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.”
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project