Don’t Tell Me I’m Next

On June 6, 2010, Hebrew College celebrated its 85th commencement. I graduated with two masters degrees: one in Jewish Studies, the other in Jewish education. I was incredibly honored to be one of two student speakers at the graduation ceremony. What follows is the speech I delivered at graduation.

My relationship to Hebrew College is somewhat different from many of my fellow graduates, although far from unique in the history of the school. I am a graduate of Prozdor, the high school of Hebrew College – class of 1995; I am now the associate director of Prozdor and the director of Makor, Hebrew College’s middle school collaboration with community congregations; and today I am graduating with both the Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and the Masters in Jewish Education. Hebrew College has been many things to me – the birthplace of many important friendships; a laboratory for testing out Jewish ideas; a supportive environment for professional growth; and most importantly a family.  It is particularly meaningful that my graduation is also a day honoring Dr. Stephen Simons, who was my first supervisor and cheerleader in the world of professional Judaism when I worked at Congregation Mishkan Tefila, as well as Margie Berkowitz, who was my teacher when I was a teenager, and before that my mother’s camp counselor at Camp Yavneh, but most importantly, a dear friend and beloved colleague and mentor. My first week on the job at the college, I attended the brit milah of Margie’s youngest grandchild; yesterday I celebrated with her family the bar mitzvah of one of her eldest; it’s fitting that my time at the college is book-ended by these smachot, these family celebrations, because when we refer to Prozdor as a family, we really mean it.

Earlier this year, when it became clear that I would, in fact, complete my degrees this June, people began asking me about what would come next. I’m sure many of my classmates fielded the same question. Now, I’ve been taking classes part-time for eight years towards these degrees, so to be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me that graduation might necessitate a next step.

In retrospect, this should have been obvious. The Jewish community is in a state of perpetual anticipation. Maybe this is a natural state for a people waiting for the messiah. I came of age in the era of “Jewish Continuity,” when federations around the country feared that the forces of assimilation were laying waste to Judaism at such a rate that Jews might not be around in a couple of generations if we didn’t take action. While researching my masters thesis, I learned that this was not a new communal stance, just a new label.  In my parents’ generation, the call to arms was “Jewish Survivalism.”  Today, we instead talk about strengthening Jewish identity. But whatever you call it, these phrases all tend to mask the same shared anxiety: will there be Jews left on earth after we’re gone. Continue reading

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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.”

The Jewish Advocate: Religious schools resurging as they launch initiatives, professionalize staff

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – Religious schools, once feared to be in decline in the face of the growth of the Jewish day school movement, are enjoying a resurgence through innovations in structure and initiatives intended to raise the level of teaching.

“It’s not by accident that the overwhelming majority of Jews around the world select a form of Jewish education related most directly to synagogues,” said Daniel Margolis, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Newton. “People are looking for places that provide them with a total context, a link among all of the avenues that a congregation provides to its membership, all wrapped up in one place.”

But the built-in constituency of being part of a “package deal” within a congregation does not mean religious schools are merely getting by. Today’s schools are centers of both learning and fun, with more innovation than parents might expect. A glance at the educational offerings at Jewish institutions in Greater Boston makes one fact clear: Hebrew schools have moved well beyond where they used to be and are exhibiting far more diversity than ever before.

The religious school at Congregation Mishkan Tefila of Chestnut Hill made a difficult decision three years ago, changing its long-held schedule of three days a week to a two-day schedule to better fit in with the busy lives of today’s children. Education Director Stephen R. Simons said he wanted to ensure that the content and quality of the instruction would not be diminished.

“Students still attend five and a half hours of academic learning,” he told The Jewish Advocate. He noted that they had six hours of instruction in the past, but it was often diluted with assemblies and other programs. Now, those programs are part of a burgeoning “Yom Hug,” or “club day,” an option available twice a month on Thursdays. Students choose from a range of activities, including Jewish arts, choir, klezmer band, student newspaper and even Jewish cooking.

At Temple Israel in Sharon, Evelyn Briar has seen a different trend, with her 10-hour-a-week intensive program expanding. “The numbers seem to be increasing in terms of the number of kids willing to make the kind of commitment the intensive program requires,” she said. “Our incoming fifth-grade intensive class will have 18 kids – over a third of the class!”

Briar sees benefits to the intensive program beyond the additional instruction. “Because the kids are together for ten hours a week, it creates a chevra, a sense of community,” she said. She also noted that her students in the intensive program continue their Jewish education in both formal and informal ways into high school and beyond in much higher percentages than other students do.

It is exactly that desire for continuation that led to a surprising move at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, where the congregation has moved its sixth and seventh grades into its high school Havayah (“experience”) program.

“We really wanted our b’nai mitzvah students to see sixth and seventh grade, and the whole b’nai mitzvah process, as the beginning of their education,” said Rachel Happel, Havayah director. “Last year, we moved our seventh grade into the Havayah program, with their own separate track. We had almost a 75 percent retention rate for this year from that group.”

One major source of so much innovation across schools in this region is the increasing professionalization of the schools’ faculties. Many school directors hold advanced degrees in education or Jewish studies, and more are seeking out teachers who hold certifications in teaching. However, most schools do not rest on their laurels once their teachers are hired.

“We’re seeing much more training of teachers inside the schools, making these schools a serious place to work,” noted Marion Gribetz, director of institutional and professional development at the Bureau of Jewish Education.

Kesher, a unique, independent Jewish educational after-school program with branches in Cambridge and Newton, is at the forefront of professional development for its teachers. Prior to the start of the school year, the schools this week held an eight-day staff orientation. The Jewish Advocate visited this year’s training at the midway point, joining a session led by Allison Cook, Kesher’s head of teacher development.

“Everyone is capable of developing as a teacher, and it’s an expectation for the sake of the students that we do,” said Cook. She also made clear to her teachers that professional development is distinct from curricular work, with professional development focusing on the teachers’ abilities and career growth.

Cook is a regular member of the Kesher staff, visiting classrooms year-round to observe the teaching. She has a dual responsibility of looking for emerging issues across classrooms, as well as analyzing individual teachers’ needs. “It’s more formative than evaluative,” she told the teachers. “I want to support you and help you become better teachers in an ongoing way.”

While other schools may not have a staff member devoted to professional development, many spend considerable time on “in-service learning,” paid working days set aside for professional development. At Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, teachers will participate in seven in-service days throughout the year, all focused on one overarching theme. Jennifer Rudin-Sable, director of congregational learning at Kehillath Israel, has committed funds to send her staff to professional conferences as well.

“Our staff has worked all summer, meeting regularly for five weeks, mapping our curriculum for the entire year and lesson-planning as a team,” said Rudin-Sable. “That’s key. People can bounce ideas off of one another and work together to really create meaningful experiences in the classroom.”

The Jewish Advocate: Jewish arts thrive at summer camps

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

NORTHWOOD, N.H. – Nearly 150 campers from seven area camps gathered at Camp Yavneh last week for the annual Jewish Arts Festival. The event, which rotates among participating camps each year, brought together performers from Yavneh, JCC Camp Kingswood in Bridgton, Maine, Camp Young Judaea in Amherst, N.H., Camp Tevya in Brook-line, N.H., Camp Pembroke in Pembroke, Mass., Camp Tel Noar in Hampstead, N.H., and Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass.

The festival was founded in 1980, the brainchild of George Marcus, then the executive director of the Cohen Camps, and Charles Rotman and Paul Abrahamson of Camp Young Judaea. “We were talking in the off-season about how to motivate the Jewish part of our program,” remembered Marcus, “and this is what we came up with.”  Continue reading