Jewish Educators:  The Heart, Mind and Soul of Jewish Education

Jewish Educators: The Heart, Mind and Soul of Jewish Education

by Dr. Rona Novick,  Dean of Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration

Jewish education is the most important gift we give our children and our communities. This is not because Jewish education supports continuity. Judaism, a religion of growth, of personal evolution, forward movement, Tikun Olam, must grow students, not so they can mirror the present, but so that they can shape the future.  We should not be satisfied with an educational system that merely holds the line or allows continuation of Judaism as we know it.  Jewish education is the key to fulfilled Jewish learning and living that builds beyond where we are now.  It is the most powerful guarantee of a generation that will advance Jewish life and help advance the world in important ways.

teacher photo.jpg

In education, and in Jewish education as well, new models are being tested, new schools are opening, and experiential education offerings proliferate.  It is easy to think these innovations will fuel success.  These developments are important, but the heart and soul of Jewish education is, and will always be, the people who deliver it.  In classrooms, in camps, on college campuses, in shuls, talented and committed educators are catalyzing the growth of learners.  Pirkei Avot advises us to “find yourself a teacher” – and there are wonderful teachers impacting Jewish education and Jewish learners.  But there are many learners and many schools that struggle to “find themselves a teacher,” discovering there are none to be had.

This is the true crisis in Jewish education - our failure to develop and nurture the human resources that are necessary to grow healthy, connected, knowledgeable Jews. We are not engaging enough bright, dedicated people in careers in Jewish learning. Jewish education is suffering from the same trend as the field of general education where the numbers of students majoring in education has steadily declined over the past 20 years.  However, the experience of Jewish educators is markedly different from their public school counterparts in two important ways: one involving the financial benefits of the career, and the other, the workload involved.     

Jewish educators rarely enjoy the same financial benefits as their public school counterparts.  They may not have health care or other insurance benefits and do not have the promise of a pension to attract them to or keep them in a career in Jewish education.  As an additional challenge, whereas public school teachers are usually provided with an articulated curriculum and have access to extensive resources to support their teaching, Jewish educators often must personally generate the vast majority of their lessons and develop their own tools for engaging students with their assigned content.  Public school teachers have mandated planning periods during the day, and time in their work-week carved out for meetings with colleagues and professional development.  Jewish educators rarely are afforded planning time, and often work in lonely isolation.

Add to that the comparatively lower salaries, limited benefits, heavier work-load, lack of boundaries and minimal professional respect in Jewish versus public schools and it becomes easy to understand why people are not choosing the Jewish education career path.

...I believe we can only grow Jewish education and nurture Jewish educators when each and every one of us considers whether and how we can be part of the solution.
— Dr. Rona Novick, Dean of Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration

We can label this as a community problem.  We can see this an issue for day schools to solve. But I believe we can only grow Jewish education and nurture Jewish educators when each and every one of us considers whether and how we can be part of the solution.  Consider your Shabbat table discussions.  Are Jewish educators discussed with respect?  Are they thanked for the work they do for our children and grandchildren?  Are parents and boards of Jewish schools prepared to recognize that credentialed, well-prepared Jewish educators deserve respectable salaries?  Will we swell with just as much pride when we introduce our sons/daughters as Jewish educators as when we use the proverbial “my son/daughter the doctor”?

At the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education I meet those who, despite the roadblocks, despite the lack of financial promise, despite the long hours and parents and students who kvetch and demand, are devoting their lives to Jewish education.  They are remarkable in their uniqueness, each bringing their particular style and philosophy of teaching to enrich their students’ learning.  They are equally remarkable in their unity of purpose.  Virtually every future educator voices a passion for igniting the souls of students, for giving modern youngsters the gift of an ancient mesorah, for touching lives with the warmth and wonder of Torah.  I am so inspired by these educators and future educators and am confident these unique and remarkable professionals will infuse Jewish education in wonderful ways. 

Imagine what we could do with dozens more just like them.  They are out there.  They are high school and college students inspired by their own learning, noting the impact great educators have had on them.  They are youth leaders and camp counselors experiencing the satisfaction that comes from being a role-model and influencer in the lives of others.  They are adults working in careers that are financial lucrative but spiritually limiting.  This next generation of inspired and inspiring teachers is watching and listening.  Will we, through our actions and words, send the message that Jewish education is no job for a nice Jewish man or woman?  Or will we communicate, in our treatment of Jewish schools and educators, that Jewish educators are a treasured resource?  Will we support, financially and otherwise, those who will grow the next generation of committed, passionate Jewish learners?  We cannot afford to send the wrong message or cut corners. We cannot afford to lose to other careers anyone whose passion, knowledge, skill, and commitment belong in our classrooms, nurturing the next generation.  

