experiments, instruments & measurement book

Radical Empathy

by Rabbi Lynnda Targan, June 29, 2015

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself (Leviticus 19:18)


The question posed by Dr. David Bryman, the Chief Innovation Officer at The Jewish Education Project for the recent Jewish Futures Conference was, “What would happen if we embraced empathy as the core value of our time?”

It’s a stellar question that has its roots firmly implanted in solid Jewish Tradition. One of the most recognized commandments our Torah teaches is, “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) As teachers, educators and clergy members we are fundamentally committed to loving our students and congregants from the outset. We chose to be Jewish educators because deep in our nishamot we’ve committed to embracing the concept of empathy for others. As we teach, preach, commiserate and celebrate with our communities in times of sorrow and celebration and lift our students out of the miasma of disconnection and into the heart of the Jewish community, we are guided into sacred service through the concept of empathy. But how are we able to sustain this ideal of loving “the other,” of being perennially and perpetually empathetic if we don’t love ourselves first—if we don’t have empathy for our own nishamot?

Rabbi Hillel teaches, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14) So, what does it mean to be for “yourself” first, for each of us to love ourselves, to be empathetic to our personal internal forces that sustain and motivate us into holy action on behalf of others?

We are blessed to have many Jewish insights at our disposal to help us with the moral imperative to love ourselves. First, know that we are created betzelem elohim (Genesis 1:27), in the image of God, and God is gracious and good. How then can we be otherwise? Our mere existence signifies the fulfillment of God’s design for fruitfulness in the world. Rabbi Abraham Twersky writes that because we exist, there is light in the constellation of the cosmos. God wants us to be lit up by the joy of our unique existence and desires that we bring our exceptional light into the world.

For each of us, loving ourselves enough to ignite sparks in the universe becomes a personal journey and a moral imperative that precedes an empathetic response to the other. Whatever the vehicle, be it therapy, silence, meditation, prayer, performance of mitzvot, the development of a midot refinement practice or the cultivation of an inner climate of gratitude, the path to self-love must be nurtured before empathy ensues. “And if not now, when?”




by Susie Tessel, June 18, 2015


Did you really go to that concert if you didn’t take a selfie?

If something isn’t documented by a digital photo did it happen?


Dr. Jeffrey Schein, a beloved Cleveland educator and the retiring Cleveland Shinnui representative, has been exploring the issue of technology and its impact upon us for years.  He has created a myriad of engaging, thought provoking, interactive curricular materials called “Text me!”.  He won a Covenant Grant for his materials – endorsing the quality of construction and efficacy of these provocative materials.  He is now- most generously sharing these many, many strategies and techniques.  They are suitable for all ages, in a variety of forums, with or without parents.

How do we achieve a balance of technology to enhance our lives? How do we identify and acknowledge the benefits and detriments that technology offers us?  How do we converse about the use of technology to our greatest advantage?

Last week, staff members at The Jewish Education Project and Rabbi Schein explored some of his materials in “Text me!” that he has successfully used in a variety of settings for all ages. These interactive materials generate valuable discussion through a variety of engaging vehicles to help us examine our positions on technology. His goal, as is ours, is to assist educators to think about these issue.  Without being dogmatic, Rabbi Schein offers a myriad of engaging techniques to explore our relationships with technology and the unintended consequences on our lives. For example, he culled the internet for a variety of “Awkward pictures posts”.  In pairs, we then had to consider which of these “awkward” photos we would want circulating around the internet about us for time immemorial!!? The conversations were rich, and thought provoking.  I can imagine students of all ages considering, perhaps for the first time, the story their internet pictorial history tells, and what certain pictures say or reflect about them.  In another exercise, they are asked to ask how well they balance their desire to be connected with their desire to connect with both animate and inanimate objects and beings.   They reflect on the statements like following: In the 21st century, “I think therefore I am.” becomes “I share therefore I am.”

Rabbi Schein is a consummate professional who articulately, and passionately presented thoughtful, engaging and interactive experiences for educators to share with learners of all ages.  His mastery of the literature about technology and its effects on us is dazzling.  I was sorry when our time together was over. I was consoled by his generosity in making these materials available on our website. Click here to explore for yourself the materials Rabbi Schein created, as you share his work- albeit virtually!! Thank you Rabbi Schein!!

