competing with similar businesses in your current industry, allowing you to find an untapped market. One of their “paths” is to look across alternative industries, rather than focus on rivals within your own industry. Consider what kids and parents are getting from those activities that often take them out of religious school — good habits, sound values, friends and fun.

What if a religious school, or rather, all of a synagogue’s youth programming, were, like soccer leagues, designed around a few simple concepts? First, there would be a focus on developing the skills, vocabulary and habits to live a meaningful Jewish life, not only in the future, but right now. This would involve some basic familiarity with Jewish ritual and Hebrew as well as a positive disposition towards participation in Jewish life, and a sense that there is more to be learned and that pursuing that learning is enriching, relevant and meaningful. For that message to be communicated, we need relevant Jewish experiences for children, and we need adult role models who are leading meaningful Jewish lives, pursuing Jewish learning, trying new Jewish practices and being recognized by the community for doing so.

A second area of focus, although not second in importance, is building friendships. Ron Wolfson’s new book “Relational Judaism” has renewed our interest in this priority, but we have long known, through the work of researchers such as Sylvia Barack Fishman, that Jewish friendships in youth are a factor in whether an adult chooses to raise children Jewishly. Fishman has also demonstrated that participation in Jewish education helps create Jewish friendships (“Generating Jewish Connections,” 2007).

I use this thought experiment to validate the importance of friendships and community: If you were uninspired by the rabbi, but had friends at the synagogue, would you quit or remain a member? What if you didn’t like the cantor’s singing, but had friends there? What if you thought the school was mediocre, but had friends there? What if you were transfixed by the rabbi’s sermons, transported by the cantor’s singing and thought the school was academically rigorous, but had no friends at the synagogue? Loved the building? You get the idea: We go to synagogue (and stay with it) to be part of a community that cares about us.

Together the priorities of friendship and practical skills shift a school’s emphasis from content to community. The content stemming from this approach is made up of values and rituals that build community, teach us how to live together and enrich our lives. The language of a mission statement around these ideas might still seem grandiose, but the ideas can serve as a practical guide.

When I served as principal of a religious school, one of the teachers expressed her frustration that her students didn’t know Abraham’s father’s name. “What about the name of the child sitting next to him?” I asked her. If we try to cover all of the richness of Jewish tradition and history in the equivalent of three months, we are bound to fail. To meet the needs of today’s Jewish parents and their kids, we need to tighten our mission to build strong friendships and a meaningful connection to Judaism that will last.

Wendy Grinberg is the founder and director of the Jewish Education Lab and serves on the faculty of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.