The work of the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), the nation’s first and longest lasting synagogue transformation project, aligns—to a greater or lesser extent— with all four propositions. How? ECE operates on multiple levels. At the p’shat level, our work is about transforming Jewish education including changing the Jewish learning goals, process, context, structures, and methods within congregational settings, i.e. re-imagining what Jewish education looks like and seeks to achieve. New educational models and practices are the product of what we do. At the remez level, the way we work to bring about transformational change with joint clergy/professional/lay teams, models and instills processes, skills and values of interaction, community building, innovation and change management, and Jewish leadership that often have profound and lasting effects on leaders and congregational cultures. This product/process dynamic is central to our work’s multi-layered impact on learners of all ages and on congregations as institutions. The work is not just about learning—the transformation process is also profound learning of a different kind.
Chochmah: At the heart of the ECE is a commitment to authentic encounter with our tradition through its sacred texts and finding relevance in those texts for our daily lives. Every ECE task force meeting in a congregation includes interactive text study, often in hevruta. We have seen the encounter with text—often among lay people with no prior personal experience of text study—as personally transforming and as a catalyst for organizational transformation. In the ECE, text study provides a Jewish context for organizational decision making, makes explicit the value of ongoing learning for adults as well as children, creates a clear connection between supporting Jewish education and participating in it, builds community through shared, reflective discussion (see kehillah below), and enhances familiarity and comfort with Jewish texts, a necessary tool for the Jewish journey. In ECE, every individual is able to access and study the tradition without over-reliance on experts or authorities.
This manner of infusing deliberation with text often informs a congregation’s vision and re-imagined models of Jewish education that ground experience and learning in our tradition through sacred texts.
Kehillah: Perhaps the second most powerful alignment in the ECE’s work is with kehillah. Over the years, we have focused considerable attention on community building and meaningful social connections as a critical part of both the educational process and the change process. Every ECE task force meeting in a congregation follows a six-part meeting structure, at least four parts of which build community and—by modeling—teach community building as a Jewish leadership practice. Every meeting begins with a Welcome, a small way to help each person feel their presence is recognized and their contribution matters. The welcome includes framing the meeting and its place in their overall journey; this helps task force members recall that they are engaged together in work that matters.
Connection, a second community building meeting strategy, enables members to learn about each other’s lives—more than just name, hometown, and family circumstances. By sharing personal memories, experiences, perspectives, and opinions about matters of importance to them and to the synagogue, task force members forge relationships with one another that enable them later to reach consensus and take necessary risk. As mentioned above, Text Study also becomes a vehicle for learning to appreciate how others think, which forges connections and prepares them to make the difficult and complex decisions they ultimately will face in the process of innovation and attendant change. Finally, Reflection near the close of the meeting allows the reflective conversation to happen in the room, in community rather than in the parking lot, taxi, or via phone or text. This forges a sense that healthy communities reflect together, not behind one another’s backs.
In one of our projects, Express Innovation, conducted jointly with The Jewish Education Project in NY, we highlighted social connections as one of the so-called change “boosters,” advising congregations to tap into social networks and expand relationships among participants in order to graft Jewish experiences into the narratives of their lives.
These all are aspects of ECE process; we also emphasize community and relationships in the content and product of our work. We have taught congregations that today Jewish education must go beyond knowledge acquisition to address the whole person—head (knowledge), hand (actions and practices), heart (beliefs and values), and feet (sense of belonging). One of four design principles for “Powerful Learning” asserts “Learning will be anchored in caring purposeful relationships.” Many congregations’ new models intentionally privilege educational experiences that foster caring, purposeful relationships as a way not only of strengthening the learning experience itself but also modeling the vital importance of community building in Jewish life. With The Jewish Education Project, we developed survey tools to measure the formation and growth of personal relationships in congregations’ new educational models.
Kedusha: From its inception in the early 1990s ECE has cultivated the sense among those who are re-imagining congregational education (and congregational life) that they are doing holy work. Our commentary on our mission speaks of creating communities of meaning in which what is being taught and learned is actively practiced. In such communities Jews live meaningful lives by: connecting to others and giving and receiving g’milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness); structuring and sanctifying time through prayer, holy day, and life cycle observance; and deepening their understanding through substantive Jewish learning and grounding their practice in Jewish values and tradition. In practice, something as simple as saying a b’racha before text study reinforces that Jewish learning is necessarily more than an intellectual exercise.
Tzedek: Finally, although tzedek is not a central focus of our work, a number of the models that have emerged engage children and families in the work of tzedek and tikkun olam, such as Mitzvah Corp at Congregation Emanuel of NYC.
ECE’s primary focus is Jewish learning—which aligns with the chochmah proposition; we also work on a meta-level with congregations’ capacity to change, adapt, and innovate. The Jewish people have needed and displayed that skill set throughout our history. So-called legacy institutions including synagogues particularly need it now if they are to adapt to the realities articulated in the Schwarz chapter. The question remains whether “old paradigm” spiritual communities can shift their paradigms or whether they must be replaced by “new paradigm” ones that start from scratch. You can guess what we believe based on where we put our energy.
Rob Weinberg, PhD is an independent consultant and coach. From 2001 through 2016 he served as Director of HUC-JIR’s Experiment in Congregational Education, prior to which he spent 18 years as an organizational change and effectiveness consultant with Hewitt Associates and the Carlson/Nathanson Group. Rob is the consultant to NPSCI’s Communities of Practice.