Commentary

Adult Education: A New Frontier in the Jewish Day School Movement?

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Tzvi Sinensky

An intriguing development is unfolding on the Jewish day school scene. In recent years, numerous Modern Orthodox schools have entered the field of adult education.

In addition to the six Torah MiTzion Kollels that are housed on North American day school campuses, many schools now offer learning opportunities to their parent bodies and the wider community. For instance, The Frisch School features an adult education tab on its website, replete with past shiur recordings and upcoming parent learning opportunities. In addition to its annual Aseret Y’mei Teshuva Yom Iyun and “Day of Big Ideas,” Maayanot Yeshiva High School offers adult education classes on subjects as varied as Ulpan, Judaism and Social Action, Torah and psychology, Parshat Ha-shavua, Navi, Perspectives on the Akeidah, and Repentance. Torah Academy of Bergen County runs an annual Shavuot afternoon of learning, housed in local shuls, open to the community. Fuchs Mizrachi’s website lists a “Head of School Book Club.” SAR offers a full complement of daytime shiurim and an evening reading discussion group.

A number of schools have hired a Rosh Beit Midrash, who teaches a steady flow of community shiurim. A few years ago, Shalhevet High School founded the Shalhevet Institute, which, according to the school website, aims to add “an important layer to the Los Angeles Jewish educational landscape that helps further promote higher Jewish learning in our community.” To commemorate its centennial, Yeshiva University High School for Boys is offering a year-long lecture series, punctuated by a recent community-wide day of learning headlined by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

My own institution Kohelet Yeshiva is another excellent case in point. Our Beit Midrash was built with an eye toward educating not only our students but also our families and the wider community. In the words of the school mission statement, the Beit Midrash models “the centrality of a vibrant makom Torah and the pursuit of lifelong limud ha-Torah for all members of the Jewish community.”

Other schools are considering moving in similar directions. I have recently fielded queries from educators and school presidents across the country who are thinking about adding substantial community education elements to their programs, and would love to learn more about what we’re doing in Philadelphia. The trickle is beginning to resemble a steady stream.

Why Adult Education?

What is driving this unexpected trend? Aren’t day schools supposed to be in the business of producing adults, not teaching them?

For one, Modern Orthodox parents are more Jewishly educated than ever before. Arguably, there is greater interest in learning today than in any prior generation in Jewish history. As educational institutions, schools are well-positioned to help meet this demand.

The shift is also part of Jewish day schools’ wider turn toward professionalism. There was a time when there was little pressure on day schools to keep apace with advances in the field of education. Those days are fading fast. Day schools are increasingly embracing research-driven pedagogical methods. Best financial and legal practices are rapidly becoming the norm. And there is far greater investment in institutional advancement. A few decades ago, for instance, admissions officers were relatively uncommon in day schools. Communications and development professionals were almost unheard of. Today, many day schools fill all these positions. A good number employ executive directors as well. Trustees receive training in governance. Tellingly, schools are calling their leaders heads of school instead of principals, conveying that their responsibilities center not only on education but on steering the institution as a whole.

The increased attention to institutional advancement has clearly been a decisive factor in the rise of community education and programming. As attested to by day school websites, these events showcase the school’s faculty and build school community. Fuchs Mizrachi’s site declares: “Its More than a School, Its a Community. Farber Hebrew High School’s proclaims, “Not just a School, A Community,” elaborating: “The impact of the new Farber Hebrew High School reaches far beyond the students and the teachers who guide them. The expansion of Detroit’s only Modern Orthodox school will rejuvenate an already engaged and growing community.” Welcoming parents into the building fosters increased engagement, fundraising, and reinforcement of a school’s core values. Moreover, these educational venues expose parents to talented faculty members and the Judaic studies and/or general studies curricula.

But while all of this is true, there is a more compelling reason for schools to educate adults. Day Schools are confronted with a particularly daunting mission. In addition to providing a rigorous dual education, they work indefatigably to inspire students religiously. At times, this mission feels Sisyphean. Our children are saturated in modern culture. Too often, turning their attention toward a Torah lifestyle is a terrifyingly daunting task. Even when our efforts appear to meet with success, students often regress to the mean. Moreover, despite their remarkable commitment to day school education, not all parents are positioned to inspire religious growth in their children. Indeed, any honest educator will confirm that this is one of the greatest challenges confronting Modern Orthodoxy. It follows, then, that to best inspire our students, we must inspire our families and communities. To thrive religiously, our children must inhabit spiritually nurturing ecosystems. In a word, schools have begun to invest in community education because it is critical to the success of their mission of educating children.

Critiques

Some might argue, however, that while these developments sound welcome in theory, in practice they cannot be granted priority. Given the realities of yeshiva day school economics, our budgets do not allow for these additional investments. Moreover, the principle of economies of scale, which dictates that larger organizations tend to be more economically efficient because they spread out fixed costs over a larger area of outputs, seems to suggest that it might be more economically efficient for only shuls and adult education institutions to offer such programming. Additionally, our administrators and teachers are already stretched thin. Adding adult education will weigh down their already-full plates to the breaking point. Others might ask: Isn’t adult education the responsibility of our local shuls and other community organizations?