I understand that the issues are complex and the needs considerable.  I realize that finding all the resources we need to support Jewish education will be difficult.  I am, however, arguing for clarity on one simple fact.  Without the right people in our schools and classrooms, no amount of funds will create inspired Jewish education and inspired Jews.  Let us invest in Jewish education as if our lives depended on it.  Because, in fact, our lives, and our children’s and children’s children’s lives do.

This article is cross-posted from The Layers Project Magazine.

The Most Essential Part of a Jewish Education Isn’t What You Think

The Most Essential Part of a Jewish Education Isn’t What You Think

In the 1990’s and 2000’s, Judaic teaching capitalized on newer approaches to curricular scope and sequence (spiralling up), giving way to the development of proven pedagogic approaches for skill-building over the last 10 to 15 years. While we can appreciate and lean on the merits of that effort, it is a misplaced focus. When it comes to Judaic Studies, the most important aspects of pedagogy teachers should embrace are those associated with motivational pedagogy. Whether or not a child wishes to engage in the wisdom of our thoughtful lessons after the school day ends impacts more than our job performance. It is the very reason we perform our jobs.

We all should aspire to create a setting where Jewish students want to learn Judaic Studies when they aren’t in the classroom. We know that the depth and power of our tradition can guide, inspire, and influence their lives in positive ways.

Founding a Day School by Turning Values into Action

Founding a Day School by Turning Values into Action

My commitment to Jewish education drives my work, my philanthropy, and my passions. Among my proudest efforts was helping to create the Jewish Community Day School of Greater Boston (JCDS) over two decades ago.  The school’s founding was rooted in core values that were surfaced from visioning exercises and conversations among a committed and passionate group of day school parents.

We began with “artifacts” (as defined by Edgar Schein), reacting in some ways to what we didn’t want and then flipping the lens from complaining to envisioning. In fact, at an early convening, we set rules giving everyone two uninterrupted minutes to speak with a limited time for complaints and a request to focus most of their time to describe the ideal. We recorded everything we heard; we clarified with each person the essence of what they shared. We asked everyone to listen deeply to each other and got a sense of the varying perspectives in the room. It was a long night. There were over 100 people in the room.

Of Grades and Judaic Studies 2: Syncing the Ecosystem

Of Grades and Judaic Studies 2: Syncing the Ecosystem

Culture change takes times, especially when accompanied by practical systems and structures that need to change.  People set emotional and habitual dependencies within patterns of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration which has worked well enough to be considered valid.  To wit, our world could not make an instantaneous shift to alternative fuels despite the benefits. Among the many necessary transitions, first on many people’s mind would be to solve “How would all the current gasoline based cars on the road run?” So, too, for schools pursuing change.

When a school considers a new system for reporting student learning in Judaic Studies that does not use traditional grading as the barometer for success, one may see this as the domain of the professionals alone to make. The movement toward an unfamiliar definition of accomplishment, despite the overwhelming benefits, requires not only buy-in, but support from all groups in the Jewish Day School Ecosystem.

OP-ED: Of Grades and Judaics – Responding to the Call to “Pursue Distinction”

OP-ED: Of Grades and Judaics – Responding to the Call to “Pursue Distinction”

In "Of Grades and Judaics - Responding to the Call to 'Pursue Distinction,'" featured in EJewishPhilanthropy, Rabbi Feld ups the ante on a conversation that is no longer the elephant in the classroom...

Read his case for why traditional grading in Judaics is counter to our timeless system of Torah education and his observations gleaned from JEIC's work to help schools and teachers produce Judaics classes without grades.

OP-ED: What is the Key to Jewish Survival?

OP-ED: What is the Key to Jewish Survival?

What do you think is the key to Jewish survival?

Read on EJewishPhilanthropy.com Rabbi Shmuel Feld's response to Rabbi Meni Even-Israel's op-ed on this essential question.

Advancing Jewish knowledge is an essential step toward ensuring the survival of the Jewish people, but the journey cannot end there.
— Rabbi Shmuel Feld

Done with Grades

Done with Grades

In "Done with Grades" on the Times of Israel Blog, Dr. Erica Brown shares educational research and her own perspective on grading's negative impact on students -- particularly in Jewish studies in day schools.

