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Traveling Teachers Save Schools Across the South

A dozen students will be confirmed next spring at B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Pensacola, Fla. While the occasion is cause for celebration, it is also cause for concern: When those students are confirmed, B’nai Israel’s Sunday school will lose nearly half its students, and the congregation will no longer be able to pay its one salaried educator.

B’nai Israel is not alone, as the synagogue’s school-board chairwoman, Melissa Sontag — a volunteer — discovered earlier this summer at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s annual education conference, in Choctaw, Miss. “It was eye-opening,” Sontag told the Forward. “Most of the small Southern communities share our problems.”

The ISJL is addressing the problems faced by the South’s shrinking congregational schools by crafting a core curriculum that the schools can share and by sending professional educators to assist as part of its teaching-fellowship program. Temple Beth El, Pensacola’s Reform congregation, was already part of the ISJL program. Sontag decided that it was time for B’nai Israel to join as well.

The program started in 2003, with 10 schools in four states participating. This fall, 35 schools in 12 states will take part, including B’nai Israel. That’s impressive growth for a program that, according to Macy Hart, the ISJL’s president, is still in its pilot stages.

The schools span the spectrum of religious observance, so ISJL’s “spiraling curriculum” tries to establish basic facts of Jewish history that all denominations can agree on. A typical third-grade lesson, for instance, might include the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt — which, students are taught, is commemorated on Passover. High-school students review the main lessons of Jewish history and religion, but also learn about Jewish culture by studying cooking, music and Israeli politics.

“The curriculum is very easy to use,” said Terri Finkelstein, the Sunday-school director at Temple Beth Or, in Montgomery, Ala. Finkelstein has adapted the material somewhat; the curriculum includes lessons for grades 1 through 10, but she explained that low enrollment at Beth Or means that “a lot of the time we have to combine grades.”

The program’s teaching fellows help implement the curriculum and adapt it as needed. Akin to participants in a mobile, Jewish version of Teach for America, ISJL fellows are recent college graduates who sign up for two-year stints to assist congregational schools in the South. They travel to participating congregations, making an average of two weekend visits per month, in addition to organizing the annual educators’ conference. Fellows are paid between $23,000 and $25,000 a year, plus travel expenses, and receive medical coverage. The money comes from private donors and organizational grants.

Hart, who envisions eventually having 18 fellows, said that the program’s growth is dependent on these donations. “If an angel comes along and gives us the money, then we’ll have 18,” he said.

Greg Weisman, a 2005 graduate of Boston University and one of four current fellows, said the community visits are “not just about showing up. We try to bring something to the community that they don’t already have.”

“Greg [Weisman] is really good at getting us enthused about teaching,” said Betty Rosen, a teacher at the Etz Chaim synagogue, in Bentonville, Ark., where Weisman visits. Weisman organized an ice-cream Havdalah service there, followed by a trip to the ice-skating rink. It was a first, both for Weisman and for the Etz Chaim participants.

“We did something fun,” Rosen said. “We just added a Jewish twist to it.”

For Amy Steinberg, a recently hired fellow from the University of Missouri, responsibilities might entail leading a Friday-night “learner’s service,” or critiquing a teacher’s use of the curriculum. It might seem that recent college graduates lecturing more experienced volunteer teachers would lead to uncomfortable situations. But many participants said that, on the contrary, teachers value the pointers.

Former fellow Amanda Abrams, who is now in graduate school in California, recalled leading a congregation’s first children’s Sabbath service during her stint, and holding a roundtable discussion for adults about being Jewish in the Bible Belt.

Current and former fellows have raved about the program. Russel Neiss, a graduate of the CUNY Honors College, in Queens, who is in his second year of the fellowship program, said that he had planned on applying to doctoral programs after college but had changed his mind. “I wanted experience,” Neiss said. “I wanted to broaden my horizons.” To that end, Neiss applied for positions with Teach for America, the Jewish Service Corps, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the ISJL Fellows program.

He ended up with the ISJL. With one more year to go, he remains passionate about the busy lifestyle the program demands, the multi-tasking skills it requires and the exposure to a different side of American Jewish life it entails.

“One day I’m working on the Jewish curriculum, another day we’re working with teachers directly in the community and the next we’re writing up copyrights [for the ISJL’s published materials],” Neiss said.

What about those graduate-school applications? “They’re still sitting on my desk,” Neiss said.

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