A Framework for Excellence in the Conservative Synagogue School

A Report of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Standards for Conservative Jewish Education


The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synagogue School Educational Standards was brought into being in August 1999 by the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Stephen Wolnek. His charge to the task force was:

We must, therefore, evaluate our current educational approach and make a determination as to the best way that we can ensure a high-quality Jewish education for the youth of our congregations.

The educational standards of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism were adopted over four decades ago. As the task force began its work of revisiting the existing standard, it articulated changes in our reality and in present knowledge of what makes for successful synagogue education. The task force determined that what we now know about changes in demographics and the emerging knowledge about good practice should inform its rethinking and any new articulation of standards.

Jewish life in North America has undergone several deep shifts in its demography that affect synagogue school education:

  • The broadening geographic rim - Jews have in many parts of North America moved further into the suburbs and beyond. This means that they no longer live as close to one another as they once did; that distances are greater between homes and the congregation. Many of our congregations serve children from a wide geographical area - many towns and cities; many school systems.
  • Between 1978 and 1998, the number of families in the United States with mothers and fathers both working who have children under 18 years old increased from 4.5 million to 9 million (New York Times). There is no reason to assume that the Jewish population does not mirror this increase.
  • There has been a great increase in single-parent households.

These demographic changes have affected the proximity of people to synagogues and the difficulty of getting children to school. The task force has responded with a flexible system of models. All of the models address two stages of Jewish education in addition to elementary school: (1) the primary school years; and (2) the high school years of adolescent identity development. The models also include family education and Shabbat attendance. These components, taken together with an elementary school program, provide the potential to fulfill the aims of the Conservative synagogue school.

There has emerged a growing literature on "good practices" in synagogue school education around which has crystalized a consensus about the elements that form a framework for excellence in synagogue school education. They are:

  • A sufficient number of hours and days to attain the goals as articulated in the "Statement of Aims of the Conservative Synagogue School"
  • Educators who are leaders, not just administrators
  • Rabbinic interest, support, and presence on matters of synagogue schooling
  • Congregational investment in teacher training, retention, and development
  • Collaboration with and support of lay leaders, including good committees and a mission of the synagogue that places education front and center
  • Commitment to and investment in teenagers, including high school classes, youth activities, summer camp, and Israel experiences
  • Family education that helps parents fulfill their roles as the primary Jewish educators of their children

Reflecting this knowledge base, the task force has established qualitative standards, articulating them as "benchmarks."

Further, it is recognized that early childhood education, rich in age-appropriate Jewish experiences, sets the stage for the attainment of the aims of the Conservative synagogue school.

The Framework for Excellence has three components:

  1. The Statement of Aims of the Conservative Synagogue School - Was developed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Commission on Jewish Education. It articulates the aims of Conservative Jewish education for K through high school.
  2. Benchmarks - Establish an institutional framework for quality Jewish education. They are required to fulfill the standards of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for synagogue school education.
  3. The choice of a model - The six models are structures which contain the elements and sufficient time over years to achieve the aims of the Conservative synagogue school. Synagogues will choose one of the models.

Congregations are expected to heed the benchmarks and to choose one of the models. We realize that this is a process requiring reflection and time. We ask that congregations work together with the Department of Education to move forward in establishing a Framework for Excellence.

If the Framework for Excellence is to be maximized, there needs to be ongoing orientation of the lay leaders who carry the responsibility for education in the congregation. The region should be asked for assistance in this matter.

Aims of the Conservative Synagogue School

What do we expect to achieve in the Conservative synagogue school?

We wish to create the foundation for life-long Jewish learning and living. We believe that a good synagogue school education should and can be a major influence in forming what a Jewish teenager knows (knowledge), knows how to do (skills), and wants to do (attitudes and proclivities). It requires a sufficient amount of time to form the foundation for future Jewish living, study and growth. The school program will best impact on these if it integrates elements of informal education and systematically engages in family education. The program needs to start early and continue through adolescence.

We want all students to continue their formal Jewish education through high school and to be members of USY. Adolescence is a period of growth in the capacity to conceptualize and a time for dealing personally with one's identity. It is therefore important that Jewish education continue during these years and be ongoing, so that the teen can develop a more mature perception of and commitment to Judaism, the foundation for which is only laid in the elementary grades.

Read the entire Aims Statement.