My Virtual Journey into Online Learning: Week 2

May 15, 2015

“The growing access to knowledge, information, people, and tools that our students are getting demands a shift in how we think about the work they do in school” – Will Richardson – The Steep Unlearning Curve

It’s been fun – and challenging – learning online how to use online technology to look at ways learners can demonstrate what they have learned. Here are a few highlights from Week 2:


Online Buddy

I have “met” about 8 educators who are participating in the course. Each of us has uploaded a photo and a brief description of ourselves.

I chose an online buddy, and, as directed, asked a question about something the buddy posted that interested me. I had seen that she lived in NJ for a while. Being a NJ native, I asked her about that. Turns out we have taught in the same school. A nice, personal connection J.


My take-away from this experience:

When doing an online class, be sure each person has an online buddy.

Always model what you want the learners to do. Our facilitator, Smadar, had asked each of us a question based on what we wrote in our introduction. Then she asked us each to write to someone in the same way.


Creating a Virtual Bulletin Board and a Social Poster

As part of the class, we each put stickies on a virtual bulletin board, indicating our favorite places to travel. Similarly, using a social poster we voted on which type of learning students should be exposed to: Face-to-face; Synchronous; “Collaborative” Asynchronous; or Self-paced Asynchronous. We then explored how to create a virtual bulletin board and a social poster. Part of our assignment this week was to create a bulletin board and/or a social poster. You can see my first attempts at a bulletin board at http://linoit.com/users/erank/canvases/Peer%20Consultancy%20Groups and at a social poster at http://checkthis.com/9iib.


My take-away from this experience:

Again, it is essential to model how to use and how to create a tool.

On a practical level, I learned how to make a bulletin board using linoit.com and how to make a social poster on checkthis.com. I think they will be two very useful tools. I have already shared the information about linoit.com with a congregation as another way of getting teen input.


I’m thrilled with how much I have learned in just two short weeks and am excited to keep learning as I enter Week 3.

If You Really Listen: Yachdav 2015

By Cyd Weissman

This Thursday, April 30th, at our annual Yachdav Gathering, over 130 educators from The Coalition of Innovating Congregations will gather in NYC to listen. What an odd activity for a group known for doing. The Coalition is known for creating new models of Jewish Enrichment, such as learning that happens in homes, and in yoga studios. We’re known for creating Jewish learning that makes bunks, tribes, buddies, and havurote instead of classrooms. We’re known for making madrichim, chiefs, morei derech, and counselors instead of teachers. Our reputation is for designing Whole Person Learning that speaks to knowing, doing, believing/valuing and belong, not just learning for recitation or fun.  We’re not known for sitting. What emerges when makers and shakers sit and listen?

Josh Nelson, performing song and leading text study, will set the kavanah for Yachdav with a passage from Talmud:

“And it shall come to pass, if listening you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 28:8): if you listen, you will continue to listen, but if not, you will not listen.

והיה אם שמוע תשמע וגו’ אם שמוע תשמע ואם לאו לא תשמע

I confess, I have the bad listening habit described in the latter part of the text. Often, way too often, I only hear the first part of someone’s story, or comment. I hear something said, and my mind starts sparking. I get excited. I have a counter thought. Instead of listening to someone’s full comment, I’m ready to respond mid-way through their sharing.

If I have a dollar every time I heard my husband say, “Let me finish.” I’m not fully listening. I’m engaged. But that’s not good enough. listening_skills

Thursday’s listening schedule will include:
1. The Innovation Marketplace – A new space for folks who care about Jewish education to listen to one another.. .to shop around like in any marketplace for good ideas and tools for educational change. It is a place to hear a voice and share your own.

2.  Teen Voices – Funded by The Jim Joseph Foundation, the Jewish Education Project went to Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Denver to listen to 150 Jewish teenagers. These teens ranged from high to low engagement in Jewish life. What did we learn from their stories? What do they value? What can you hear in their struggles? What we hear should make us pause before we design one more program for them.

