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The Omer of Educational Innovation
Every year at this time, as I count the Omer, I think about readiness for change. Our tradition tells us that we eat matzah at Pesach because the dough had no time to rise; the Israelites weren’t ready to leave Egyptian slavery. And we count the days from Pesach to Shavuot to signify our ancestors’ years of wandering in the wilderness until they were ready—individually and collectively—to receive Torah at Sinai.
As I think about the Omer as a journey, it reminds me of what it takes to innovate Jewish learning. Just as circumstance challenged our Israelite ancestors to be a free and covenantal people in the Promised Land, today’s congregations face challenges to their familiar ways.
I have learned a great deal in the last two decades about congregational readiness for change through my work with colleagues in the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), which fosters innovation. Together with The Jewish Education Project and other partners, we’ve invited hundreds of congregations across North America to re-imagine Jewish learning for kids and families.
Once congregations take the first step by applying, we determine their readiness. Are they like Nachshon ben Aminadav of midrashic fame, ready to plunge into the Red Sea up to their necks, or like the rest of the Israelites who hesitated? We’ve learned four critical lessons about readiness:
First, we needed to distinguish between readiness to embark on a process of reflection, introspection, visioning, imagination, and design of innovation and readiness to implement a particular change. We focused on the former and relied on that process to generate the latter. We began by using criteria that Isa Aron articulated in Becoming a Congregation of Learners; to be considered “ready” congregations should have:
1. A core group with an interest in learning
2. A critical mass of reflective leaders
3. A cadre of capable and competent workers
4. A willingness to share leadership
5. Both a modicum of stability and an openness to change
We discovered assessing readiness was nearly impossible to do. Congregations that seemed ready, turned out not to be. And, conversely, congregations that didn’t seem nimble, surprised us with their ability to change. Nobody could have picked Nachshon out of the crowd and predicted he would jump in!
Second, a congregation is made up of many players who operate in a system that does not maintain a unified or stable level of readiness. Our assessment was based on the leaders with whom we initially interacted. But those leaders change. Unrelated issues play themselves out on the congregational stage that trump the pre-existing congregational readiness. These were sobering but important realizations.
Third—and perhaps our most pivotal learning—the term "readiness" appears to present a discrete judgment—either a congregation is ready or it's not. That made sense in theory but reality is far murkier. As our work progressed, we decided to abandon "readiness" altogether. Instead, we adopted “capability for change.” We recognized that—like Nachshon and the rest of the Israelites—congregations both varied in their initial level of capability and that capability shifted during the process.
In a revelatory moment, we recognized that our efforts could be reframed as not only designed to effect change but also to build change capability. This led us to articulate that, with differentiated capability, we would have to provide differentiated support and expect differentiated outcomes. Not everyone would reach the same destination or move at the same pace. We shared this learning with our funders to ensure that they were aware and ready to accept differentiated outcomes.
Finally, our realization about “readiness” led us to other engagement opportunities. These were smaller scale interventions requiring less commitment, but gave congregations a taste of change and allowed us to build a relationship with them. Many of them went on to use their emerging capability to embark on their own epic journey to innovative Jewish learning.
Each year, as we count the Omer, we embark on a journey to build our personal readiness to receive the Torah anew at Shavuot. Congregations, too, can deliberately place themselves on a journey to build their capability to innovate and to embrace change.