These are legitimate questions, and each school and community needs to chart its own best course. Most important is that on the whole, our communities provide ample opportunity for religious education and inspiration. Still, some responses are in order.

Clearly, each school needs to grapple seriously with the financial implications of any foray into adult education. Where money is tight, a school might suffice with a simple weekly or monthly shiur. If useful, engaged, and knowledgeable community members can be recruited to volunteer their time to teach some of these classes. In some cases, especially when the school is confident that smaller contributions will not detract from larger gifts, it might be worth soliciting sponsorships or charging modest fees for attendance. Alternatively, along the lines of TABC’s aforementioned annual Shavuot program, schools might ask local synagogues or other community institutions to host a series featuring members of the school’s faculty. As an additional benefit, this would offer important opportunities for collaboration among school, shuls, and other local organizations.

It should be added that in some instances, there may even be a financial incentive for schools to invest in community programming. Adult education classes have the potential to raise a school’s profile and heighten family engagement. Such programs, as noted, are indispensable tools for institutional advancement. By reaching a broader constituency that extends beyond the parent body, they can sometimes even generate new income streams.

Concerning the question of economies of scale, although a fuller analysis lies beyond the scope of this article, a few responses are in order. First, since schools are already in session during the day, economies of scale suggest that daytime adult education classes are highly efficient. In regard to evening classes, in some instances it may indeed be most wise to host these classes in community members’ homes; this offers the added benefit of fostering school community in private, intimate venues. Finally, while operational costs are increased by utilizing the school building outside of school hours, it is highly efficient to compensate teachers, who are already employed to teach in classrooms, for simply adding periodic adult classes to their teaching responsibilities.

In response to the concern of the overextended teachers and administrators, here too each school will need to render its own best judgment. In many situations, a modest adult education offeringperhaps involving a rotation among teachersmight be most sensible. To reduce preparation time, educators can teach materials drawn from their classroom teaching. At the same time, I suspect that many teachers are likely to be excited about the prospect of teaching adults from time to time. Day school students are a captive audience and are not always motivated. Parent learners, by contrast, are opting in; by definition they are highly engaged. Moreover, due to the developmental differences between adults and children, adults are often able to engage intellectually in a way that younger students cannot. For many educators, far from contributing to burnout, the opportunity to teach highly motivated adults can actually prove quite refreshing.[1] 

What of the role of local synagogues and other groups? It goes without saying that our shuls play the primary role of fostering religious growth for our families. Still, alongside houses of worship and other organizations, it’s only natural to think that as educational institutions, schools ought to play a meaningful role in community education. 

Next Steps

Given the critical importance of educating and inspiring our families and the wider community, what ought to be our next steps? I would propose three directions. First, intellectually stimulating shiurim are important but not enough. To paraphrase the classic bon mot regarding educators, only inspired parents inspire children. Where possible, administrators’ talks at public events should be partly aimed at sparking parents’ reflection and growth. Thought should be given to crafting opportunities such as tefillot, tisches, kumzitzes and the like that afford our families opportunities for inspiration.

Second, our communities devote many resources to strengthening our adults’ parenting skills. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many parents still feel ill-equipped to effectively teach Torah content and inculcate religious passion and values in their children. To that end, we might consider offering guidance on how parents can best accomplish these goals by popularizing best educational practices and learning materials. When designing parent-child learning programs, we can be sure that we explicitly model skills that parents can replicate at home.

Finally, although we can probably do better, day schools widely recognize the value of sharing best educational practices. Imagine a world in which schools began sharing best practices around educating and inspiring our parents and communities.

Edieal Pinker of Yale has asserted, albeit on the basis of economic rather than religious arguments, that day schools should “be a hub for many forms of educational and communal activities.” At least in one respect, this process is well underway. Day school education for adults is on the rise, and for good reason. Given the challenges of raising religiously committed children in the twenty-first century, it is only in a wider religious ecosystem with “all hands on deck” that we can best ensure the transmission of Torah Judaism to a new generation.


[1] This does not mean to imply that adult education is identical to child education. Quite the opposite: adults have their own learning styles that require unique pedagogic tools. For an insightful discussion, see Erica Brown’s important article.

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Tzvi Sinensky

Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky is Rosh Beit Midrash of Kohelet Yeshiva in Lower Merion, PA, where he is the architect and lead teacher of a cutting-edge community education program. He serves as the school’s halakhic authority and teaches high school courses in Talmud, Jewish thought, and Jewish views of intimacy, as well as an interdisciplinary course on Jewish & Western philosophy and the humanities, for which he was recently awarded the inaugural Kohelet Prize.