HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Day School as Hub of Adult Jewish Education

by Sara Heitler Bamberger Issue: Bold Ideas

For parents fully to buy into day school education and serve as ambassadors for it, they need to understand it and value it for themselves. Bamberger provides one model of a program that gives adults the joy of shared Jewish learning.

What would a hit-the-ball-out-of-the-park adult education program based at a day school look like? While I spend a lot of time shmoozing with other parents at birthday parties, play rehearsals, and soccer games, how well do I really know them? What would it be like to connect once a month with a handful of other parents around Jewish learning—the one value that we all share?

It would seem that a day school is the perfect hub for an adult education program. The community has already bought in to the value of Jewish education, and a parent’s commitment to their own Jewish education is at least (if not more) influential on a child’s Jewish identity than what school they attend.

That said, there are obvious challenges, including lack of resources, lack of parent leaders to coordinate such a program, and sadly, a perceived lack of interest. So most day schools offer a smattering of adult programs throughout the year, on topics both Jewish and secular. Is that really the best we can do?

As the founder of Kevah, a Bay Area-based adult education network, I will share a bit about its history and early successes as a way of encouraging bold thinking about what a school-based adult education program might look like.

An Experiment in Jewish Adult Education

Kevah was conceived of around a Berkeley kitchen table in 2008 when four friends began meeting to brainstorm how to create accessible ways for young adults to explore classical Jewish texts. Kevah, meaning “a set practice,” is the word used in the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1:15) to describe how Torah study—a 3,000 year tradition of analyzing stories, embracing dialectics, and seeking truth—should be integrated into the life of each and every Jew.

As a first step, Kevah launched two home-based study groups, each of which met twice a month. Over the past few years, the number of Kevah groups has mushroomed from two to almost 75 groups. Kevah receives requests daily from individuals around the country who want to launch Kevah groups of their own. In addition, Kevah has partnerships underway with synagogues of all denominations, JCCs and Israel-program alumni.

What About This Model Is Working?

Deep, Personalized Content

Kevah provides participants something that is simple, yet surprisingly elusive: the opportunity for meaningful philosophical conversation. In our networked, facebooked, tweeted world, adults appreciate the somewhat retro appeal of gathering with a group of friends for a great discussion. The community and personal growth that Kevah offers is deeply satisfying on an intellectual, spiritual and personal level. Whether the topic is leadership, social justice, or the book of Genesis, every meeting includes laughter, new ideas and personal epiphanies. In addition, participants get to grapple with a piece of Talmud or explore a Bible story, often for the first time. In order to best strengthen Jewish identity and build Jewish community, Kevah focuses on the following questions:

Is the topic of interest to the group? The organizer of each group suggests the topic, shares it with the educator, and then puts it to the group to approve, tweak or throw out. By this collaborative process, groups home in on a text or topic that is tailored to their interest.

Is the discussion meaningful? Whereas other adult education organizations prefer an academic approach, Kevah teaches “Torah”—both knowledge and wisdom. Participants start with the plain meaning of the text (peshat), draw historical, literary or other textual references, and then explore the relevancy of the text to their own lives. Kevah educators are trained to help participants feel comfortable bringing their whole selves into the discussion. The content of a Kevah group is by definition old—usually at least 1,000 years old—but the ideas that emerge always feel brand new.

Innovative Business Model

The other reason for Kevah’s success is its innovative business model. Kevah’s work consists of three overlapping processes.

First, Kevah cultivates an ever-expanding network of volunteer group organizers who launch Kevah groups both outside of and within existing institutions. You know these people: they are the PTA presidents, the party hosts and the network weavers. They are the kind of people that when they invite you over, you show up.

Second, Kevah empowers these organizers with top-notch support. This includes help sending out reminders, collecting payments, paying educators, and troubleshooting group dynamic problems as they arise.

