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2003 | Vicky Kelman

Vicky Kelman

Vicky Kelman was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1943. Contemporary events helped shape her outlook on life. Her name, Victoria Eve, expresses her parents’ hope for an imminent end to the war and her own optimism. Perhaps even more significant was her growing up in the heyday of the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose “Wait ‘til Next Year!” motto inspired Vicky’s never-give-up spirit.

Vicky attended religious school at Brooklyn’s East Midwood Jewish Center, guided by Henry Goldberg and Aryeh Rohn (z”l), both of whom were also active in the emerging Ramah camp movement. Vicky’s first summer at Ramah in the Poconos in 1957 was a life-changing experience, reinforcing the importance of living 24/7 in a vibrant Jewish community. Vicky continued to spend many summers at Ramah camps, later met her husband, Stuart Kelman, there, and eventually saw their four children — Navah, Ari, Etan and Elana — enjoy Ramah as campers and staffers.

After graduating from Cornell University, Vicky completed advanced degrees in education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University Teachers College. During graduate school, Vicky was also a Fellow of the Melton Research Center. Her studies with Drs. Seymour Fox, Joseph Schwab, and other pioneer teachers of the Melton Bible experiment, inspired her conviction that teaching is the pre-eminent intellectually challenging profession.

In 1969, the Kelmans moved to Los Angeles, CA, where Vicky taught at the Hebrew High School, worked at Ramah in California, and became part of the team working on the Melton synagogue school curriculum — along with Dr. Gail Dorph, Dr. Carol Ingall, Marcia Kaunfer, Dr. Barry Holtz, and Dr. Eduardo Rauch (z”l). Working with Melton afforded Vicky an opportunity to look closely at a variety of Jewish schools, and led her to believe that even smooth-running schools were often “missing something.” She concluded that the missing element was the family, and that successful Jewish education must include the whole family. Creating frameworks in which Jewish families are strengthened through contact with Jewish ideas and community has been the focus of Vicky’s work since then.

In 1984, Vicky published Together: A Child-Parent Kit (Melton, 1984), which is now recognized as the first publication in the yet-to-beestablished field of Jewish family education. That year the Kelmans also moved to Berkeley, CA, and Vicky began working as a free-lance “missionary” for Jewish family education. Among other activities, she created and directed the first Ramah family camp and published several books on Jewish family education.

In 1989, at the invitation of Dr. Ron Wolfson of the University of Judaism, Vicky joined a one-week think tank about Jewish family education, the precursor of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life, of which Vicky has since been a leader.

In 1994, the Jewish Community Federation of the San Francisco Bay Area created The Jewish Family Education Project at the Bureau of Jewish Education. Vicky became its founding director, giving up her Johnny Appleseed-like modus operandi for the challenge of nurturing the whole process, from seed to fruit, in one community. The project was designed to help communal institutions build their capacity for family education. Influenced by her participation in the Mandel Foundation Teacher Education Institute, Vicky made professional development the engine for building that capacity. Her devotion to training the community’s family educators and learning from them has been the hallmark of her work there.

From Vicky Kelman’s Statements of Motivation and Purpose:

“I became a Jewish educator because a significant teacher (Rabbi David Mogilner z”l) told me one summer, ‘You have the power to change the world.’ His words became entwined with the famous Robert Kennedy saying, ‘Some men see things as they are and say “why?” I dream things that never were and say “Why not?”’ A gift of having come of age in the 60s is the optimism that one individual can make a difference and that a group of individuals with shared goals can change the world.

This ‘can-do’ attitude, with which I became imbued that summer, was entwined with the deep meaning that living a Jewish life came to hold for me at the same time…. I think I can honestly say that since that summer, I have never taken ‘no’ for an answer — or, ‘we don’t do it that way, ‘or ‘that will never work.’ In fact, I have always experienced those kinds of statements more as a challenge to action than as a roadblock.

“My entry into Family Education began in the early 80s when I began to experience frustration within the narrow confines of the six-hour per week school. I felt that involving students without the family and home, even our best schools could only be marginally successful. This is to say, that at the beginning, I viewed involving the family to be a more efficient ‘delivery system’ for Jewish information…. Family education didn’t turn out to be a more efficient delivery system for Jewish information. It began to look more and more like going where the families were heading, meeting them there, and artfully redirecting them to the goals they sought but were unable to articulate for themselves. It came to be about transformation rather than about information.

“In Family Education, I have been one of the first to get the field moving off its early focus on programs and onto consideration of the ‘big Jewish ideas’ and today’s families’ need for nurture.

“In many ways, families have been marginalized in our community. Although our tradition has always recognized the importance of the family, our communities are not always structured to provide them a place. Within this marginalized category, there are those who are even more marginalized. Among the tasks on the shoulders of our family educators is to be acutely aware of these families: single families, families experiencing dislocation because of divorce or re-location or illness or death, families who struggle with chronic illness or grief, families who have children with disabilities, families with adopted children, interracial or inter-ethnic families, intermarried families, families with gay or lesbian parents, would-be-parents struggling with infertility…the list is long.

“On the horizon for my work now is an exploration of the spiritual life of the family. The spirituality movement has been very much a movement of individuals tending to their own souls. This is a very important phenomenon. But one of the things I have noticed is that the journey of one soul within a family can actually create fissures within the soul of the family. I am interested in exploring the ways in which a family could embark on a spiritual journey together, drawing closer rather than more distant.

“To the extent that our world is in need of improvement and to the extent that I think Jewish traditions holds the answer to many of the world’s ills, I continue to see myself as someone who can change the world. And I think I have (well, at least in some small way, in one small corner of the world).”

From her Letters of Nomination and Support:

“One of the many aphorisms that Vicky likes to quote and that I like to repeat in her name is that ‘Jews are made one at a time.’ Indeed, Vicky works on the principle that it is the personal touch, the one-on-one contact that draws people into Jewish study and Judaism. This is reflected in her insistence that we not measure our success by the numbers of people who attend our programs, but rather by the influence we have on the individuals who attend. This is somewhat ironic, given that I know hundreds — literally hundreds — of people whom Vicky has affected through her innovative work in the field of family education.”

Rachel Brodie

Consultant, Bureau of Jewish Education of San Francisco, The Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties

“Vicky says that her secret is simple: find a great Jewish text, ask a great question about it, and get out of the way. But to bear fruit, her method depends on her awesome preparation and the love and trust she places in her students. Through these attributes she creates a learning space that is both safe and demanding and a process that depends on the mutual responsibility between teacher and student.”

Gesher Calmenson

Education Director, Congregation Ner Shalom

“Vicky belongs to a small group of Jewish educators who I would call scholar-educators. These individuals create new professional knowledge from which others benefit. The others in Vicky’s case have included young people, adults, families, teachers, principals, and camp directors — lay leaders and professionals in both formal and informal settings. Vicky combines a stunning intellect, rich personal Jewish and general knowledge, and real expertise which she directs towards students’ learning.”

Dr. Gail Dorph

Director, Mandel Foundation’s Teacher Educator Institute

“Family Room was a wonderful experience for our family, and for the other families in our mifgash (group)…. Each month for two years we explored different aspects of Jewish life, from holidays to everyday Jewish learning. This experience was so powerful that our group continued to meet after the two-year commitment, and still gets together to meet after eight years! The lasting effect of this program is truly a tribute to Vicky as an educator and a leader.”

The Schnur Family: Ken, Denise Moyes-Schnur, Emma, and Noah

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