On my way back from my camping vacation with my family in the woods of Wisconsin, I attended a conference focused on congregational school improvement in Cleveland, Ohio. The conference was sponsored by PELIE, The Partnership for Effective Leadership in Jewish Education, and was especially for Pittsburgh and Detroit's congregational schools who are participating in a change initiative that we call CSI Squared, or the Congregational School Improvement Initiative. (The 5772 Pittsburgh congregations are Beth Shalom, Temple Emanu-el, Temple Sinai, Temple David, Rodef Shalom and Beth Samuel.) CSI, which is an adaptation of the NESS program from Philadelphia, is a holistic approach to improving congregational schools that is built on four pillars: Assessment, Integrated Synagogue Lay and Professional Planning, Curriculum Advancement and Teacher Development. The goal is to change the congregational school culture to expect and support excellence in its religious education program. It is a minimum two year process and one that involves the entire congregation in some way or another. Here is Pittsburgh, we have been working with three schools in this process for the past year and three more will be starting it this year.
The conference had its high and low points as any conference does, but there was one moment that summed up the process we are undertaking for improving our congregational schools. Dr. Amy Sales of Brandeis University, a noted researcher in Jewish education, was discussing some evaluation work of a congregational change initiative she was involved with for another improvement program called Synagogue 3000. Dr. Sales said she was discussing her findings with Dr. Larry Hoffman who asked what she had learned from her evaluation of the congregational members participating in the Synagogue 3000 program in their congregations. Dr. Sales told Dr. Hoffman that the first lesson she learned was that change is hard. Dr. Hoffman replied "But we knew that!", to which Dr. Sales pointed out "Yes, but the congregational leaders who undertook the program didn't." Her point was that everyone wants to fix problems in congregations, especially the religious schools, and many think the answers are relatively simple. Indeed, even in very thorough processes, the plans for change may look quite logical and achievable. However, changing institutions involves changing people and people are complicated and illogical and, by and large, resistant to change. It takes time, patience and commitment to lead any change process and congregational education is no different. There are no quick fixes and to be truly effective, the change will have to be systemic and not just superficial. This is counterintuitive to congregations which run on predictable patterns and traditions that can be quite ingrained. As we here in Pittsburgh prepare for another school year and renew our efforts in improve our congregational schools, here's looking forward to the hard work of lasting change for the better.