Third, Kevah recruits talent—an ever-expanding pool of educators who facilitate text-based discussions. With Kevah’s administrative support and dynamic facilitators, even the busiest organizer can be successful in creating a Kevah group that provides intellectual and spiritual sustenance for its members, and that continues to meet regularly month after month, year after year.

Kevah’s goals are that each group should be small (8-14 people), sticky (high level of relationships), sustainable (all participants pay), empowered (participants have ownership and feel comfortable self-correcting) and fertile (each group should generate at least one other group). With these goals in mind, Kevah creates customized learning communities which leaves participants in some small way transformed.

Kevah’s vision is that within five years, at least five cities will have a network of at least 50 groups each, thereby creating a national network of groups that serve adult learners. Some of these groups will be affiliated with synagogues, day schools, JCCs and other institutions; many will be autonomous.

How Might Kevah’s Approach Be Applied in a Day School Context?

Think Small

The starting point of Kevah’s work is to start small. Kevah’s smallest group has five regular participants; its largest has seventeen. In general, Kevah encourages groups to aim for 8-14 members: large enough to have a rowdy conversation; small enough so that everyone notices if you don’t show up. The commitment to smallness is based on the premise that transformative conversations and personal epiphanies happen much more in places where we feel valued, heard and challenged. While a Purim carnival or a Lag B’Omer barbeque can be fun for families, it is unlikely to be the place for personal growth. A small group, by contrast, can be that place.

Think Deep

Kevah groups talk about real things: the difficulties of parenting; the meaning of spirituality in a fast-paced world; the practical and existential challenges of assimilation and integration in American society. Although making time and space for these conversations is difficult, the spiritual and intellectual satisfaction that such conversations leave lingers for days.

Kevah’s success stems from our ability to create a setting where a meaning-making conversation isn’t the exception, it is the norm. Participants come to each meeting expecting to go deep—deep into the material, deep into each other’s lives, deep into their own heads and hearts. In working with our educators, we encourage them to think about the following questions: Does the topic address questions the participants are already asking? Does it touch their soul?

Think Sticky

Each Kevah group is led by a group organizer around a specific affinity principle that is the nexus of three axes: geography (what neighborhood do you live in?), demography (what life stage are you in? with or without children?), interest (parenting? medical ethics? Talmud?). Most frequently, the organizer identifies the geography and demography of the group, and then the group together figures out its topic of interest for the semester.

Not surprisingly, this approach tends to create micro-communities that are sticky. Their stickiness comes from bonds that form between participants, as well as the sense of connection that emerges with the teacher and with the material itself. In a day school context, one could have some groups based on the age of their children (parents of K-2nd graders), some on a specific theme (tzedakah, parenting, Shabbat) and others on specific book (Genesis, Pirkei Avot, Tractate Megillah, etc.).

Think Empowered

Although each Kevah group has its own affinity principle, the experience of participants is surprisingly similar. All groups have a DIY ethos, and a boutique, salon feel. Each group feels like they are the only group to ever have such a personally meaningful experience, and that is largely because the experience is not shaped for them to consume, but for them to create.

It takes some work to launch a Kevah group, and with ownership comes responsibility. Kevah cushions responsibility by letting group organizers know that they can call on us for support. We help send out reminders, collect payments, give educators feedback, and help the group self-diagnose problems and address them. Whether it is someone from Kevah or someone at the day school, having a staff person responsible for the program is critical for enabling groups to feel empowered.

The goal is to have participants leave wanting more: more learning, more ritual, more bonding, more questions, more good food and great conversation, and ultimately, more sense of being part of a vibrant and committed parent community. In day schools, encouraging all parents to learn regardless of their background is all the more important, as many day school students become more Jewishly knowledgeable than their parents, even from the early grades. Empowering parents to become Jewish learners themselves will have a powerful impact on our students as well.