3. Parent Voices – Thanks to UJA-Federation, we hired ICW Consulting, led by Ilene Wasserman, to conduct focus groups with 100 parents across New York. These parents send their children/often join their children in the new models of Jewish Education. Oh my, what we heard! There is a new story to tell about parents. Their voices we’ll urge us to walk through new doors as educators.

4. New ResearchProf. Steven M. Cohen, has heard a new generation of parents and learners. He no longer is quoting a study that says one-day-a-week religious school harms, not helps Jewish identification. He has powerful new research that will equip us for a new trajectory of education.

Educational leaders will hone their listening skills in sessions about listening when God is present; listening as a community organizer; listening for advocacy; listening as a designer and listening for the whole story. Experts can help us have helpful listening habits.

We’re a busy Coalition. We’re constantly on to the next innovation. What happens if we shift the energy from creating to listening? What gets created in that listening? How different is the creation, once we listen? What will emerge if you really listen?

If You Really Listen to Teens

By Rena Fraade, Director of Religious School at Larchmont Temple

There was post on the NATE/ARJE list serve a few months ago asking if anyone felt they were doing middle school education “right.” I chuckled when I saw that. And groaned when I saw the responses – because they were all sharing things that I’ve been trying to do – working with my staff to connect our 7th graders who are having a million other struggles in life in addition to “ugh I have Hebrew School today!”

We want it to be meaningful, connecting, engaging – all those words. And when we sat and talked with our 7th graders, we actually got some info – not necessarily enough – but definitely enough to make some immediate changes. While we know our kids are opinionated, we have to frame conversations to get them to talk about what we need them to talk about.Larchmont-Temple


I adjusted our 7th grade program this year (I have actually honed it every year for seven years) by bringing our 7th graders in the evening to be with our older kids on Tuesdays (they still come in the afternoon Thursdays). They come from 5:45 – 7:45 which includes an elective, dinner, and a “core” program that overlaps with the 8th graders.

We are using a theme of “Jewish Identity” for the 7th graders, everything relates back to them and their own development of this thing they don’t really understand. The first set of electives were chosen by our teachers, things that help us connect to our Jewish identity, such as cooking, comics, and children’s books. But then we wanted the next options to be based on what they wanted to learn. And we needed to check in with the kids anyway.

Hopes & Dreams:

In November, we had our first Hopes and Dreams meeting during their class time in which the kids, in small groups, talked to me and Rabbi Dena Klein, my Jewish Education Project Consultant. We definitely didn’t have enough time to hear as much as we wanted, but we heard SO much.

Here are some of the key pieces of information:

  • They have a lot going on
  • They listen to music/read books/watch movies and are impacted by the themes they are hearing… but don’t necessarily understand the full scope
  • They find that school takes up a lot of their time and feel like it keeps them from doing what they want to be doing; grades and homework get in the way
  • They want to hang out with friends, listen to music, skateboard, play video games, sleep, be artistic
  • They innately know how they are supposed to act in the world (though they know that they don’t always act that way)
  • The traditions of Judaism matter to them
  • They have mixed connections to their families, though they know family is important

23757_lIn January, we were getting concerned about our post Bar and Bat Mitzvah retention while simultaneously wondering how to keep connecting with our kids in the weeks and months post bar/bat mitzvah. And so we had a follow-up Hopes and Dreams Ice Cream Sundae Schmooze – the Assistant Rabbi and I invited the dozen kids to have a conversation with us. We were joined by six (four of whom had been in attendance at the November conversation).

Here are some of the key pieces of information we heard from them:

  • They want to know why/how the learning they are doing “applies” to their lives
  • They are busy, they want to feel like their time is being used well
  • They aren’t really thinking about a Jewish future right now, they are living in the now
  • They are listening to their parents AND their friends as influencers
  • They want the opportunity to make choices about their time
  • Technology is part of who they are, they find it annoying when they are asked to put the phone away
  • Some of them are very compassionate and want to act on it
  • They are both scared and excited for the future… they love learning but on their terms… they love their friends but want to meet new people… they yearn for the freedom to BE.

