Jewish Educational Trends

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While many adults identify the experience of their own Jewish education as a turn-off from Jewish involvement, they often marvel at the sophistication and variety of what is being offered to their children, grandchildren, and themselves as adult learners today.

One recent major thrust has been an emphasis on early childhood education. The Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership, a recently formed non-profit advocacy and educational organization dedicated to putting Jewish early childhood education on the national Jewish communal agenda, estimates that approximately 100,000 Jewish children between birth and six years of age (out of an estimated 700,000) are in a Jewish early childhood programs in North America.

These programs are offered through individual congregations, Jewish community centers (JCCs), and Federation-sponsored day care services, and usually include a focus on Shabbat and other holidays. Some programs also offer Hebrew immersion classes for children as young as age three. Other programs, such as Hadassah’s “Training Wheels” program, in which parents and young children come together for monthly holiday celebrations, and synagogue “Tot Shabbats,” attempt to build a positive Jewish experience from infancy.

Once children reach school-age, parents are faced with another important choice: to send them to public, private or Jewish day school. The day school movement, once limited to the Orthodox community, has grown by leaps and bounds over the last twenty years. According to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), an organization dedicated to strengthening day school education in North America, there are currently 700 Jewish day schools in North America with an enrollment approaching 200,000 students.

While almost half of these schools affiliate with the Orthodox movement, the other roughly 350 include independent, non-denominational schools, Jewish Montessori-style schools, Solomon Schecter schools (affiliated with the Conservative movement), and Reform day schools. (The Reconstructionist movement is also currently planning its first day school.) While most of these schools are located in major metropolitan areas, some smaller Jewish communities, in modest-size cities like Reading, Pennsylvania, are building day school options.

Parents who send their children to supplementary (afternoon and Sunday) schools for their primary Jewish education are often quite surprised to discover that these institutions are very much changed since their own childhood days. Jewish educators are working hard to find the most effective ways to provide a Jewish education in only two to six hours per week and making strides towards creating innovative, effective models for Jewish learning. Many schools are turning towards more experiential education, in which students learn Jewish studies through the creative arts. Other schools take students for overnight Shabbatons (Shabbat retreats) several times during the year, immersing them in a Jewish learning (as well as social) experience.

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