A few years ago, I had a weird experience. On Dec. 31 I was on a boat with family and friends watching the incredible fireworks display herald in the new year on Sydney Harbor. It was poor planning (and cheaper flights) that had us flying back to the United States early morning on Jan. 1, with a one-night layover in Tahiti. As international date lines would have it, we found ourselves that evening, once again on Dec. 31, ushering in the new year under the palm trees of a French Polynesian beach.

Just like celebrating two New Year’s Eves in one year felt surreal, there is something eerily familiar about ushering in 2022 – as if it were 2021 all over again. The pandemic can give the illusion of a world that largely stood still over the course of the past 21 months. Other than COVID, history might largely forget 2021. But for us living in this moment, our lives have been anything but forgettable. Our lives these days often are guided, even defined, by questions. Along with the obvious ones (“Are you boosted?” “Outdoors or indoors?”) are other, more enduring questions that people around the globe will again ask as we enter 2022. What remained constant over the last 12 months? What has changed? What is in need of necessary renewal?

For Jewish education, despite the incredible, awe-inspiring heroics of educators who work tirelessly, another pandemic year has also been a moment to pause, reflect and reset. 

Or has it?

Many industries have modified their practices over the last 20 months and, because of this, the world will (and should) look different in a post-pandemic world. Yet I suspect that, by and large, Jewish education will return to the way things were as soon as possible. And while I respect the adage, “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it,” I believe that education, including Jewish education, must always strive to be better. So I offer my take on the three questions posed above to help guide Jewish education into 2022.

What has remained (and should remain constant) in Jewish education?

Jewish educators have always been the backbone of Jewish education. It should not surprise anyone that our frontline educators stood up and often bravely put the well-being of their learners ahead of themselves.The Jewish philanthropic sector again rose to the occasion. Federations, foundations and individual philanthropists all continue to step up their giving to ensure that Jewish education remains a cornerstone of Jewish life. The vast networks of Jewish educators know how to support one another, collaborate with one another, and put aside their differences when focusing on the greater good of the education of the Jewish people.

What has changed (forever) in Jewish education?

Although people might prefer a return to in-person learning experiences, digital Jewish life and education is here to stay and can only be enhanced over time.While the transmission of Jewish knowledge and skills is a driving force in Jewish education, the well-being and physical and mental health of our people is even more essential. Importantly, we have recognized that these two things are not paradoxical.Jewish education must always be about partnerships of all stakeholders. The concept of a family “dropping” their child off and outsourcing their child’s Jewish education is no more. Educators and families alike recognize they are all part of the learner’s Jewish education experience — and can all influence how that education impacts a young person’s life. 

What is in (dire) need of necessary renewal in Jewish education?

We need to address Jewish educator pipeline issues now. Otherwise, we will soon be, if we aren’t already, in desperate times. We must develop strategies to recruit many great people into Jewish education and to ensure a trajectory of growth and development for leadership within the system.How people learn today is different than how most people learned when many Jewish education institutions were first established. Jewish education of today and tomorrow must embody flexibility, choice and quality. These are just a few qualities that the pandemic has allowed us all to experience and that are not going away any time soon.Jewish education needs to reflect a brave, bold vision. As a community, we must invest in new thinking and dreaming to advance Jewish education. “What got us here, simply, won’t get us there.” That aphorism is useful only if we dedicate serious time and energy to imagining what the “there” is that we aspire to.

Although it might appear that this year is just like the other one, no two moments in time are truly identical. While we may feel that time stood still for much of 2020 and 2021, we have all evolved and grown and are different from when the year started.

My hope for this new year is that we can acknowledge all that came before it and that we, blessed to be involved in Jewish education, are filled with strength and courage to confront a 2022 with new resolve and commitment. I hope we embrace our past and also acknowledge that times continue to change.

The Jewish Education Project wants to hear how others answer these big questions around the new year. What has remained (and should remain constant) in Jewish education? What has changed (forever) in Jewish education? What is in (dire) need of necessary renewal in Jewish education? Let’s move forward, let’s innovate, together.  

David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project.

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