The Struggle Continues:

After the first Hopes and Dreams conversation, I wrote up a list of electives that I “heard” them “saying” they wanted, I sent a survey to their parents asking them to, together, pick their top 5. I then gave the kids sign-up sheets from the top 5 of those top 5, to create our three electives for this semester – Cooking, Comedy, and Social Action. I am teaching Social Action and we just came to a huge schism in our class… we had been working on finding ways to send packages to soldiers – Americans, Lone soldiers, and Israeli soldiers. They gave me their lists of what they found. And I said, “Ok how are we going to get these supplies?”

And they said to me, “Wait we’re actually doing this?”ques

What exactly, beyond the scientific knowledge, happens in the brain of a pre-teen? What do they want, what do they need… who matters to them, who impresses upon them? And why would they want to “do Jewish?” The brain of the pubescent was/is/will always be our biggest challenge in their Jewish lives.

Parents as Partners

By Laurie Landes, Education Director at Community Synagogue of Rye

“Why is this the first I am hearing about this?”  As a Director of Education, I cringe when I hear these words from parents. Think the sounds of scratching your nails down a chalkboard kind of cringe.  It’s an indication to me that two of our goals, communication and relationship building with parents, had fallen far short.  Teachers for the most part, just don’t feel comfortable contacting parents.  Often they wait until the breaking point to finally reach out to parents about poor behavior.  Why the wait?  Many teachers don’t like telling parents bad news about their child. Or the teacher feels that they can handle the behavior on their own.  Or teachers feel it is a negative reflection on their classroom management ability. Some cannot cope with the possibility of confrontation. “If you could engage my child he wouldn’t be bored and act out.  How come you are picking on him and not another child?  He hates Hebrew school…”    

About ten years ago our school began the RE-Imagine journey to explore what Jewish learning could look like at Community Synagogue. This was a two-year, guided process that included, parents, professional staff and lay leaders.  We went beyond the typical religious school monthly meetings consisting of event planning and policy changes. It was the first time that parents were included in a visioning process for Jewish learning.  Among the many outcomes of the Re-Imagine experience was the recognition that parents play a crucial role in transmitting Jewish learning and connection to their children.  Moving forward, we needed to value and strengthen our partnership with parents.  We launched a robust family learning program to give parents the tools needed to be Jewish role models for their children.  Participation in the Jewish Education Project’s Coalition of Innovating Congregations initiative guided us to the creation of an educational leadership team that included parents as well as a Community Learning Council that was charged with a year-long exploration of one educational cohort.  Our educational leadership moved to a new model that included and valued the voices of our parents. 10897104_779938005425460_8627248664542844683_n

The change process takes many steps.  While we now recognize parents as crucial partners in Jewish learning, our teachers needed to also value this association and then gain the tools needed to form solid relationships with the parents of their learners.  We embarked on a path of change:

  • In-service training to gain an understanding of how and why strengthening relationships with parents can impact learner outcomes in powerful ways.
  • Regular e-mail correspondence from teachers to parents giving highlights of the learning, prompts parents could use for initiating conversations with their children, resources that parents could use to extend the learning and an invitation to respond in any way.
  • Contact with individual parents to let them know about an act of kindness or an exceptional thought or contribution their child may have made. This is like putting money in the bank and watching the relationship interest grow. 
  • Training to deal with parent contact when there is a problem: “I would like to be able to partner with you to create a plan so that David will be successful..”
  • Teachers take leadership roles during family learning, helping to facilitate family discussions. This is an opportunity for in-person relationships development.

talking-to-kids-467x267We are still in the process of changing the culture of the teacher /parent relationships. Sometimes I feel like Moses when he confronted the “Golden Calf” and other times I see evidence of success.  It takes time, mentoring and monitoring, but the outcome is that if we can partner with our parents, their family Jewish journey will be a richer and more meaningful one.

Practicing What You Preach

By Jennifer Stern, Assistant Director, Congregational School at Park Avenue Synagogue

Experiential education is more than a buzzword. It is an amazing way to teach. At the Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational School, we are constantly looking for ways to make a weekday classroom from 4:00 – 6:00 pm an exciting learning experience, one full of movement rather than textbooks. In line with our mission statement, we do Jewish learning.