"There will come a day when a few courageous Jewish day schools have the vision to take a bold step out of an outmoded system and do what Jews have done for millennia: study for its own sake. You brave few will make life-long learners out of your students. You will foster curiosity and love. You will nurture engagement and intellect. You will grow the soul. You will show the rest of us the way."

“All Things Considered”: Top 10 Steps to School Change

“All Things Considered”: Top 10 Steps to School Change

After a long, and at times, arduous three-year process, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County became an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) World School for the Middle Years Programme. As the first Jewish day school in this Metropolitan area to become an IB school, we join a short list of three Jewish schools in North America to have achieved this prestigious accreditation (with the others in Toronto, Mexico City, and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) and six secular schools in New Jersey. Our Schechter school now ranks among 1,500 IB Middle Years Programme schools around the world.   What's more, we are proud to lay claim as the first Jewish day school to tailor this gold-standard educational framework to our Judaic studies curriculum. This means we are creating a uniquely Jewish experience for our students to connect their Jewish learning to the world around them and to turn their learning into action. We chose the IB because it offers a powerful lens through which we can better integrate and teach general studies and Jewish text, traditions and Hebrew language. The journey has been demanding and has called for the support of our teachers, students, parents, and board; it has paid off.

We have achieved the first big milestone in this process of school change; however, we recognize we are still at the beginning of a journey. Our success will depend on our continued commitment to full implementation of all aspects of this program. We have documented a few key lessons we have learned along the way that we believe would help any school embark on a similar school-change initiative.

OP-ED: Manette Mayberg Calls for Jewish Day Schools to Pursue Distinction

OP-ED: Manette Mayberg Calls for Jewish Day Schools to Pursue Distinction

Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, shares a compelling call to action to Jewish day schools in an op-ed featured in both the Washington Jewish Week and EJewishPhilanthropy.

Her message... Pursue Distinction!

The Mayberg Foundation collaborates with multiple philanthropic partners to advance JEIC’s vision to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation.

Social Geography’s Impact on the Jewish Day School Ecosystem

Social Geography’s Impact on the Jewish Day School Ecosystem

Unless you spend time in the same place as others, it can be challenging to create meaningful connections with them. Proximity matters in relationship building. When a school segments subsets of its population in areas of the building that are distant from peers, the students may not have the opportunities needed to develop strong friendships and grow from beneficial interactions with one another.

The same is true for stakeholders in the Jewish day school ecosystem.

Hesed (loving kindness) is at the Heart of our Work

Hesed (loving kindness) is at the Heart of our Work

I had the privilege of attending the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) 2018 Retreat –a wonderful gathering of educators, investors, and leaders in the world of Jewish day school education. Over the course of the retreat, we were asked to think deeply about the purpose of day school education. We were asked to reflect on our own values, and how we would bring those values to life in a school setting. And we were asked – in an uplifting keynote by philanthropist and visionary leader, Manette Mayberg – to consider the importance of distinctiveness as an enduring Jewish spiritual value.

Her words brought to mind one of my favorite midrashim – a rabbinic commentary from Vayikra Rabbah inspired by a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 18:2]

A Charge to IR18 Attendees to Strive for Distinction Using Courage

A Charge to IR18 Attendees to Strive for Distinction Using Courage

As we merited to make the journey, yet another year, from slavery to freedom, from the constraints of Egypt to the open desert, it is incumbent upon us to find the relevance of Passover in our lives.

There is a remarkable piece in Gd’s method of preparing the Jews to leave Egypt. Gd commands every Jewish household to take a lamb into the home for a few days, then slaughter it and mark the doorpost of the house with its blood. Imagine being in that place for a minute. Take a lamb, the very animal that is worshipped as a deity in the hostile society in which you live…care for it, then risk your life to kill it so that its blood will protect you from Gd’s final devastating blow. To take this action required such a deep trust in Gd, that most of the Jews didn’t do it. Most assimilated and were lost and only a minority followed Gd’s word and left Egypt.

This marking on the doorpost – it was the first mezuzah! Jewish Egyptians were challenged to distinguish their homes, not with a subtle mark, but with a bold, emphatic and risky statement. Gd clearly had an eternal message in this and it applies to us today.

