The educational arms of the Reform and Conservative movements are cooperating in an unprecedented way on a new project. Reform’s Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion and Conservative’s Jewish Theological Seminary both have agreed to provide faculty and funds for the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Principals.
“This is a historic moment for both schools of education,” said Evie Levy Rotstein, director of the joint project.
The Leadership Institute is designed as a two-year certificate program in which about 40 principals from metropolitan New York who run congregational schools from different denominations — Reform and Conservative, as well as Reconstructionist and Orthodox — will be selected to learn leadership and other necessary skills to help transform their synagogue schools into exciting places of Jewish learning.
The transdenominational project comes as extensive research about the lack of effectiveness of synagogue schools demonstrates a crucial need for new ideas and programs. Problems include a national shortage of Jewish educational leadership, and failed recruitment efforts to attract new Jewish educators.
Four years ago, members of the UJA-Federation New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal approached the educational arms of the Reform and Conservative movements for help. They wanted to analyze the complex problems and try to come up with solutions to improve what were once known as Hebrew schools — the butt of jokes as places where Jewish kids mark time until their bar or bat mitzvahs before disappearing from Jewish life completely.
“Nearly half of every class that enters religious school will be lost to us,” said Rabbi Deborah Joselow, managing director of the commission. Joselow and her fellow members wanted to know “how they could change those kinds of statistics and make religious school a platform for building excitement and commitment.”
Studying the situation for years, with the help of a $1.8 million UJA grant, the commission came up with the Leadership Institute as a way to solve one of the most pressing problems for congregational schools: recruitment and training of principals.
“This situation is perpetuated because school leaders themselves are under-trained and have few professional development opportunities available to them,” Joselow said. “In a system where turnover and lack of success are common, newly appointed educational leaders continue to require expert guidance and assistance.”
The new Leadership Institute involves two intense 10-day summer training sessions, year-round independent study courses, mentoring and a six-day seminar in Israel, which will place education about Israel at the heart of the curriculum.
The program will focus on three main areas: leadership, pedagogy and Judaica. The leadership curriculum will introduce participants to current research on educational leadership and touch on such issues as school management, culture of the school and congregation, and lay-professional relationships. The Judaica curriculum will help principals communicate Jewish values, skills and practices in their schools by focusing on texts, theology, ideology, role modeling and personal religious growth. The pedagogy curriculum will strengthen the identity and effectiveness of congregational school principals as mentors by introducing current research on learning and practicing
critical supervisory and pedagogical skills.
Eight one- or two-day symposia will be held during the two-year program, focusing on such topics as educational research, business and financial management, curriculum and instruction, family and group dynamics, organizational management, lay-professional relationships and grant writing.
Participants also will be asked to create an individualized education plan with their mentors, in which they will define their goals for professional development and further Jewish learning.
The project’s goal is to raise the standards of Jewish religious schools by teaching principals leadership skills and allowing them to expand their resources and contacts to help them improve their ability to educate both students and parents in their congregations, Rotstein explained. The organizers hope to raise the status of congregational principals, to recognize them as leaders along with rabbis, cantors and synagogue presidents.
“We want to increase awareness that principals are true leaders in the Jewish community,” Rotstein said. “This is not just about learning more Judaica or new theories of educational philosophies: it’s about what it means to be a leader in the Jewish community.”
The institute is currently reviewing applications, and the first class begins this summer. In order to participate, principals must get approvals to join the program from the rabbi and lay leaders to make sure they are on board with the concept.
“The whole concept is to build leadership capacity for principals so they will be seen by congregations as a valid partner of the leadership, along with the clergy and lay leaders,” explained Jo Kay, director of HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education, who will be jointly administering the project with Dr. Steven M. Brown, dean of JTS’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and director of its Melton Research Center for Jewish Education.
Noting that 70% of students receiving Jewish schooling are attending congregational schools — as opposed to day schools — Brown said the investment by UJA-Federation is a statement that “synagogue schools are important and they can be places of excellence.”
While the Reform and Conservative institutions will cooperate in the program, there remain some sharp theological differences between the two movements. For instance, Conservative theology, ritual and practice is determined by adherence to Jewish law, or Halacha, while Reform theology has greater flexibility — it is guided by Jewish tradition but not bound by it.
But none of the organizers expressed concern about principals learning side-by-side, and none expected any problems.
“We have talked about how to handle the different movement ideologies,” Kay said, regarding issues such as prayer and Bible studies. “We acknowledged early on that there will be times when we break down into smaller groups, by denomination.”
Brown said: “There are times they will be learning together and times participants will break up into movements. A lot of stuff crosses boundaries, and some it is separate.”
Most importantly, Rotstein said: “When it comes to educational issues, there are no issues. With leadership issues, there are no issues. We will all be in the same place.”
Such cooperation across denominational lines marks an important moment for those involved in the institute.
“This is a watershed moment in Jewish education,” Joselow said. “For two institutions as complicated and venerable as they are to set aside their own institutional commitments and pool their talent and energies to do what’s best for the Jewish people is nothing short of miraculous.”