Susan Werk - 2008 Award Recipient
Susan Werk “In my final year at college, during my student teaching, I taught units on the Iroquois Indians to seventh-graders and Middle Eastern studies to ninth-graders. My supervisor at the school met with me after I finished my 12 weeks as a student teacher. His evaluation of my classroom skills went something like this: ‘When you teach the Iroquois Indians, your teaching is fine; however, when you teach the Middle East (the lesson he observed was on Israel) your passion can be felt.’ This remains true until today—my passion for the subject of Judaism and Israel has been woven into the fabric of my teaching.”
Susan Werk says her love of Jewish learning began early, in her family and synagogue life growing up in Spring Valley, New York. Her father, Joseph Werk, was a Holocaust survivor and a regular synagogue attendee, and he instilled in her the importance of pride in, responsibility to, and love of synagogue and faith. Her mother, Doris (z’l), embodied the third generation of American Jews, assimilated into this country’s society and accepting its values while continuing to embrace the Jewish tradition. Her mother, Susan says, had a natural spirituality, a strong personal relationship with God, but no knowledge of the Hebrew language or worship.
Lighting candles on Friday night meant not a recitation of the blessing but an open personal prayer verbalizing her gratitude and hopes. Susan sees her parents as embodying a strong and wonderful hybrid: a nonjudgmental approach to one’s relationship to God and a commitment to the well-being of the Jewish community.
Grounded by a family where Judaism was valued and valuable, it was at her synagogue school that Susan truly fell in love with Jewish education. Susan had the good fortune to have a truly incredible synagogue education director, Rabbi Phil Fields. For three years, she learned from and adored this master educator, who showed her how the melding of formal and informal Jewish education could be as natural as the blending of the European and American backgrounds in her home life. Afternoon Hebrew school and the synagogue became her second home, a place of discovery and wonder.
In 1990, Susan received her Master’s degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. While there, she also served as Division Head at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, with which she maintains an important professional relationship. Her most treasured teacher during those years was Dr. Miriam Klein Shapiro (z’l), who impressed upon Susan the awesome responsibility we assume as educators. Teaching, Susan came to realize, is a sacred task, filled with generational ties to our past, present, and future.
Almost immediately after receiving her degree, Susan took on that task as Educational Director of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey. She has been there ever since, creating formal and informal educational programming for congregants at all levels. She has held national leadership positions in the Jewish Education Association (JEA), the Conservative Movement Jewish Educational Assembly, and CAJE.
She also teaches for the Melton Adult Mini School and for the MetroWest Federation’s Women’s Department, and she serves as a mentor for both the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators through the Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary and for the Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Susan has achieved recognition and accolades from every institution that she has touched. In 1996, Congregation Agudath Israel honored Susan with a testimonial dinner, and in 2002 with a weekend honoring her thirteen years as Educational Director. In 1998, for her contribution to Camp Ramah, Susan won the Camp Ramah in the Berkshires “Ramah Award”; she has also been honored with awards from the JEA and the New Jersey Association of Jewish Communal Service, and she has co-authored articles on Jewish education.
Much as she values these honors, Susan maintains that her greatest rewards have come from the work itself. She believes that teaching limudei kodesh is not something the teacher does alone; sacred education is the work of a partnership between teacher and student. The students in her life—children, teens, and adults—have given her “immeasurable riches.”
From Susan Werk’s Statements of Motivation and Purpose
“When I reflect upon my career in the field of Jewish education, I consider this text from Deuteronomy 30:12-14: ‘It is not in the heavens that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.’ “This passage inspires me to teach with the objective of building students’ relationship to the Torah and am Yisrael so that they feel connected (‘close to you’), knowledgeable (‘in your mouth’), passionate (‘in your heart’), and motivated to embrace our tradition (‘to observe it’).
“To feel connected to Torah, ownership cannot rest with the teacher alone as the dispenser of information. One of my goals as a Jewish educator is to provide many different opportunities to connect individuals and families to our tradition. Judaism can create a spark for each individual interest and cannot be limited to one venue. Passion is ignited through experiential learning. Talking without doing makes no sense; the more ways there are of ‘doing’ Jewish, the more will be the opportunities to create this kishka level of commitment. Torah study, social action, minyan, and friendship circles—all are valued and important gateways to the tradition for individuals and families.
“Observing Judaism in our modern, busy American scene can feel distant and inaccessible to members of the progressive community I serve. American Jews seek meaning in their lives and Judaism is the natural area in which to find that meaning. It is my mission to show my congregants that observing Judaism does not reduce their involvement in the modern world, but indeed makes the modern world better. Deuteronomy speaks to us all as educators. As Moshe rabbeinu, the master educator, said, ‘The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.’”
From her Letters of Support and Nomination:
“Initially, Susan was engaged solely as Principal of the synagogue’s Religious School. She creatively redefined her responsibilities to become ‘The Synagogue Educator,’ designing formal and informal Jewish learning for all ages. She has crafted an unprecedented array of children’s weekly Shabbat/Yom Tov religious services parallel to the diverse array of adult and family tefillot, as well as an Annual Israel 2-Week Summer Family Mission that has served about fifty congregants for each of the past 12 years.
“Susan’s extraordinary effectiveness is acknowledged by her congregation, her peers, the Conservative Movement, and the MetroWest United Jewish Communities. Her peers routinely turn to her as their informal mentor and guide. She is a star educator who has excelled in her synagogue, regionally, and nationally.”
Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Congregation Agudath Israel
“Our youngsters and young adults look up to Susan. They view her as a special friend and implicitly trust her. Adult congregants have a similarly close relationship to her; for many, she is their true ‘rebbe’—the person they are closest to, and the one they turn to with questions. Her own (successful) bout with cancer has given her both a perspective on illness and great inner strength, which she uses to counsel those in need. Susan is a full-fledged spiritual leader of our community in all respects.”
William Lipsey, President
Michael Simon, Immediate Past President
Stuart Rabner, Past President
Congregation Agudath Israel
“Ms. Werk has been an exemplary educator for Congregation Agudath Israel, one of the most vibrant congregations in the United States, and has served as an educator for the entire MetroWest Jewish community, integrating our relationships with our overseas partners throughout the world. She has served as a scholar for a Women’s Department mission to our sister city of Cherkassy, Ukraine and has conducted B’nai Mitzvah services in that community, which is undergoing a revival of Jewish life. She has worked as a board member of our central agency for Jewish education and has sat on numerous committees for the Federation.”
Vice President, United Jewish Communities of Metro West, New Jersey
“Together with Rabbi Alan Silverstein and Cantor Joel Caplan, Susan Werk has helped build one of the flagship Conservative congregations in the country, with hundreds of Shabbat observers, both adults and children. Susan is viewed as an equal member of the leadership team and is held in high esteem as a Jewish educator par excellence. “Susan’s love of Jewish learning for its own sake is apparent in everything she does. Her eyes light up when she is learning something new, and she shows that same enthusiasm when sharing what she has learned with others. Her passion for creating a prayerful community is evinced in the incredible attendance at Jr. Congregation Shabbat services and afternoon Shabbat activities every week at her synagogue. She personifies the ideal Jewish educational leader.”
Evie Levy Rotstein Ed.D
Project Director, Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators
Adjunct Professor of Education, Hebrew Union College and Jewish