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The following qualitative standards for synagogue schools are based on the expert knowledge of people in the field and best practice studies. These benchmarks indicate that a congregation has established an institutional framework for quality Jewish education and, in so doing, is fulfilling the standards of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for synagogue school education. These benchmarks are met when the congregation has shown that:

  1. It has family education. To maximize effectiveness, synagogue education programs must not be limited to the child. The synagogue needs to engage in an ongoing family education program. It is the synagogue's task through family education to create and nourish Jewish experiences. Family education programs can have the dual benefit of enriching Jewish family life and making parents allies of the synagogue's education program as they act in a family-friendly manner, enriching the quality of members' family life. Good family programs have the power to encourage parents to become models for their children. Parents who learn, attend services on a regular basis, and/or participate in g'milut hesed become models for emulation.
  2. Its education program is made up of a strong cognitive component, elements of skill mastery, and an affective component. The “Aims” expect students to act on what they are learning in the areas of mitzvot between persons - Jewish values - and between Jews and God. This calls for an organic relationship between that which is learned and that which isexperienced. This relationship will take place within classes and as an extension of class. It can be greatly enriched through coordinated planning and a close relationship between the school and the youth program. This can best be achieved when all students are members of Kadima and USY and when youth leaders are integrated into the life of the school. Youth activities and the school can together provide the child and teen with a positive, powerful Jewish peer group experience. All synagogues should encourage students to attend Camp Ramah and a Conservative Movement trip to Israel. Wherever possible, they should provide scholarships for these programs.
  3. The Rabbi has a meaningful relationship with the process of the school, as does the Hazzan.
  4. It supports the ongoing professional development of educational directors/principals, teachers, and family educators.
    • Teachers participate in a documented minimum of six hours a year (exclusive of administrative staff meetings) of teacher development consisting of Jewish enrichment and/or pedagogy. Teacher development may include, but is not limited to, such things as staff classes with the Rabbi or another teacher, study as individuals in courses offered by the synagogue or the community, learning at a distance, conferences, and programs available through the Department of Education.
    • Principals have a personal, professional development plan which is supported by the congregation. It should include attendance at the JEA Convention.
    • Family educators have a personal, professional development plan that is supported by the congregation.
  5. It recognizes the importance of licenses and credentials. It urges and provides opportunities for teachers to work towards licensing. The school has a licensed educational director/principal or one working towards obtaining a principal's license or the status of Associate Member in the Jewish Educators Assembly.
  6. It has a written statement of educational philosophy and a written curriculum which moves in a coherent and definitive way toward achieving the aims stated in the “Statement of Aims for the Conservative Synagogue School.”
  7. It has a program for assessing the Jewish growth and development of students as articulated by the “Statement of Aims.” Such assessment has two major dimensions: 1) Assuring that certain basic knowledge and skills have been attained; and 2) Assessing the attainment of ideas, values and attitudes. The Department of Education will ass ist synagogues in finding the right tools to determine the attainment of basic skills and knowledge and the means to assess the development of ways of knowing, values, attitudes, and growth in observance.
  8. It establishes a pattern of communication between the nursery school/early childhood program, the elementary (K-8) school program, and the high school program to assure an ongoing and sequenced learning process as the child matures.
  9. It has an education committee that operates according to an established protocol. The education committee reports periodically to the Board of the synagogue with regard to the policies and direction of the synagogue's educational program.

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Six Models

The six models share a set of elements but have different emphases. Each has its own particular strengths. These six models provide congregations with alternative patterns. A congregation will choose the model which best suits its sense of Jewish educational mission and which willengage its community. Each model has the potential of achieving the aims of Conservative Jewish education.

The six models share the following elements:

  • There is a family education program.
  • Attendance at Shabbat services is required. Minimally, students should attend services at least ten times a year.
  • The synagogue works on developing an organic relationship between formal and informal education programs.
  • The synagogue works at increasing the participation of post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah students in Jewish study through the 12th grade. It will work to assure that its post- Bar/Bat Mitzvah students are studying for a minimum of 4 hours per week. This might be either in high school programs (synagogue, joint congregational, or community), supervised independent study, or supervised internet study of approved courses. While we recognize that it might be necessary to offer some or all students an alternative of independent study, we remind the synagogue of the importance of Jewish peer groups in the Jewish development of adolescents and urge that, when possible, study should be with peers. The synagogue will develop a plan to increase retention and hours.
  • The high school program includes the participation of students in congregational services.

Model I

This model-meeting three times a week for a minimum of five years-has strengths which have made it a standard for many decades. It permits needed time coupled with frequency of meeting. Frequency of contact, when used properly, enhances the mastery of skills and the retention of knowledge. These are both important components of the aims of Conservative Jewish education. These strengths continue to make it a preferred pattern for the elementary school years.

