Strengthening Jewish Identity Education in the Diaspora: A Global Approach

Bar MitzvahThe Challenges Facing Global Jewry

 Three million Jews – a fifth of the world’s total Jewish population – live outside Israel and North America. Often, they face economic challenges and growing antisemitism. Combined with generations of assimilation, the result is that many Jewish communities are in decline – either in numbers, vibrancy, resources or connection to Jewish life.

ORT provides these communities with educational programs that lead to greater Jewish engagement and help Jewish life thrive. Our schools are a centerpiece of their Jewish communities, especially in more remote regions and where assimilation is high. Children learn the cornerstones of Judaism, gain an understanding of Jewish peoplehood, and lay foundations for their life-long Jewish identity. 

The ORT Experience

 ORT’s breadth of experience over more than 140 years has informed our understanding of the needs of diverse Jewish communities. Many factors affect the quantity and quality of Jewish education available in a particular community, including whether the school’s curriculum is independent or state-controlled, the relationship of the school to the local Jewish community, the availability of trained local Jewish educators versus reliance on short-term Israeli Shlichim (emissaries from Israel), and the availability of resources in minority languages. 

 Most ORT schools serve a diverse Jewish population covering a wide spectrum of religious identities and approaches. Many are also open to non-Jewish families who are attracted by the strong general education and enjoy the Jewish values taught at our schools. We seek to provide contemporary, engaging and inclusive Jewish content through varied formal and non-formal experiences that appeal to young people from all backgrounds.

In response to demand from our schools for a fresh approach to providing innovative Jewish education that meets the level of the secular education provided, we have made a strategic decision to take a more prominent role in strengthening Jewish education in schools. For many Diaspora families, the ORT school is their main or only source of Jewish connection and experience. 

Goals of the Program

 Our target is to give every ORT student enriching Jewish experiences, fostering an appreciation and connection to Jewish tradition, values and culture. Through innovative, new curricula that are skills-focused and provide opportunities for global connectivity, we can set students on a course to be lifelong Jewish learners. Our global network provides a platform for further connection between Jewish communities and their future leaders. Students will be positioned to become more involved in Jewish life and motivated to become leaders of their communities. Our diverse student body also gives us the opportunity to strengthen interfaith relations, promoting a wider understanding of Jewish values, culture and connection to Israel. 

Students will gain a deeper connection to their Jewish heritage and the importance of Jewish continuity through personal relationships with peers and the develop an appreciation for multiple Jewish perspectives on key issues, while building valuable skills that can serve them beyond the classroom. 

Embedding Jewish connectivity and concepts in these ways will lead to wider-ranging Jewish engagement among young Jews, helping them relate to the world with confidence in their Jewish identity. 

New Curricula

The primary programmatic interventions to achieve the goals above are the introduction of two new curricula. The curricula use an innovative, experiential approach for the delivery and content of Jewish education for the ORT global audience.

Developing Thinking Skills Through Study of Jewish Texts is intended for ninth and tenth grade high school students. Rethinking the B’nei Mitzvah Experience is intended for pre-B’nei Mitzvah middle school-age students.

ORT has partnered with the Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan University in Israel to create 10 innovative modules focusing on key thinking skills through a learning lab of Jewish text study. Topics include questioning, makhloket (healthy argument), chevruta (paired learning), active listening and close reading. Sessions use case studies based on real-world scenarios, Jewish values, modern and ancient Jewish text, and activities to engage and excite our students. The curriculum was designed to be adaptable to individual schools based on their needs. 

Pilots took place through 2022 in schools in Peru, Spain, Mexico and Costa Rica, with training for teachers globally due to begin in early 2023. By mid-2023 the Jewish texts curriculum will be implemented in up to 10 schools worldwide and doubling in 2024. 

The B’nei Mitzvah curriculum will include eight modules using educational technology, ancient and modern Jewish texts and active discussions to explore a teenager’s place in their Jewish world. Lessons will guide students through a cultural lens to think about their own personal Jewish journey, their place in the local Jewish community and connections to the larger Diaspora community. The program is intended to be used as an extracurricular activity within a school to complement existing B’nei Mitzvah religious preparations. It is due to begin implementation in 2023. 

Seeking Partners

ORT has provided seed funding to create and launch the pilot program. For growth and sustainability, ORT is seeking funding to ensure a strong, relevant Jewish educational component is available to all ORT schools. This includes teacher trainings, updating curricula, and translating materials into multiple languages. Program budgets, timelines for implementation, sample lesson plans, and a detailed program proposal are available upon request. 

For more information, please contact: Allison Halpern.