Think Democratic

Kevah takes a very democratic approach to learning, which is in some ways a new idea. Historically, serious Jewish learning was not a fully democratic activity: it was primarily for men who knew Hebrew and Aramaic, and had spent years learning the vocabulary unique to the world of the Talmud and classical commentators. It assumed a level of Jewish literacy that surpasses even many of our day school graduates. At Kevah, we firmly believe that Torah is the inheritance of all Jews, or in the words of the Talmud (Yoma 72b), “Torah is the crown for all Jews who come and claim it.” By teaching in English and training teachers to be sensitive to the variety of the backgrounds of our participants, we welcome learners who have never heard of Tanakh to those who learn Daf Yomi.

Embrace Failure

One of the most powerful lessons that Kevah has learned is the importance of creating a culture that embraces failure as part of the growth experience. This is certainly a core Jewish value, reflected in the experiences of the Golden Calf, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and many other moments in Jewish history. Our ability to fail, dust ourselves off, and try again is one of the secrets of the Jewish people’s survival.

At Kevah, we recognize that while most groups will thrive, not every organizer will be successful, not every educator is brilliant all of the time, and not every group gels. Early in the launch process we try to prepare organizers for the likely reality that not everything will go well all the time. Their job is to work with our staff to make sure that as many factors as possible are going well as much as the time as possible, and when they are not, we intervene early and without blame. Whether it is a poor group-educator match, a participant who talks too much, sporadic attendance, or an organizer who has trouble making folks feel at home, it is critical that someone helps groups navigate the small failures and reframe them as opportunities for improvement.

Find your Niche/Seek Out Partners

Finally, it seems worth noting that before plunging enthusiastically into designing a new adult education program, it is worth looking at what already exists. A number of organizations such as Oorah and the Kohelet Foundation have emerged to try to catalyze Jewish learning among day school families. Similarly, organizations like Kevah, Project Zug and the WebYeshiva try to lower the bar to make Jewish learning available even for busy parents.

Finally, there may be other organizations in your local community that would be ideal partners for creating an adult education program, especially if many of your school’s students attend the same cluster of synagogues or utilize the same JCC. Positioning your adult education program as a collaboration can soften the sense of competition that other organizations may feel from your initiative.

Quality, Community, Sustainability

To conclude, I suggest three core questions that a bold adult education program should address.

Are we providing a high quality experience? Parents are busy, and there is nothing more annoying that blocking out time and getting a babysitter for a program that is less than great. If the program is a frontal lecture, the opportunity for disappointment is high. If, by contrast, the activity is getting together with a group of friends around a topic of shared interest with a carefully vetted teacher, the likelihood for success is much higher.

Are we building community? At Kevah, we believe that learning Torah and deepening relationships should be inseparable. Creating an adult education experience that strengthens bonds among parents and between parents and the school will have positive ripple effects in terms of parental involvement, fundraising and satisfaction.

Is the program sustainable? Of course, sustainability has to do with coming up with a financial model that the school can maintain. But it also has to do with coming up with a smart way to allocate staff time. One of the most important lessons that we have learned is that it takes the same amount of time to organize and publicize a one-time event as it does to empower a parent to launch a Kevah group that can continue to meet for years. Given this, why not invest some resources in “planting” learning communities, in addition to hosting events?

Conclusion

To the extent that day schools take adult education seriously, they provide a better service not only for parents but also for the children, as parents are the primary role models for Jewish learning and Jewish life. In the vision of Nachmanides, just as the stories of Genesis foretell the future of the Israelite nation, Ma’aseh avot siman labanim— the actions of our parents will also be a sign for our children. As we invest in the richness of parents’ learning, we reap their learning and benefit our students as well.♦

Sara Heitler Bamberger, the founder and executive director of Kevah (www.kevah.org), lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and five children. She can be reached at sbamberger@kevah.org.

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Bold Ideas

Dream big! Sample a mix of current programs and blueprints for new initiatives, all dreamed up to be “game-changers” that can reconfigure day school education and possibly exponentially increase the impact of day schools on students and the Jewish community.

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