To Bore No More: Educators Share Their Best Ideas

By Erin McKigney

Published August 07, 2007, issue of August 10, 2007.
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Across the country, individual communities have developed initiatives aimed at improving Jewish congregational schools. Now, a new organization, the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education, is bringing together educators to help those communities share their most successful efforts.

Rabbi Nathan Laufer, founding director of Pelie, said, “We are in business because there are hundreds of thousands of people who are receiving [Jewish] education in [congregational schools], and most of it is not effective and not innovative.”

Last month, Pelie held a two-day conference in Philadelphia, in conjunction with the Jewish Education Service of North America. At that meeting, 12 representatives from the Association of Directors of Central Agencies, an organization that deals with Jewish education, came from locations stretching from New York to Los Angeles to learn about Nurturing Excellence in Secondary Schools, a program that has proved successful in Philadelphia. The agencies were there to understand what the initiative entails and to potentially adopt this program to help reinvent and transform their synagogue schools.

NESS was created after Sharon Ravitch, then a consultant at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, headed up research around Philadelphia in 2002 that reflected how high-school students’ dropout rates from congregational schools correlate directly with students’ Hebrew school experiences prior to bar or bat mitzvah. With this research in mind, a pilot program was created in 2003 to overhaul six of the city’s Hebrew schools.

At last month’s conference, NESS consultants who have been involved with the pilot program shared insights and personal experiences around the initiative. NESS offers on-site intervention and custom-designs plans to fit the needs of each individual synagogue. Its broader goals include professional development for teachers; leadership development for educational directors and training in organizational development strategies for synagogue and school lay leaders.

Throughout the program, parents have learned how to be co-educators, education professionals have undergone a leadership seminar focusing on effective teaching strategies and a team has been formed to create a shared vision for each school.

“We try to look at the synagogue as a system with interlocking leverage points,” said Helene Tigay, executive director of ACAJE. “We’re dealing with all the aspects at the same time, and that is very tricky, but unique, challenging and exciting. That is probably why it is working.”

A report was drafted in July 2006 evaluating the goals of the program, noting successes, major findings and future recommendations. Points included were the initiative’s positive impact on the synagogue school, making it an important central component to the congregation, as well as a heightening children’s interest in Jewish education and offering effective professional development for teachers.

“I had heard all kinds of anecdotes about incredible transformational changes, but I lost a few fingernails in the process,” Tigay said. “You are always nervous before you hear that everybody everywhere is feeling that this has been a major success.”

When the visiting educators had a full understanding of what NESS entails, by the conference’s end, they had the opportunity to apply for a Pelie grant that will permit one new community to launch the NESS initiative next January.

“I was thrilled, because now we have hope for congregational schools,” Tigay said. “They really can be transformed and really can be good. Wow, that’s the first time anybody has ever said that.”

In addition to helping to expand NESS, Pelie — founded less than a year ago — is also hoping to work in conjunction with the Kesher program, located in Cambridge and Newton Centre, Mass., to spread another successful initiative.

Newton Centre branch director Lauren Applebaum said that at Kesher, one won’t find teachers lecturing, or piles of textbooks and notebooks. Kesher focuses on a four-year cycle in the primary education program, exploring Torah, history, Jewish values and life-cycle events through cooking, art, drama and debate.

“The idea was a desire to create a Jewish learning community that was going to be as warm and rich as camp might be — to have that kind of haimish or joyful feeling during the school year,” Applebaum said.

Kesher — founded in Cambridge in 1992 and followed by the Newton Centre branch in 2003 — generates an atmosphere where modern Hebrew is spoken and is an important part of the learning community, Applebaum said. An environment is created where family and teachers come together; Kesher also combines elements of after-school care, in the sense that kids can have snacks, do homework and play games in their Jewish community.

“We think that part of our mission is creating terrific Jewish educators,” Applebaum said. “We invest a lot in our teachers, and so the teachers become a learning community just like the kids do, and that’s very real, and that is one of the things I’m proud of about Kesher.”

With funding from Pelie, two schools in New York City hope to adopt Kesher’s model, anticipating a September 2008 opening, with ongoing consultation from the Massachusetts communities.

“We are really thoughtful about our teaching, and we want to be really thoughtful about our replicating,” Applebaum said. “We hope partnering with Pelie gives us that chance.” Laufer is hopeful that with smart funding decisions and sharing of expertise across communities, children can get a better Jewish education.

“I think there is a great opportunity here. It is like a pivot point to reach the next generation of young American Jews and to get them excited about what is beautiful, meaningful and joyful in Judaism,” he said. “Until now, Jewish education has not done justice to the Jewish people, to their very rich and meaningful tradition that Judaism is.”

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