David Bryfman, chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York), is no longer concerned with using Jewish education to make people better Jews.
Considered an expert in bringing innovative strategies and creative thinking to Jewish education, Bryfman sees a bigger picture.
“My ultimate goal is to try to show [Jews] that their Jewish heritage, their wisdom, their values, their culture, their religion can actually make them better human beings,” he said in an interview prior to a visit this week to Pittsburgh, where he would be instructing Jewish educators, youth professionals and other local stakeholders.
“That’s a bit of a flip,” he continued. “I’m no longer saying that I think Judaism can make you a better Jew, or make the Jewish community stronger. I’m pretty adamant now that I believe that Judaism can actually make you a better human being, and it can make your community better and stronger, and it can make the world a better place.”
Brfyman was invited to come to Pittsburgh by Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
On Monday, Bryfman met with youth directors from Pittsburgh, as well as visiting youth workers from Pittsburgh’s Israeli Partnership2Gether sister region, Karmiel/Misgav.
He also had a separate session with rabbis, synagogue directors and religious school educators and other Jewish professionals and held a third session, open to the public, called “Understanding Jewish Teens: The Selfie Generation Who Will Save the World.”
We have to actually make a choice, to change our ways to meet the needs of this younger generation.
Bardack thought the timing was right to bring Bryfman to Pittsburgh, as the results of the new Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, which the Federation commissioned from Brandeis University researchers, will be revealed next month.
As the community will be evaluating its new data, Bardack explained, “it’s time to make sure our approach to teen learning is based on best practices and research.”
Bryfman has “articulated outcomes we can use to measure how we’re doing and set goals for teen learning and experiences,” Bardack added. “We do a lot of tracking of how teens are engaging, and we’ve already introduced some of David Bryfman’s research to our youth professional network. Now, we need to figure out how we can further assess how we’re doing, and that will inform our planning on what to do with the teens.”
Jewish teen engagement must evolve, Brfyman said, to respond to the unique qualities of a new generation and a rapidly changing world.
Because of technology, “this is possibly the most materialistic, narcissistic, self-indulgent generation the world has ever known, and at the same time, they are also out there involved in more social, political, cultural campaigns than any generation ever before them,” Brfyman said.
While those attributes “seem completely dichotomous,” he posited, “this generation has really found a way to be both quite seamlessly.”
Because it is hopeless to “fight social trends,” he continued, “nothing we do in the Jewish world is ever going to be able to compete with what’s happening in their lives. So, we work with what we’ve got. We make sure we offer activities that take the values of this generation to succeed and to thrive in their indulgent lives — which often means helping them get into colleges and universities, getting them the jobs they need to be as successful as they need — and also give them the framework to help change the world and make it a better place.
“If we [the Jewish community] can offer them the things they value, they will come to us for a whole lot of other things — not just the Jewish. They will come to us for anything that is valuable to them.”
Established Jewish institutions will have to change, Bryfman said, if they want to remain relevant to Gen Z. Traditional models of synagogues, for example, will not attract teens.
I’m pretty adamant now that I believe that Judaism can actually make you a better human being, and it can make your community better and stronger, and it can make the world a better place.
“They don’t like hierarchy, they don’t like fixed prayer, they don’t like being quiet, they don’t like being spoken at,” he said. “Are we able to change Jewish practice to meet the needs of this younger generation, while at the same time not upsetting the older people in the congregation who pay the bills and who also come there to pray? We know we can do it, because at summer camp, it’s really successful. We know how to engage the kids in all this wonderful stuff. We have to actually make a choice, to change our ways to meet the needs of this younger generation.”
Although he conceded that summer camp does not work for every Jewish child or teen, there are some aspects of the model that can and should be replicated in other settings.
“There’s a flattened hierarchy in these organizations, or at least the kids feel that they are owning the experiences in which they are participating,” he said. Institutional leadership needs to parse out “the types of ownership roles we can give young people to actually run parts of synagogue life.”
Jewish institutions must also strive to be more inclusive to meet the needs of the new generation, Bryfman added.
“Among non-Orthodox Jews in particular, 72 percent of them come from interfaith families,” he said. “All of them have non-Jewish friends, and none of them really likes to see Judaism as an exclusive club. So, what are we doing in the Jewish community to welcome in our non-Jews or our half Jews or those wanting to learn about Judaism? It’s not a very welcoming place.”
Doing nothing to change the model will lead to a “crisis,” he said, as the numbers of people participating in organized non-Orthodox Jewish life continue to dwindle.
“You need leadership that is actually able to say that we got to where we are today because of the people in the room, but if our real mission is to stay viable and valuable moving forward, then we need to look at who’s up and coming and what we need to do to alter our practices to meet their needs. I call it the ‘innovation imperative.’ We have no other choice but to change our ways.”
When working with the youth professionals, Brfyman generally begins the sessions by inquiring as to what outcomes they are held accountable.
“We shouldn’t just be held accountable for numbers,” he said. “The quality of the experience matters. What matters is, is what you’re doing helping them to become a better human being, a more productive member of the community? And is what you’re doing helping to make the world a better place? If you can check off any of those three buckets, you’re doing a great job.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at