New Paradigms in Jewish Education

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is an innovator in the world of Jewish education whose innovations now span three decades. Much of his earlier work introduced the Jewish education world to the power of service learning and a new paradigm that links Jewish action in service of tikkun olam to traditional Jewish sources. In this short reflection about our 21st Century Kaplanian Vision of Jewish Education, Rabbi Schwarz wonders out loud about freeing ourselves from traditional models of Jewish schooling as we explore new paradigms better aligned with the challenge of 21st century Jewish education.


What I find most exciting in the initial work done to apply Mordecai Kaplan’s insights to the field of Jewish education is the emphasis on how the entire structure of the Jewish community is the vehicle for the transmission of Jewish content. I’ve often been struck by the disconnect between the vibrancy of Jewish organizational life in North America and the uninspiring content of what is delivered in the vast majority of synagogue religious school classrooms (or day school classrooms for that matter).

A few years ago, I worked closely with friend and colleague, Rabbi Joy Levitt, to launch the Jewish Journey Project at the JCC of Manhattan where Joy is the executive director. The entire premise was to use New York’s vast array of Jewish resources as a living classroom for the children enrolled in the program. Why work out of a textbook when Jewish life was happening every day in every imaginable way all around the children (the learners).

I want to raise a cautionary note about using the insights of a mid-20th century thinker to guide how we might re-imagine Jewish education for children who have been born into the 21st century. For his time, Mordecai Kaplan was as open to and as broadminded about the relevance of the wider social context of America as any other Jewish thinker of his time. Yet read from the perspective of our own time, much of Kaplan’s writings come across as parochial.

I was raised by European born parents who were survivors of the Shoah and fervent Zionists. My commitment to the collective Jewish enterprise and the Jewish future was woven into my DNA. That is not the case for the Jewish young people who we are called upon to educate today. If there was one methodological insight that I gleaned from 21 years of leading PANIM, a national Jewish organization committed to Jewish learning, Jewish values and social responsibility it was this: Jewish education can only work from the outside in, not from the inside out. Meaning: get young people passionate about the issues that affect their communities, their country and the world and show them how Jewish wisdom and values can help them figure out right from wrong and how to make a difference in the world. That will motivate them to dig into the treasure trove of the Jewish heritage. With the exception of the most traditional Jewish communities (read, Orthodox), exploring Jewish texts, values and tradition for their own sake, simply holds little appeal.