The Jewish Advocate: Synagogue educators press effort to better their schools

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

NEWTON – More than 65 synagogue school educators gathered at Temple Shalom in Newton last week to hone their skills. The teachers were participating in training by educators from the Union for Reform Judaism as part of expanding efforts on the part of both the Reform and Conservative movements to improve congregational religious schools.

Each movement has chosen a different path for bettering its schools. The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism established an accreditation program four years ago called Framework for Excellence. The program offers schools a choice of six different models and then works with each community to mold its program to fit a model.

“Nobody’s going to get kicked out of United Synagogue if they don’t adhere to it, but we wanted to create standards,” said Wendy Light, USCJ’s national education consultant for the Framework for Excellence. “Schools that meet the standards are known as exceptional schools. My goal is that everybody meets those standards.”

While there are variations in each of the six Framework models for schools, ranging from the number of days each week the school meets to the balance of classroom learning with family education and informal education, there are certain benchmarks shared by all models.

For a school to become certified, the education director and lay committee must go through a process Light describes as introspective to determine what elements of the school might need work. “In some situations it means adding hours or days to the program,” Light said. “In others it’s writing a complete curriculum where none existed before.”

Curriculum is the major focus of URJ’s Chai Initiative, a project launched by URJ’s Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning in 2001. “The goal is to move from an activity-based school experience to a concept-based one,” said Joanne Doades, URJ’s assistant director for curriculum development and the national coordinator of the Chai Initiative.

“We looked outside the Jewish educational system to find a curriculum methodology called Understanding by Design,” Doades said in a phone interview last month. “It guides curriculum planners through a process of starting with the end in mind. In other words, what are the things you really want students to know and carry with them long after they’ve left the classroom?”

The curriculum is structured around the famous saying from Pirkei Avot (the mishnaic “Sayings of the Fathers”) that says “The world stands on three things: Torah (law), Avodah (religious service), and G’milut Chasadim (“acts of kindness”).”

“I’m inspired by its theme, which I consider a major rubric of Judaism,” said Deena Bloomstone, education director of Shir Tikva in Wayland. “We’re a very social justice-oriented congregation and believe that every aspect of it speaks to social justice, even the Torah core, which teaches thematically about leadership and responsibility through pieces of Torah that we wouldn’t necessarily look towards in a religious school.”

URJ simultaneously introduced a Hebrew program called Mitkadem Hebrew Language for Youth, a student-centered approach to language that allows each student to work at his or her own pace.

Doades reports that so far nearly 300 schools have purchased the Chai curriculum, “which for us is extremely positive, given that we have about 800 schools,” she said. However, she said that URJ currently does not keep track of which schools actually employ the curriculum, or how much of it they use. “It’s designed to be flexible.” she said. “You don’t have to adopt the whole thing.”

Framework for Excellence recently welcomed its 85th school, Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton. Light said: “There are about 610 Conservative religious schools affiliated throughout the United States. Over 380 are working towards framework.”

Despite the differences in approaches, one element unites both movements’ efforts: the devotion of professional resources to the development of schools. In addition to URJ’s staff of educators, the Chai curriculum draws on the expertise of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America.

Perhaps more importantly, URJ has committed itself to training synagogue teachers in utilizing the curriculum, offering workshops through their network of regional educators, such as the one at Temple Shalom last week, as well as online courses for teachers.

USCJ similarly emphasizes a personal connection between the school and the movement. “We’ll make suggestions, we’ll send them programs, anything they really need to help them become better,” said Light. “Sometimes we’ll meet with their education committees, their rabbis, whomever we need to meet with to make it easier for them to come on board.”

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