By Jonah Rothstein, Jewish Education Retreats Manager
Jewish non-profit organizations today have a dilemma when it comes to how we measure our success: Do we prioritize our quantitative goals, often developed through careful analysis of data-driven findings from previous fiscal years, or do we prioritize our qualitative goals, highlighting our core community mantra of empowering Jewish leaders through (in)formal education and immersive experiences? Different departments and employees within an organization see these goals and their desired outcomes with different sets of rose-colored glasses; our prior experiences shape our affinity for—or aversion to—the quantitative or the qualitative. The magic happens when these two sets of priorities can synchronize, even for a moment, like the middle section of a Venn diagram. When we define this middle section for our organizations—where the quantitative and qualitative synergize—it helps us, our constituents and our funders understand exactly what we do and how we do it.
As Moishe House’s Jewish Education Retreats Manager, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a focus group of sorts with the Moishe House Jewish Education Team, made up of our Regional Jewish Educators Yitzhak Bronstein and Loren Berman, who work directly with our North American residents and hosts; Faustine Segal, our International Director of Jewish Education, who works with our residents from all over the globe in crafting Jewish programming; Tanya Zaytseva, our North American RSJ Regional Jewish Educator, who works with our Russian-speaking Jewish community and our houses in the Former Soviet Union; and Rabbi Brad Greenstein, Sr. Director of Jewish Learning; our collective supervisor and guide for this project.
Our team began the weekend with a clear task at hand: quantify the unquantifiable by creating a rubric for what constitutes Jewish education at Moishe House Jewish learning events—the Jewish Learning Tree. Why? To give some clarity and examples of Jewish learning programs for our Moishe House residents, Moishe House Without Walls hosts, Peer-Led Retreat facilitators and others who often have questions about how to infuse their programs with Jewish content. Though I work on our Jewish Learning Retreats, a signature Moishe House program and entry point into the organization, much of my time in the office is spent doing administrative work to support those who attend Retreats and our educators who craft Jewish content, rather than creating the content myself. The opportunity to be a part of defining Jewish education at Moishe House, as well as the why and how it matters to us as an organization, is something that I’m deeply passionate about, and I reveled in the chance to participate and build on my background as a Jewish educator.
We as a team had to take several steps back and question our core assumptions: What is Jewish? What is education? Is a peer-led educator any less qualified than a rabbi to teach others on a Jewish topic? These questions put us on the path of creating an outline that reflects the structure of existing Moishe House programs. For example, our Retreatology program allows Moishe House community members to create their own Peer-Led Retreat, so we included “Peer Facilitator” as an option on the Jewish Learning Tree. This addition highlights the grassroots nature of the Moishe House model.
We also drew on the collective knowledge and experiences in the room to work towards a broadly defined rubric that can apply to anyone in our demographic. Though it may be hard for a Jewish educator to admit, not every 20-something Jew is deeply passionate about Jewish education. Our constituents come from vastly different Jewish backgrounds, which informed our desire to make this a document that appeals both to creating programs with explicit Jewish content, as well as creating programs based on topics that our people are passionate about, and giving them the tools to connect Judaism to these passions. This rubric creates multiple options for variation in program design, like experiential or interactive modalities, incorporating Jewish spiritual practices and real-world application to participants’ modern day life or action for the coming months.
As Jewish educators, how are we ensuring that we approach defining what it is exactly that we hope to achieve through the lens of our constituents? I asked myself this question throughout the entire weekend, hoping to ensure that our final version would be as accessible as possible. We came up with an outline that has multiple points of entry, is inviting and not exclusive, is robust but not intimidating and invites Jewish innovation without stifling tradition. This weekend-long exercise revealed to me the assumption that I as a Jewish educator can take for granted: that Jewish education is easy to define and easy to understand. On the contrary—there are many definitions of Jewish ed., each influenced by the experiences of the person or organization creating that definition. Moishe House’s working definition places an emphasis on programmatic content having “rootedness in traditional Jewish text,” something that will connect programmatic content to text that defines us as a people while inviting creative freedom for our constituents to bring their individual passions and priorities to Jewish learning events. Unpacking this essential question of, “What constitutes Jewish education?” allowed us to take ownership of our priorities while creating multiple choose-your-own-adventure-style pathways for program creation that can work for multiple programs under our umbrella.
Moving forward, we’ve shared our template with staff and constituents and are learning from their feedback. Our hope is that the Jewish Learning Tree will allow our constituents to build relevant and robust Jewish learning programs in every Moishe House and MHWOW program. This process revealed to me that organizational self-reflection and opportunities for quantitative analysis can help us to achieve the Goldilocks-esque middle of the Venn diagram: the place where our hopes and our reality meet, even if just for a brief moment.