As educators and investors in Jewish education, we are partners with the holiest institution since the beit hamigdash stood – that is the Jewish home. Many Jews, I would guess, the vast majority, have no idea that the holiest place is in fact, not the synagogue, but the home. Some even think, “I am a bad Jew because I don’t go to synagogue!” When in fact, every Jewish home has equal potential to instill the Jewish identity and values that sustain the Jewish people. The Jewish institutions that we devote ourselves to are extensions of the home. School is not a substitute for, but an essential limb of the home. When families choose to entrust their children’s education and direct their dollars to Jewish day schools, they expect an experience that, like their homes, is distinctly Jewish.  Distinction is in our DNA and has enabled our survival throughout the ages. Scattered to all four corners of the Earth, distinction is the unifier that has made survival possible. Gd said, “mark your houses” because the values that you hold inside, are the hallmark of the Jewish family that will distinguish you for all time. When Gd commanded us to make ourselves distinct, it was by the unit of the home, not the individual.

The R&D Behind a S.T.E.A.M.-Focused Makerspace at Akiba-Schechter

The R&D Behind a S.T.E.A.M.-Focused Makerspace at Akiba-Schechter

This past summer, driven by a desire to create a sustainable system of innovation in our school and supported by a grant from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, Akiba-Schechter began the process of creating the first Research & Development Department in a Jewish Day School.

The Akiba R&D Department studies, develops prototypes, researches, and scales new teaching and learning approaches, practices, and systems that advance relevant learning for our students and the field of education. Our R&D system ensures new programs, models and ideas are thoughtfully studied, implemented, and sustained. In many companies, R&D departments play an integral role in the life cycle of a product. For us, at a Jewish Day School, we believe the R&D Department plays an integral role in the lifecycle of teaching methodologies and student learning.

The R&D Department researches and develops approaches, practices, and systems that:

  • are driven by global trends

  • have a strong relevance to our school’s mission and core values

  • have potential to significantly transform teaching and learning

  • have sudden urgency or meet unexpected needs

The R&D Department focuses on five areas:

  • Research for new programs or models

  • Development of new programs or models

  • Updates in existing programs or models

  • Quality checks on existing programs or models

  • General research on educational trends and innovations

 Building Cycles of Improvement and Innovation for Judaic Studies

Building Cycles of Improvement and Innovation for Judaic Studies

Part I: The Intensive Summer Beit Midrash

At Fuchs Mizrachi School, we are privileged to have a Judaic faculty who love to think, collaborate, reflect and innovate. We have worked individually and in groups, through meetings and professional development days, to develop meaningful projects, powerful co-curricular programming and a shared set of skills/standards we hope our students will develop. At the same time, it has been challenging to bring individual teachers’ work together to develop a more systematic approach that insures both consistency and continuity for our students.

As open and reflective as our teachers may be, they still often find themselves in the daily grind of preparing lessons and marking assessment as they also try to build relationships with students outside the classroom and manage their own families’ needs.  We, therefore, wanted to find a way to build more systematic, year after year cycles of improvement into our school culture. We didn’t want to build one specific curriculum or implement one particular pedagogic tool; we needed to find a way to ensure that a cycle of action, reflection, and improvement became part of our teachers’ and school’s culture.

With this in mind we proposed-- and were excited to receive a grant from JEIC to support-- a different approach to teacher collaborative time. The Teacher Torah Collaboratory program will fully begin this summer with an intensive Summer Beit Midrash for Fuchs Mizrachi faculty. We believe that dedicated intensive time outside of the regular school year for faculty to learn and think deeply together can alter the lonely cycle of Judaic teachers individually preparing curriculum and planning meaningful activities from day to day. Through reconnecting with their passion for Torah learning, teachers will also be given the time and space to approach familiar texts through new lenses -- considering what both they and their students need in today’s world. Through intense learning, curriculum development and broad conversations about needs, priorities and next steps, teachers will be better positioned to build off of their comradery and shared work for next school year.

The Secret Ingredient is Social Connectedness

The Secret Ingredient is Social Connectedness

Social connectedness is the degree to which a person has and perceives a sufficient number of positive, reciprocal relationships including emotional support, a sense of belonging, and fostering growth. Some people may think that schools’ primary goal is solely to teach content and skills, however, I believe school communities should consider social connectedness a top priority.  Not only that, educators should focus on exploring multiple ways to leverage social connectedness as an element of the learning process.

It’s not an “either-or” proposition: Student Choice in Text Study

It’s not an “either-or” proposition: Student Choice in Text Study

Giving students the right to make choices in their education is not a new idea. In fact, it is one of the foundational ideas of Maria Montessori’s and John Dewey’s systems of education. Over the years research has also confirmed (Goodwin, 2010) that giving students a greater role in directing their own education increases motivation and student learning outcomes.

While in secular education progressive educators have long been moving in the direction of increasing student choice, Jewish education has been slow to adapt.