JUF Education Blog

Drops of Honey

Sounds from the Sandbox

A Drash about Data in Jewish Education

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As 5777 is about to begin, CFJE is proud to launch our blog on Jewish education both in Chicago and around the world.  We call it Drops of Honey in reference to the tradition of putting drops of honey on a child's study page containing the Hebrew alphabet so it will smear on their fingers as they learn it and begin to associate learning with sweetness.  It is also a fitting title for this time of year!  Our hope is to create an informative and engaging space for dialogue around Jewish education.  Our first post is taken from our Executive Director, Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D., and has also been posted on the JFNA's Education and Engagement department's blog this week as well.  A happy, healthy and sweet new year to you and yours!

One of my favorite components of the Jewish gestalt is the idea that nothing is taken at face value.  Everything, no matter how sacred, can be interpreted or reinterpreted. Our most ancient of sacred biblical texts are still able to be excavated for fresh wisdom because of this principle. We even have a formula for levels of interpretation that we use to determine the richness of the wisdom we harvest from our interpretations. That formula, known by the acronym Peh-Resh-Dalet-Samech and pronounced Pardes (“Orchard”), stands for four levels of interpretative understanding: 


  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — "surface;” the literal meaning of the word or phrase.
  • Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints" or the deeper meaning beyond just the literal sense, perhaps symbolic or metaphoric.
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ) —"seek" — the comparative meaning when looked at next to similar situations.
  • Sod (סוֹד) — "secret" – the meaning given through inspiration or revelation at the mystical level.


Historically in Jewish education our greatest teachers applied thePardes concept to increase our understanding of biblical verses because they were understood to be the primary source of all important knowledge, but today our educational leadership needs to rely on additional sources of wisdom never envisioned by our Sages. We are a people compelled by ideas but we are living in a historic era driven by numbers. Our ancestors lived in a time where they interpreted their world through logic formulas; we live in a time where we interpret our world through logic algorithms. Our ancestors sought to use their formulas to extract din (law) to order their world; we use ours to extract data to order our world.


Secular education, the world of STEM that is the learning center of our American society, has found the use of data as a framework for measuring their work and understanding their students to be a critical tool since the evolution of the social sciences in the 19th century.  


Jewish education, however, has been slow to embrace data. After all, an education model that in its sometimes-dubious application seemed to try and quantify the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is antithetical to Judaism’s emphasis on the quality of the learning experience. Our teachers, especially in supplemental settings, are often chosen more for their love of Judaism than for their knowledge of texts. 


The use and exploration of data has not come over to our congregational supplemental schools yet, most likely because we have no larger cultural competitive phenomena against which we need to prove something to attract and retain our kids. Add to that a proprietary culture of competition among congregations to distinguish their schools and their content from each other, and the result is that we have a much diminished understanding or even awareness of the various educational patterns of our supplemental programs and their impact. Put another way, everyone is so busy trying to tweak the challah recipe that we cannot easily tell what a good challah is anymore much less what changes to the recipe actually do to the loaf. Strategic use of data allows us to intentionally improve the recipe, to document the effect of changes and make educated choices about additional changes in order to produce what we desire.  


It is fair to add that using data as a tool is a bit nerve-racking if you are not trained how to do it.  Based on the training of most Jewish educators, many of us can tackle a page of Talmud more comfortably than a spread sheet.  But thinking back to when many of us were first introduced to text study, be it Gemara or Chumash or other sacred text, it was not so comfortable at the time. Learning to study text took time and none of us could have done it without Rashi, the 11th century rabbi whose clarifying commentary on text is the first resource a text student draws upon to understand the content.  His work is so ubiquitous that most classic editions of sacred texts have his commentary included in the printing using a special font that a student also has to learn how to decipher so as not to confuse it with the text itself. Today’s Jewish education professionals can actually decrease their anxiety and increase their confidence around data if they keep that experience in mind and use it as a lens to better utilize data in their work. Supplementary Jewish education can really benefit from data collection if we understand that data use has its own concepts of Pardes and its own Rashi.  


