At the moment my house is filled with dreidels. Their presence, whether they are in my children’s hands, put away, or left on the floor in which case they become a health hazard to be tripped on or a toy for the cat, are a reminder of our connection to Jewish history, tradition, practice, and belief. When I think about the dreidel, I realize that the miracle of Chanukah is not only that the oil lasted for eight days, but that we continue to pass down the story and find ways to revitalize traditions in every generation.
Revitalizing Jewish practice and learning is not easy. It is a process that requires a willingness to take a chance, just like we do when we play dreidel. Each time we spin the dreidel we take a chance, never knowing how it will land. Despite the uncertainty involved, we all play the game, hoping to win some chocolate gelt while enjoying Jewish time together as a family. The risk of the game serves as a catalyst for transforming family dynamics as we all become equal participants in a shared enterprise of play and Jewish tradition.
Just as the risk-taking of dreidel can transform our dining room tables into sites of Jewish learning and tradition, it can also support bigger transformation within the realm of Jewish education. Taking risks and embracing innovation, with all of its uncertainty, holds the potential to deeply engage Jewish learners and promote Jewish community and growth. Joni Blinderman, the Associate Director of the Covenant Foundation, recently wrote that the first principle in the art of strategic grant-making is that “risk-taking must be encouraged; if everything funded is successful, then opportunities are being missed.”
I am privileged to be working in community that invests in supplementary education, an area of Jewish learning which many federations have considered too risky for community dollars. Over the past 20 years, CJP’s Commission on Jewish Life & Learning has successfully worked to many arena of Jewish learning, including adult education, family learning, and youth education, but has never directly addressed supplementary schools. As an outgrowth of CJP’s recent strategic planning process CJP has committed to investing in the learning experiences taking place in congregational and community settings—the learning experience of 80% of Jewish youth.
The bold, aggressive, multi-pronged approach CJP is taking to supplementary education is, in some ways, modeled after the Chanukah tradition of pirsum ha-nes, “advertising the miracle” by publicly displaying our chanukiyot. Everyone involved in CJP’s supplementary education agenda recognizes that in addition to revitalizing and reinventing the learning that takes place in congregational and community schools, we must also publicize our work, letting everyone know that supplementary education today is not the “Hebrew School” of a generation ago.
Some may say that it would really take a miracle to transform supplementary education from a negative experience to one that engages Jewish children and their families in the vibrancy of Jewish life and learning. I don’t think it will take a miracle or that it’s beyond our reach. But transformation requires risk-taking, experimentation, and a tremendous investment of energy on the part of educators and leaders in our community. Through CJP’s supplementary education agenda, we are doing just that.