For many synagogue school directors, finding the right staff is an ever-present issue. While there are always motivated college students, rabbinical students, grad students, synagogue members and former teachers who willingly fill religious school classrooms with energy and creativity, the reality is that a supplementary school staff is often in-flux. Rabbinical students are ordained, grad students find internships, college students graduate. What’s more, pedagogies don’t always align, and resources vary by great measure.
The question of how to best outfit synagogue school classrooms with educators who have the time and resources to build an engaging and meaningful learning experience for students in an afternoon setting is definitely not new. Scores of articles and papers have been written, committees have convened, networks have formed and disbanded as they tussle over the question of the most effective models. And, what works for one place won’t necessarily work for another.
There’s no right answer, that’s for certain. But there are lots of creative thinkers out there who are trying to address the question of effective teaching models by, in some cases, employing full time educators on the religious school faculty, and in others, training day school students to enter into the synagogue school classroom.
Below are condensed and compiled reflections from education directors at two New York-area synagogues where full-time educators are employed, as well as thoughts from a student teacher and administrator at The Weber School in Atlanta, where 10th-12th grade students have the option to teach in local area synagogue school programs.
At Larchmont Temple in Westchester County, New York, Rabbi Eve Rudin is the Director of Family Education, Youth and Families and has one full-time educator on her religious school staff. Before she arrived to assume her role a year ago, the budget for a full-time educator had already been passed and Rabbi Rudin undertook the search for someone to join their religious school team. That person wound up being Ted Dreier, a graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, who has dual Masters Degrees in Jewish Education and Non Profit management.
One big difference that Rabbi Rudin notes since bringing Ted onto her staff, is an end to what she calls the “crosstown bus syndrome,” namely, the tendency of religious school teachers to figure out what they’ll teach that day during the time it takes to ride the bus across town from home to the synagogue.
Ted is in the classroom for up to four hours a week, and also creates large grade-wide group programming, teaches a high school elective, works on curriculum development (he just revamped the 5th grade curriculum so that it’s now inquiry-based), and works with the high school madrichim.
“Having someone on staff who speaks the language of Jewish education is very helpful,” Rudin said. “We talk about measurable outcomes, evaluation, learning goals, understanding by design, and whole-person learning,” she added.
Next up: drawing curricular maps and making lesson planning more intentional for all of Larchmont Temple’s educators.
To learn more about Larchmont Temple’s school, click here:
“From my perspective, it’s an amazing blessing to have full time teachers because we can integrate them into every aspect of the synagogue and community,” said Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, Director of Youth and Family Education at Central Synagogue, where there are 6 full-time educators on staff.
“When students come to synagogue for Shabbat services, they see the same teachers from their classrooms, from their youth groups, and in this way, they form significant relationships with their teachers. This relationship between students and teachers is a crucial factor and an amazing gift,” she said.
This summer, Rosenthal and her education staff were trained in Project Based Learning and will move toward a curriculum that covers just 3 topics a year in great depth. “Our teachers will be focused on helping students engage with Judaism in a way that’s relevant to their lives in the 21st century, and form bonds with one another,” Rosenthal said.
On the day-to-day level, the educators at Central Synagogue undertake what most would think of as traditional professional development, work on classroom management, differentiated instruction, and of course, lots of programming to figure out what will actually be taught in the classroom. Educators also meet with clergy on a regular basis.
Rosenthal knows that resources are a major challenge for many synagogues across the country and that Central is in a unique position. What’s more, what works in one place won’t necessarily work in another, given the cultural differences that vary from congregation to congregation.
“People on the ground need real step-by-step support for making change,” she said.
To learn more about the Lese Center for Living Judaism at Central Synagogue, school, click here.
Last spring, The Weber School in Atlanta launched The Weber Teaching Fellows program, a signature program that convenes a cohort of 10th, 11th and 12th grade to be placed in teaching positions, as counselors, and youth group leaders in local community programs, including local synagogue religious schools, camps, youth groups, and preschool programs. The cohort also participates in a teaching practicum facilitated by a member of the Weber faculty, and benefits from the input of guest speakers and teachers. The practicum supports the students in their work, provides study of content (related to their areas of instruction and programming) as well as pedagogy, classroom management and child development.
Zac, a rising Weber senior, spent the 2015-2016 academic year student teaching third grade students at his home synagogue, Congregation Bnai Torah in Sandy Springs, GA.
“The students knew I was madrich, and knew I was in high school, still a student, and probably closer to their age than their teacher was, and I think that gave them the comfort level to ask me questions that they might not have felt comfortable asking their teacher,” Zac reflected. “I’ve been going to this synagogue for eight years and I’ve been in Hebrew Day School since first grade. I didn’t know a lot about supplementary school before I started teaching, but from the first day, I knew I wanted to try and make school as fun as possible for my students.”
Zac explained that he knows lots of families drop out of religious school after the Bar Mitzvah year, and it’s important to him that he helps keep kids engaged, and keeps them coming back to synagogue. In fact, Zac was so moved by his desire to help a younger generation of students that he approached Weber Head of School Rabbi Ed Harwitz, to ask him to formalize a teacher-training program at Weber—a conversation that ultimately spurned the creation of the Fellows program.
“This year, I want to try and bring the “Weber setting” to kids at the synagogue,” Zac said. When asked what the “Weber setting” implied, Zac explained that at Weber, teachers and students communicate a lot. “We don’t just sit in class and take notes,” he said. “When we learn about Tanah, we have a real conversation, where everyone participates and asks questions.”
“A big benefit to the community,” said Rabbi Ed Harwitz, “is that synagogues can count on our students to be receiving professional direction in terms of content and pedagogy.”
In their practicum, Weber Teaching Fellows undertake an in-depth text study of Jon Saphier’s The Skillful Teacher, and focus on topics including pacing and techniques and strategy for keeping student attention in the classroom. As they work through these instructions, they develop a portfolio with reflection and artifacts from their placements. The culminating project is the development of their own educational philosophy.
“What synagogues need today are dynamic teachers who will undertake their curriculum in an entirely new way, bring content knowledge, take on an adult role, but also, not be tied to an out of date notion of what Hebrew school is,” Harwitz said.
“Our students are young and engaged and excited, and this is a great opportunity for a brand new model of staffing with lots of potential.”
By Adina Kay-Gross, for The Covenant Foundation