This interview is part of the Network-Weavers Series. More info and interviews here!
Ira Wise has been the Educational Director of Congregation B’nai Israel of Bridgeport, CT since 1995. Ira has served on the faculty of Eisner Camp, part of the Reform Movement's Northeast Camp Institute in Great Barrington, MA for fifteen seasons. In addition, Ira teaches at Merkaz, the Community High School for Jewish Studies, and leads workshops and seminars for teachers and educator around country. He serves as a member of the Task Force for Access to Lifelong Jewish Learning, part of the URJ Joint Commission for Lifelong Learning. He is also the President of the School Volunteer Association in the Bridgeport Public Schools.
What does the idea of a “network-weaver” mean to you?
I’ve used the metaphor of a weaver for myself for more than two decades. I was once described as a “juggler,” who can recover lots of balls without dropping any others. I was not happy with this characterization. Being a juggler implies that the balls are telling me where to go, and you can’t create something while you’re juggling. Jugglers are entertainers but they produce nothing. The word I came up with instead was a weaver – long before anyone started talking about it online. Have you ever watched someone actually weave? Like the weavers in Jerusalem making tallitot. This pattern just sort of emerges; it changes colors so fast that you don’t even see it. It’s the ability to see something before it’s actually apparent. I think it was Michelangelo who said: I don’t turn the marble into something; I find the something that’s in the marble. Weavers can imagine something larger than the strings in front of them. That’s what I hope to be able to do.
What caused you to adopt a network-weaving approach in your synagogue?
When the economy tanked a few years ago, 90 kids didn’t re-register for Hebrew School, 82 of whom hadn’t yet become Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Many parents said they were “taking a year off” from their membership and religious school for financial reasons. We managed to get most of them to come back with some financial assistance from the temple. But when I thought more deeply about it, I realized that, for these parents to think that cutting out Hebrew School was a solution to the financial problem, it had to be about something more than the money. My mother would never have left the temple, even temporarily. Why did she have that value? My parent’s friends were mostly members of the temple, and if my parents had stopped their synagogue involvement, they would have to face their friends about it.
I realized I had to weave a different kind of network. I had to become the Chief Relations Officer – everyone in the school had to. We took what had been more of a room parent program and told the parents: we can take care of the shopping. We want room parents to try and make sure most if not all of the parents in class get together to do something – anything – once every five weeks. Go to Starbucks, have a play date, picnic in the park, or play at the gym. After two years, people were making real connections, and it really changed the face of what’s happening here. People stopped looking at religious school as just another activity they have to go to and started seeing it as part of their family’s life. (A report on this program by one of the co-chairs was published by the URJ in Torah at the Center on page 6.)
How do you apply the concept of network-weaving to Jewish organizational life?
There’s been a lot of writing about the death of the synagogue school, which is fascinating to me. A lot of that dates back to the ‘90s, with the report of the Commission on Jewish Education in North America’s A Time to Act, for which the Commission on Jewish Education in North America brought together a group of philanthropists and top-notch educators. One of my professors, Sara Lee, was a member of the commission. She described that they were focusing on six different avenues into Jewish identity formation: Israel, camping, synagogue schools, early childhood education, day schools and adult learning. If you read the whole book, you said, “Wow – a community that put together a menu of all these items could engage a lot of people.” What actually happened, though, was that different philanthropists chose different items off the menu to fund, and there became a virtual competition between the different modalities for helping young adults become Jews. But the reality is that there is not only one way. We lost a weaving movement in there.
Religious school may not work universally, and it’s not a magic bullet, but many religious schools are helping young adults become young Jewish leaders. The goal should be to use a combination and find lots of ways in. The questions we should be asking are: What can we do to help religious school teachers’ professional development? What can we do to improve and develop the model? What other models can we bring to reach more people, or to reach people we are already reaching more deeply?
What is your network-weaving background?
I’ve always been someone into the tech side of things, if only because, instead of reading the manual, I’ve always said: Let me figure this out. But I’m more a second adapter than a first adapter, because I like to get an idea of where things are going first. I started doing consulting for other educators, because I wanted to show that you can do this stuff even if you don’t look like Mark Zuckerberg, and that you shouldn’t say “no” before you even have your hands on it. I am digital oleh, not a sabra. We can all use these tools.
I’m a mentor at the Leadership Institute – a program of the HUC-JIR and JTS’s Davidson School and funded by the UJA-Federation of NY serving congregational school educators. In that role, I’ve been a network-weaver, developing a Google site for the group and a Google group with online conversations continuing beyond the 15 times the group meets over 2 ½ years, so that participants can build their personal networks. I was also part of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows – Leading Educators Online program with the Lookstein Center, where we were all tasked to develop online communities of practice (CoPs). Mine was for NATE (National Associate of Temple Educators), the professional organization of Jewish educators of the Reform Movement, which is now facilitated by Peter Eckstein.
Ira blogs at Welcome to the Next Level and tweets as @IraJWise