As an example, look at Chicago and its supplementary schools. When the Federation went in to the education business several years ago by adopting a local Jewish education central agency, they possessed almost no real information about the community’s congregational schools beyond anecdote.  Real numbers of students in supplementary schools, their budgets, funds spent on professional development, retention rates post-b’nai mitzvah, and a myriad of other helpful data points had never been collected and analyzed in the community in order to effectively plan and allocate funds.  Comparable data was available at the Federation for health and human services agencies in the community. That collection, though, was in large part due to the reporting requirements of the state, and supplementary education providers have no such comparable outside requirements. Federation’s historically allocated lump sums of funds to the central education agency to distribute did not mandate collection information either.  


Now that Federation had assumed the role of direct educational support for themselves, they needed to collect substantive information to make informed allocation and granting decisions in this area. Most Federation planning professionals are not trained and experienced educators; data could give them an accessible medium to understand the field as it does with health and human services and other areas. However, sharing that need with the congregational professionals though was not met with sympathetic responses. They had legitimate worries about data work. They are already overworked; how much time did Federation expect them to give to data reporting? Data reporting means sometimes sharing sensitive information; how did they know their data wouldn’t be shared inappropriately? Does the fact that Federation wanted to collect the data mean that they would now be making funding decisions for supplementary education only on the basis of numbers and not on content delivery? Bottom line, could Federation be trusted to do the right thing with this information if it is not immediately clear what value the data has to them?


Two years later, some very valuable lessons were learned that seem to have justified the effort. The data collected gave Federation its first in-depth understanding of the inner administrative workings of congregational education programs. It showed the wide range of budgetary and human capital realities such as costs per student, teacher salary ranges and professional development expenditures amongst the 49 congregational education programs, and it gave a real sense of actual student enrollment patterns across the community. It also provided the first real information about the supplemental programs at the furthest reaches of the Federation catchment area that are well beyond the Jewish population clusters that are the usual focus of attention and resources. These further-afield education programs were operating with not only little communal support but also little knowledge of communal resources available to them. Both Federation and the programs learned about each other.


Even with such important information coming to light, the raw data collected was able to be understood by the Federation staff only at the peshat level. That alone arguably would not have justified the expense or effort taken to collect it. To get a deeper understanding of the data the Federation needed a Rashi. We employed Dr. Amy Sales, JData director.  She loves Jewish education but she is not a Jewish educator; she is a social scientist who can discern patterns from data that the average person is not trained to see. With her assistance, the Federation professionals and the Jewish educators who shared the data were able to see the remez and derash in the numbers. With just two years of data work, we cannot say we have found the sod yet in the numbers but there are already hints of it.  

At the same time, we have learned a lot about data collection. too.    

  • Providing such information is not automatic to Jewish educators and that incentives to complete data collection help them immensely to overcome their reservation to disclose.  
  • The findings from the data have to be seen in use to be respected and use incentivizes reporting. In this case, the findings were publically presented to the education community and they were openly referred to in grant-making decisions and in allocations.   
  • Making data findings accessible helps to bridge the gaps between and amongst funders and communal professionals because it provides them all with a common language and reference point in their discussions about Jewish education.  
  • Data can reveal phenomena that were previously not noticed and that are worthy of deeper investigation. In this case, the data collection showed occurrences of families choosing to prepare and celebrate b’nai mitzvah on their own rather than through a synagogue. This led to a specific study commissioned by Federation on this trend that documented how much more wide spread this is in Chicago had than previously known and what factors contribute to it.  


Data collection and analysis should no longer be seen as antithetical to Jewish education but as another tool in its improvement and sustainability in the modern Jewish community.  Everyone uses data in various forms every day whether through a digital instrument or a smart watch or GPS. All we need are the Rashis out there to help us understand it and they can be found in universities and consultant groups around the country. It is really not that hidden of a concept for all of us in the Federation world to embrace.  Hmm… maybe that’s the sod!