Teachers, heads of school, rabbinic and lay leaders from the region’s Jewish educational and religious institutions gathered together during the last two days of May for a new take on a subject almost as old as Judaism itself: Jewish education. Education, partnerships, outreach, use of new media and family programming were some of the topics discussed at “Jewish Education Summit: Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century.”
The summit was cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, with support from the Samis Foundation, which provides funding for Jewish day schools in Washington State.
David Stiefel, chair of the Federation’s Jewish education task force, said the summit “represents an opportunity for us collectively to dream about what Jewish education in Seattle could be and to start developing a vision.”
“Seattle’s Jewish community has grown, and the number of opportunities for Jewish education have mushroomed,” Stiefel told the gathering of 93 Jewish educators from a large contingent of day and supplementary schools.
Stiefel’s said his goal for the event was to “find new, innovative and compelling mechanisms to support Jewish education in Seattle.”
Jonathan Woocher, whose title is Chief Ideas Officer for the New York-based Jewish Education Service of North America, facilitated the workshops and programs. Woocher also heads the Lippman Kanfer Institute, an action-oriented think tank for in Jewish learning and engagement.
Woocher demonstrated and discussed new technologies and concepts that have already become a part of the Jewish education framework. He urged attendees to gain new perspectives on learning aided by innovation and by using technology to increase outreach to include the whole family.
Following Woocher’s address, attendees participated in brainstorming sessions, which were then compiled by the event’s organizers and handed back, full-circle, to all of the attendees. Liat Zaidenberg, director of education services at the Federation, said her staff purposely arranged seating to mix the attendees so people of different backgrounds could meet.
Such arrangements included a synagogue’s rabbi and director of education; a Jewish Federation lay leader with a business background; the head of a pre-K-8 day school, an active parent volunteer, and a former teacher.
Each brainstorming group focused on topic areas: Partnerships and collaborations, settings and modalities, learners, educators, and Jewish content, all of which were paired with appropriate phrases from the Torah to give a heightened illustration to the presentation.
Woocher told JTNews he “was pleased with the extraordinary energy by which people went about their tasks [during workshops], that people really wanted to work together with others who were not their colleagues.”
He saw “a good deal of mutual respect,” he added.
A strong sense of community, commitment and connection informed the two days of workshops, ending with a final presentation by the keynote speaker to the Samis Foundation and community leaders.
Educators came from Jewish organizations as far north as Everett and as far south as Olympia, many of whom said that such a summit was an important component to building a model for Jewish education in the region.
“It was powerful to see our community come together to discuss this important matter,” Zaidenberg said. “Jewish education is the vehicle for shaping identity and building community.”
She said she hopes to extend existing programs with “others that came out of our community into a bigger communal effort.”
Stiefel said the groups identified new and innovative ideas, including a call for a more central Jewish education such as the Federation’s Jewish Education Council, which was phased out over the past six to eight years.
“The summit meetings created a lot of interest and passion about the potential for a community educational agency,” Stiefel said. “Seattle deserves the services that such an agency would provide.”
He cautioned, however, that a new central body “can’t diminish funding to current organizations,” a concern stated by several educators at the summit.”
The next step, Stiefel said, is that “Federation, consistent with its goals, will take the lead in assembling a working group/interim board to look into structuring a new organization.”
It’s a process, he said, that would begin in the near future.
While the Jewish Federation and lay leadership explore this new programmatic initiative, the benefit of attending the summit was evident to educators like Debbie Zainwel, principal of Temple Beth Or’s religious school in Everett.
“What I took away most was that the facilitator, Jonathan Woocher, promoted an open exchange of ideas,” she said. “Being a principal from a small synagogue north of Seattle, it was gratifying that many of the ideas, if implemented, could go beyond the Seattle and Eastside areas.”