Congregational Schools Seek New Vision

By Shoshana Olidort

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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Congregational Hebrew schools aren’t easy to love. Students are expected to give up their Sunday mornings and weekday afternoons — and, often, soccer practice, ballet rehearsal or any number of after-school activities — to memorize ancient history, learn basic Hebrew and study their prayers. Is it any wonder that, according to some, less than 50% of students in congregational schools continue their studies after their bar or bat mitzvahs?

Jewish Education Services of North America — an organization that operates as a resource for educators and institutions by recruiting teachers, identifying and creating ideal models of educational practice, and assisting in the improvement of existing programs — has launched a new initiative to change how people think about Hebrew school. The Coaches Training Institute, a collaborative project organized by Jesna with the Association of Directors of Central Agencies, Experiment in Congregational Education, and the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, will be inaugurated at a four-day retreat next month, aimed at instituting systemic change in congregational schools nationwide.

“The largest percentage of children receiving formal religious education go to a congregational school, so it behooves the community to be concerned about this,” said Steven Kraus, Jesna’s director of day school, congregational and communal education initiatives, and director of the Coaches Training Institute.

There are about 1,500 to 1,600 congregational schools in America, and according to Kraus, the issues facing them generally stem from lack of a clear, consistent and unified vision on the part of synagogue and community leadership, school faculty and parents. The various key players will have to work together, he said, to prioritize and outline a set of feasible goals.

Sixty-two people — central agency representatives and education directors from the three religious movements — from across the United States will participate at next month’s retreat, starting September 11 at the Garrett Creek Ranch in Paradise, Texas; the retreat will include peer-teaching sessions and workshops led by individuals who have experience in school transformation projects, and with expertise in relevant fields such as school assessments, teacher recruitment and retention, and curriculum design. The sessions will focus on a range of subjects, from financial concerns to helpful coaching techniques and promising new programs in congregational schooling.

The overarching principle of the institute, Kraus said, is to facilitate discussion “across institutional, denominational, geographic lines,” to enable people working in congregational education to “find the right opportunities and ways to communicate with each other to help each other deal with their challenges and to help share information about their successes.”

One of the institute’s organizers, the Chicago-based Experiment in Congregational Education, works with synagogues across the country to change their educational programs, beginning with an assessment of the school and extending to a comprehensive process that includes core discussions about curriculum and alternative models of teaching. Change “cannot be achieved in a piecemeal fashion,” said Robert Weinberg, director of ECE, but it “must be based in overarching change in educational culture.” This will require that educators, religious leaders and parents go through a process of serious self-examination. It will be a major objective of the institute’s retreat.

“Our aim is to make people understand what their goals are” and to examine the “relationship between what they do and [what] they are trying to achieve,” said Jonathan Woocher, CEO of Jesna. “I think this is the first time in history we have virtually all of the key people working together, all on the same page, same place, at the same time.”

Although there are definitely pockets of high-quality congregational education, Kraus said, much of it happens in isolation, and the lack of connection between Hebrew schools has made it difficult for others to access information that could be helpful.

One local school-transformation project currently under way is the Philadelphia-based program Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools, overseen by Helene Tigay, executive director of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education. Now in its third year, NESS is working with six local congregational schools — using teacher training, monthly meetings between lay and professional synagogue leadership, and curriculum development — to improve children’s attitudes toward congregational schooling, and increase the chances that children will stay on past their bar/bat mitzvahs. Tigay will attend the September retreat, where she expects to share with others her experiences and knowledge of change in congregational schooling.

According to Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of education for The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the institute “bodes very well for a future of closer cooperation between various bureaus of Jewish education and the religious movements.”

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