The Jewish Education Innovation Challenge: A Conversation With Manette Mayberg

Written by Kol HaBirah Staff on . Posted in Features

Kol HaBirah spoke with Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, about her “call to action” to Jewish day schools to “pursue distinction,” which she recently outlined in an op-ed featured in the Washington Jewish Week and eJewish Philanthropy.

To give our readers a little background, what is the Mayberg Foundation and what are its goals?

The Mayberg Foundation is dedicated to proliferating Jewish wisdom and values in the contemporary world. Our philanthropy is guided by four core values —

One: entrepreneurial philanthropy. We start things that we see a need for and engender support from others to push forward new ideas and opportunities with an entrepreneurial spirit of calculated risk taking.

Two: connectedness. We believe it is important to illuminate the thread of unity (not uniformity) that is present in all Jewish people.

Three: foundational Judaism. We believe in inclusivity and unity. At the same time, we rely on foundational Judaism — specifically values, literacy, and practice — as the means to sustain the Jewish people.

And finally, four: collective efforts. Philanthropists can provide a greater impact and support others more effectively when we move forward together.


How did the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) come about?

 JEIC was the culmination of many years of my ruminating about the Jewish education system. When I first sent my four kids into the day school system, I had an idealistic view of how it would be. After a number of years, though, I picked up on things that were being presented to them differently than how I learned about Judaism at a later period in my life.

It occurred to me that the way our kids were being taught Judaic studies was not satisfying all the pieces needed for building a Jewish identity. The system appeared to be molded after the general studies model — there was an imbalance of emphasis between intellectual pursuit and spiritual pursuit. I realized this after my first child, a product of the system, graduated high school with a negative image of Judaism... [and] I realized that there were many other children who also had this issue as well — instead of having a love of Judaism, many were glad to be done with it.

As a parent and philanthropist, it was very painful to see. It seemed that we were losing many of the “natural clients” who have the benefit of a Jewish education. In my mind, losing those who have an education means we are misplacing our resources and significantly weakening the sustainability of our people.

To address this issue and stop the flow of our Jewish talent pool out of the system, we created JEIC to motivate Jewish educators to challenge the status quo and come up with new educational models to elevate Jewish education.


Can you elaborate on the challenges with the current system, as you see them?

 There has been a sense among many philanthropists that for too long we have had to fund and uphold schools that are substandard. Education should not just be about school rankings, standardized exams, scholarships, gap years, and what colleges students get into. This is about the survivability of the Jewish people.

We believe this relates to core issues around [self-]esteem and Jewish identity. The success of the transference, meaning a student’s capacity to internalize and love Jewish learning, is currently largely based on grades — measurements that are copied from the general studies model. Poor grades will inhibit positive transference, while good grades will not assure it.

At the second JEIC retreat, Rabbi Berel Wein said we are in the middle of a 70-year experiment in Jewish education. I would say that while there are wonderful things coming out of Jewish education, it is somewhat of a failed experiment.

I believe that Judaic subjects have lost their holy aspect because they are being handled in a similar way as math, history, and science. Judaic subjects are the basis of the moral and ethical infrastructure that we believe in as Jews — that form Jewish values and a Jewish home or marriage. Our kids are not experiencing the deep meaning of Jewish subjects in a way they can internalize relative to other priorities, which will diminish the specialness and distinction of the Jewish people as a result.


Do you think that this academic approach has always been an issue, or is it more of a challenge now?

 When we look at the models JEIC grantees are testing in the field (there are 10 models that have been tested in North America) one of the recurring themes of success is relevance — today’s student is not the student of 40-50 years ago. We as educators need to change how we look at students and make material relevant .... We need to take a more student-centered approach.


How do you envision the new approach for Jewish Day Schools?

 We will need to make changes in content so that it is more relevant for students; with a more student-centered approach there needs to be more of the right kind of professional training for faculty. Students should have more autonomy in how and what they learn, and there should be a more effective response to individual talents and natural curiosity.

JEIC’s grantees are experimenting with student-centered models, and we have committed to philanthropic partnerships in this area. I believe it is incumbent on supporters and influencers to disrupt the mediocrity that we have been following for way too long, and we need to demand that the product be more effective and meet the needs of the people in a deep way.

We have been using research on motivation, mastery, and how best to engage students so they want to learn in order to inform our approach, as opposed to mirroring the way it has been in schools for the past century. Chavruta (partner) style learning is one example of a type of approach that will be implemented in one of the new models.

There is still much value to the academic side of Judaic studies. Texts still need to be studied and skills need to be acquired. My hope, though, is that through JEIC we can restore the proper balance between the “heart and the head” that will yield the optimal result. We need to be able to package our Judaic studies in a way that makes it relevant to this generation’s students.


Can you elaborate on the Foundation’s efforts to change this approach?

 We’ve thus far funded 10 innovative educational pilot models in day schools that have resulted from our JEIC challenge. The HaKaveret group is a new philanthropic initiative that came after the funding of those models. We selected 10 top Jewish educators nominated from the field to develop, as a group, the optimal ways to convey Judaic subjects.

There were five models that came out of this group, and we are continuing to develop a few of those that we think will gain the most traction.

We are also funding, along with two other major foundations, three professional development models in a number of schools to have them studied and further refined.

We know there won’t be a one-model-fits-all approach. We will study these models to identify the successful pieces and will come up with a menu of models that can be applied to a variety of Jewish day schools. We are working across the spectrum with Modern Orthodox schools, Solomon Schechter Day Schools, community day schools, and yeshivas.


How do you think this change is being received thus far?

 Patience is a key part of this process, as culture shifts are not easy, but we are seeing progress, movement, and conversations in philanthropic circles and meetings. To enable this culture change, three components need to work together and be in alignment: our educators, parents, and funders.