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July 25, 2013 7:52 am

From Academia to the Real World: Making Jewish Research Have an Impact

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avatar by Renee Rubin Ross / JNS.org

On June 3, 2013, participants at the Network for Research in Jewish Education Conference. Photo: provided by Conference organizers.

JNS.org – Effective Jewish education doesn’t just happen. Strategic planning, smart use of resources, and proper implementation all play a role in educating today’s Jewish youths and young adults.

But another critical element, generally not seen and sometimes not understood, is the role of research in Jewish education. While the field of Jewish education has much to gain from research, too rarely do practitioners use it to inform their work.

It’s not difficult to surmise why a natural tension exists between practitioners and researchers. Research projects take a long time; once a research project is complete, the researcher may be more focused on his or her next project, rather than the implications of this project for practitioners. From another perspective, the practitioner may feel that the research is challenging to make sense of or does not apply to his or her setting, so it becomes irrelevant.

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As a foundation that partners with both groups, we at the Jim Joseph Foundation have a responsibility to bridge this gap. We live in a world that is affected and improved by research—from hand washing to healthy eating to medical procedures. Research about Jewish education should be influencing the practice of Jewish education in a similar manner, increasing its impact on the general Jewish public.

We have good reason to pursue these efforts. As just two examples of research’s positive effect on Jewish education:

1. Years ago, Jewish camps would open for business lacking critical data and the analysis of it as an institutional tool for planning camp operations and financing. They would experience funding, curriculum, and organizational challenges without necessarily receiving support from others who had trod a similar path. Now, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has an “Incubator” to help educators create new and innovative camps. FJC provides these camps with some of the resources, lessons learned, benchmarks, and tool-kit items that make their success more likely—and makes them more effective as a vehicle for Jewish education. Research informed the creation of the Incubator. Subsequently, the Incubator is a vehicle by which research informs the engagement and education efforts of camp practitioners.

2. In the North Shore of Boston, 23 towns, each with small Jewish communities, were disconnected from each other, essentially operating within their own silos. But in 2008, the North Shore Teen Initiative (NSTI) changed that dynamic. NSTI is now a hub that connects Jewish teens across the entire North Shore region. It breaks down traditional institution barriers and builds partnerships As a result, more teens are engaged Jewishly than ever before. Academic research, which examined in detail Boston’s North Shore, informed the creation of NSTI. Doesn’t it make sense to share that model with similar communities for possible adaptation? Of course, it does. But to meaningfully share it, academic research has to evidence the program’s success and document the model.

So what can we do increase the use of research by practitioners? Through efforts like the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), which brings together funders, researchers, and practitioners for the purpose of improving Jewish education, we are working to put structures in place to support researchers and help bridge the gap between their world and that of the practitioners.

Many graduates of doctoral programs in Jewish education have experience as Jewish education practitioners. Thus, they have worked in congregations, camps, day schools, Hillels or other settings, and can combine this fieldwork with research training to create new knowledge and improve Jewish education. There is no question that these doctoral programs can help bridge the gap between research and practitioners, enabling individuals in Jewish education research to expand the impact of their own work.

Dr. Renee Rubin Ross is a program officer at the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States.

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