So, when it came to creating our professional learning sessions for our teachers, we decided to also align these sessions with our Congregational School’s mission. While sessions in the past were interesting, they often involved a frontal presentation. As part of our Reframe project through The Jewish Theological Seminary, we decided to rethink how we delivered these sessions. We wanted to create experiential professional learning for our teachers, in line with the Jewish learning experiences that were happening in our classrooms.10479736_362655890572202_8166552869148709356_n

Earlier this year, we had our first Teacher Retreat. For four and half hours on Super Bowl Sunday, 40 part-time teachers gathered together for an afternoon of experiential learning. With welcoming remarks and Torah study from Rabbi Cosgrove to start our day, we then had a yoga session… yes yoga! We brought in a wonderful yoga teacher who led us in a 45-minute yoga practice. After our yoga session, we had a Q&A session with the yoga teacher to debrief and reflect on the experience.

You may be wondering, what does this have to do with Jewish education and Hebrew School? And my answer would be — EVERYTHING! From thinking about how to create a community of learners, to dealing with individual learners while also addressing the needs of the group, so much can be applied from a yoga session to a Jewish learning environment. The debrief was especially impactful because our teachers articulated connections between the yoga experience and Jewish education for themselves. While we could have just told our teachers about these connections, part of experiential education is reflection.

The next element of our time together took place in the main sanctuary at PAS. We experienced prayer in different ways, movements and positions — from the traditional way of sitting in pews to laying down on the floor and looking up at the stain glass dome in the ceiling. This experience emphasized the importance of space by actually changing locations and positions.

Having an experiential education retreat for our already great teachers helped us create a team of experiential educators. If experiential education is not the mission of your institution, decide what aligns with your goals and the kind of program you are running or building or creating, and train your team accordingly. Bottom line: practice what you preach!

Make a Difference! Who will be Today’s Midwives?


By Susie Tessel

Everyone wants to make a difference!
But how?
But when?
What simple acts of kindness and compassion can we do?

A powerful story about someone who makes a difference took place in the dark days of the Holocaust – in the Netherlands, which was Nazi-occupied, on a Sunday morning, in a Calvinist Church. An unknown man suddenly appeared, riding up on his bicycle. He entered the church. He quickly but quietly ascended the stairs of the pulpit and read aloud the story of the midwives who had defied Pharaoh’s evil decrees and bravely saved the Hebrew male babies.

He paused, looked around the church, and asked,  “Who is today’s Pharaoh?” The congregation answered in unison,
“Who are today’s Hebrew babies?”
“The Jews.”
“Who will be today’s midwives?”

Without waiting for a response, the unidentified man pedaled away, presumably to pose that challenge to others. Between the war years, 1941-1945, seven families from this little church alone hid Jews and other resisters from the Nazis.

Both the Biblical midwives and the unknown bicyclist, serve as inspirational stories which embolden us to find a path to make a difference. It urges us to ask ourselves: “How can I make a difference today?” Obviously, it takes an extraordinary person  – who is both courageous and clear-sighted  – to willfully disobey an evil decree of Pharaoh or of the evil Nazi empire. Most people are not able to be that fearless. But that doesn’t mean we should abnegate our responsibility to our values, to our people, and to our religion.

So, Open your eyes  – and think hard.
Who will be today’s midwives?

Every person will come up with a different answer.  But know that every act you do can make a difference to someone as we continue in our roles as God’s helpers.

My In-SITE-ful Journey to Temple Israel Center’s Shorashim Model of Learning


By Suri Jacknis

This past Sunday, I was lucky enough to take advantage of an In-SITE-ful Journey to Temple Israel Center in White Plains where Nancy Parkes is the educational director. This visit was organized Susan Ticker, educational consultant as part of her work with Congregational Learning and the Coalition of Innovating Congregations at The Jewish Education Project.  We came to visit Shorashim, TIC’s innovative model for learners and their families in K-6.

Our visit to Shorashim took place on an ordinary Sunday, when learning was in full swing, but there was no special family learning program or large whole school event (which are frequent).  So it was just an ordinary day that turned out to be extraordinary in so many ways – an extraordinary day of powerful learning that happens each and every week.  How lucky I feel to have been a part of it for this one ordinary day.

nancy couch

What Stood Out for Me?

