Doing things together is always better than doing things alone.
Especially in Judaism.
Ours is a religion that demands community and others. Despite the pressures of the digital age and the potential of virtual experiences replacing physical ones, it just isn’t possible to replicate that sense of togetherness that we feel when we “do Jewish” with others. The recent firestorm of controversy over virtual Bar Mitzvah tutoring illuminated this growing tension about the pros and cons of living a Jewish life without actually seeing and physically being with other Jews. I certainly get both sides, but at the end of the day assert that it’s hard to get the same benefit from a Jewish life lived in solitude.
This feeling, for me, boils down to prayer experiences. The best way to explain that would be by saying that I still get the chills when a congregation sings Etz Chayim at the end of the Torah service and the music gets really loud and almost spooky- it’s the communal voice, calling out to God in that distinctly minor key, that gets me going. Or, more appropriate to the season, the Ashamnu prayer that we’re about to do at Yom Kippur is equally poignant in how we acknowledge our sins not as individuals, but as one people.
For others, this communal feeling occurs while doing social justice work together, or advocating for Israel, or studying texts. No matter what your entry point to committed Jewish living, the fact remains that the activities and emotions of Judaism are best experienced in the context of communal action.
That’s the power of a community. That’s the power of Judaism.
Unfortunately, Jewish Education is still a field in which many people think they can do things alone. Day schools compete for scare philanthropic dollars and a generally static number of families. Supplementary schools operate in relative isolation, without helping each other or innovating together. Try as they may, communal agencies and funders still lament about having to break down the silos that keep organizations, educators, schools, and leaders from collaborating. A relatively large forest of trees has probably been cleared to print all of the studies and essays about this very fact.
In this day and age, what is needed is a communal conversation about leveraging the resources of the community to deliver Jewish education more effectively to the population we are serving. And the outcome of that conversation has to result in real collaboration.
What do I mean?
Looking at Prozdor, where I am the Director, collaboration and partnership must exist in deeds, not just in words. We are blessed to have strong partnerships with many outstanding institutions and leaders who support our work, but still we run into roadblocks. We remain a school predominantly comprised of students from Conservative backgrounds and Jewish summer camps, and have yet to foster meaningful partnerships with other movements or organizations that serve teens.
Let me be clear: our vision for partnership does not mean we are looking to grow Prozdor at the cost of other existing programs. Our vision for leading an effort to enact a meaningful communal agenda with new partners instead focuses on developing programs that will impact teens, both locally and nationally, and offer them authentic and meaningful opportunities for engagement.
Our Havayah trip to the Ukraine is one such example. Our consulting work with YESOD, CJP’s Youth Educators network, is another. Our vision for convening conversations and programs on teen leadership that bring together youth leaders from across denominations and youth movements is another. Our outreach to organizations like the JCCs of Greater Boston to do innovative programming for teens is still more. And our venture into online learning seeks to enrich Jewish education for teens well beyond the borders of the New England states.
The vision for Prozdor’s growth and success is necessarily tied in to a vision of the development of robust programs that exist not just for Prozdor, but for everyone. Yes, we have the gift of hundreds of committed students and families who enrich our community and challenge us to be reflective and innovative. But if we can’t share our resources and work to build a vibrant learning community beyond the walls of Hebrew College and our partner synagogues, then we will simply be perpetuating a status quo which isn’t helping anyone except ourselves- a most un-Jewish of behaviors.