A recent panel discussion, moderated by the Jewish Education Project, highlighted what the results of the 2013 PEW study "A Portrait of Jewish Americans" mean for Jewish educators.
Jonathan Woocher of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Cyd Weissman, Director of Innovation Congregational Learning at the Jewish Education Project and Michelle Lynn-Sachs, researcher and consultant in Jewish education at the Union for Reform Judaism/Hebrew Union College gathered online to present their assessment of the PEW study results to numerous Jewish educators from all Jewish streams throughout North America.
Jonathan Woocher began the discussion by summarizing his assessment of the survey results as "don't panic." He noted that, although the data hasn't been fully analyzed, it's just as important to look at what hasn't been said as what has been said. He believes that the survey shows that the Jewish community is showing resilience to a changing world, including a positive disposition to Judaism among many unaffiliated Jews. While Jews of "no religion" and intermarried Jews show a lower percentage of feelings of belonging to the Jewish religion, the majority of those Jews still express a connection and it's the responsibility of Jewish educators to take advantage of that and build on it.
Mr. Woocher said that we have to accept that there are some Jews who are not interested in Jewish expression or involvement but the majority want to be enaged. Educators must find the strategies to engage those who do want to connect.
Cyd Weissman discussed the importance of reaching out to the community for discussions and ideas about how to "make meaning of the text" of the study -- how to make Judaism more meaningful and real in the lives of community members.
In particular, Ms. Weissman pointed to the fact that there are 1.8 children in America who are living with one Jewish parent. Although the study showed that only ½ of these children are being raised exclusively as Jews, the majority of them have a Jewish "mentor" in their lives -- a parent, grandparent or other individual -- who can weave the relationship that will influence the children's Jewish identity.
Michelle Lynn-Sachs reiterated Ms. Weissman's comments about engaging community members. Educators can crowdsource to collect thoughts and ideas about how to make Judaism more meaningful and accessible for the community. She emphasized the importance of each community concentrating on its own individual needs.
Ms. Lynn-Sachs reiterated some of Mr. Woocher's suggestions about how to base long-term educational planning on the positive aspects of the survey. The survey shows that, although some Jews are unaffiliated, most identify positively with their Judaism. She asked educators to consider how to engage these people on their own terms. How can educators identify what it is that makes people proud to be part of the Jewish people and build on those elements?
For online educators, these insights present a challenge that, in some ways, elearning programs may be best-poised to meet.
Individuals who are knowledgeable and engaged with a Jewish community are likely to already be involved in Jewish learning. For people who have a tenuous relationship with their Judaism, however, finding a Jewish learning program for their kids that is accessible, unintimidating and welcoming can be a challenge.
Online learning enables Jewish youngsters to join together with other students who come from similar circumstances. Classes meets in a friendly environment that encourages Jewish exploration. Jewish distance learning provides the warmth of a Jewish classroom together with hospitable atmosphere in which the students can interact with their Jewish learning on their own terms.
The 21st century presents many tests to the Jewish community and 21st century technology may help the community meet these challenges.