Even where this preferred pattern for grades 3-7* is in place, education should not await grade 3. It should begin no later than kindergarten.

Grades: 3 - 7 6 hours/3 days per week

*To prevent confusion in nomenclature, throughout this document the grade refers to the public school grade. We would encourage synagogue schools to use similar nomenclature beginning with kindergarten.

Model II

This model emphasizes the continuance of formal Jewish education from K through high school. It frontloads the education program with considerable time in K-2. It permits the congregation to choose to reduce class time for 7th graders to 5 hours because they consider them to be on overload.

Kindergarten 3 hours per week
1st 3 hours per week
2nd 5 hours per week
3rd* through 6th 5.5 hours/3 or 2 days per week
7th 5 hours/3 or 2 days per week

*70% of children in grade 3 are enrolled in synagogue school prior to grade 3.

Model III

This model emphasizes the continuance of formal Jewish education from K through high school, offering an i ntensive high school program of 6 hour a week.

Kindergarten 2 hours per week
1st 2 hours per week
2nd 2 hours per week
3rd through 7th 5+ hours/3 or 2 days per week

Post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah students are involved in Jewish study through the 11th grade for a minimum of 6 hours per week in a high school program.

Model IV

This model emphasizes built-in, required experiential programs and nurturing family/parent Jewish growth.

Shabbat morning program - 3 hours/10 times per year for grades 3-6 including services, program, kiddush. Attendance of seventh graders at Shabbat morning services is required. Minimally, seventh graders should attend services at least 10 times during the year.

Shabbaton each year for grades 3-7.

Education programs for families/parents take place for 3 hours per month in grades 3-5. In grade 6 (pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah) they average 5 hours a month. Some family programs might have separate components for children and parents. Parents might fulfill part of the requirement by participating in adult education programs. This is successful when 80% or more of families participate in family or parent education programs.

Kindergarten 2 hours per week
1st 2 hours per week
2nd 2 hours per week
3rd through 7th 5 hours/3 or 2 days per week

Model V

This model emphasizes a comparatively high level of intensive child or parent commitment expressed in ongoing participation in an aspect of Jewish learning or worship. It also recognizes the pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah years as a window of opportunity and builds into those years appropriate activities.

There is intensive parent and student participation in at least one of the following options:

  1. Option 1 - The congregation succeeds in getting 70% of students in grades 3-8 to attend Shabbat services weekly (75% of time) either at junior congregation, main service, or family service or at a different synagogue.
  2. Option 2 - The congregation succeeds in getting 70% of parents of children in grades 2-7 to participate at least once a month in family or adult education.
  3. Option 3 - The congregation succeeds in getting 70% of parents of children in grades 2-7 to participate at least once a month in Shabbat or daily services.

Kindergarten 2 hours per week
1st 2 hours per week
2nd 2 hours per week
3rd through 5th 5.5 hours/3 or 2 days per week
6th* 5 hours/3 or 2 days per week
7th** 5 hours/2 days per week

* There is a + hour per week Torah Reading Club (and other synagogue skills) which is attended by at least 80% of 6th grade students.)

** All 7th grade students engage in a tikun olam project for an additional 2 hours per month.

Model VI

This model emphasizes the Shabbat experience for children along with frontloading hours in K-2.

Kindergarten 3 hours per week
1st 3 hours per week
2nd 3 hours per week
3rd through 7th 6 hours per week (2 hours on each of the 2 weekdays (M-TH) plus Shabbat

For grades 3-7, there is a 2-3 hour Shabbat program every week with at least 1 hour of Shabbat-appropriate instruction. Regular attendance is required. The synagogue can demonstrate that it achieves the 75% retention level into 8th grade or has a plan for doing so over a reasonable period of time.



This Aims Statement is based on work begun by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education at its meeting of March 26, 1996, under the chairmanship of Dr. Jack Porter and the co-chairmanship of Rabbi Marim Charry. The Commission's make-up - with lay leaders, rabbis, Jewish educators, cantors, and Jewish Theological Seminary faculty members representing the United Synagogue, Rabbinical Assembly, Jewish Educators Assembly, Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary - grounded the deliberation in input from a cross-section of the Conservative Movement. During the course of its development, the Statement was presented to and discussed with groups of Conservative Jewish educators. Much was learned from those readings. The statement underwent a final review two years after the process was begun at the March 31, 1998, Commission meeting (Temma Kingsley, Chair) and was subsequently adopted unanimously.

As part of the process of rethinking the United Synagogue 's Standard for Synagogue Education, the Statement was augmented and approved by the Commission.

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