The atmosphere of intentionality and team.  It is clear that the learning is designed with thought and care, the staff is well-prepared and the environment is set to support the learning that unfolds.  Every educator had multiple colleagues to maximize the support for learning in every space. Each grade featured the presence of a caring lead educator, a co-educator or assistant teacher as well as three mature madrichim (teen leaders) who were invested and empowered to lead. There was a clear plan on the wall of every learning space that signaled what was to be expected.  In one classroom I saw that the wall highlighted the ‘big idea’ for the learning of the day and displayed a student -generated web of concepts related to Pesach that was probably a diagnostic tool to assess what the students knew, what could be built on, and what would be the next steps.  In addition, it was obvious that the learners were used to working in teams, to sharing responsibility, to giving everyone a role, and to listening to each other.

We saw the director as a teacher-facilitator sharing a classroom with a co-teacher who is a community educator, and with three madrichim just as the other educators were part of a teaching team.  The director models the way of being a part of her educational team by putting herself in the middle of the action as an active facilitator and partner on the learning team.IMG_1529

The staffing structure supports Jewish Learning and  in an Extraordinary way.  Community Educators make an extraordinary impact on education at TIC.  Young, dynamic, camp-counselor-type community educators are effective role models and educational leaders that build relationships and are truly present for the learners both during the formal learning times, and also on Shabbat and holidays, as well as at lifecycle and community events.  They are part of the community and live Judaism as part of the daily lives of the families at TIC.  They meet regularly as a team to plan learning that integrates with the whole of the Jewish journey and bring a level of creativity and positive energy to the community that cannot be underestimated.  Nancy explained that moving from having part-time teachers to full-time community educators was a “budget neutral move” that has created a new reality and sense of possibility that is truly amazing.

There was an overwhelming presence of authentic materials of Jewish life and the invitation to explore and discover. The materials and supplies to enhance learning were evident in every space.  The curricular materials, the ritual objects and, the art materials were in evidence everywhere.  Most were authentic Jewish materials –as we were in the pre-Pesach period, there were Seder plates, Seder table items, photos of the 12 steps, Pesach foods and actual parsley, horseradish roots, etc…  There were Humashim to find the story and Haggadot.  There was activity and discovery at every turn.  And there was conversation, and yes, it was not quiet but it was purposeful and it was clear that learners were engaged, that their questions and interpretations were honored and encouraged.  And that the center of learning was most clearly the learner.

The learning was largely experiential and featured opportunities to work in small groups, in pairs as well as in larger groupings or teams. Various groups of learners learned Torah in the Beit Midrash in small groups.  On this day, learning conversations centered on appreciating the importance of numbers in the Jewish tradition as a whole as well as in the Pesach story.  On other days, there is the experience of learning text in pairs or in small groups as our people have done for centuries as Hevruta learning.IMG_1498

We saw learners engaged in a Parasha scavenger hunt in teams and we saw learners have a chance to be up close and personal with a Torah Scroll in the sanctuary, guided by their teacher to appreciate the holiness of Torah. We saw kids who had just finished a unit on Shabbat that culminated in learning all about and making Challah— compare this Challah to Matzah and find as many similarities and differences that they could.  We saw younger students engaged in learning the steps of the Seder by actually “doing the steps” and being photographed doing each step.

We noticed the flexible groupings of learners and noted that the typical ratio for learning was one facilitator for every 5-6 kids.  We saw a lot of learning stations and coaching by facilitators in support of the learning.  We also saw that there were learning materials that were well matched to the learning goals of each learning experience and that the learning experiences were all tied to the larger outcomes and big ideas that were posted on the walls.

There was a big emphasis on community and on spirituality in a Jewish context. The day began with a communal meeting for tefillah.  We were warmly greeted upon entering a prayer space, whose walls were covered with Mishkan fabrics that had been designed by the learners.  We sat in a circle to face each other and be part of the community.  On our chairs were bracha stones that the kids had made to give them kavana. They had words, colors and images which helped the kids get ready to pray… and they were around to touch and hold onto to ground our prayers with meaning and stability.  There was a lot of spirited singing, punctuated by prayers with motions and sign language.  The team of prayer facilitators were the educational director, the full-time community educators, the teachers and the teen madrichm who sat scattered as role models and guides throughout the kahal.  We had a Siddur to follow, but we also had an ashrei prayer supplement that showed a colorful picture/icon under words which were easily visualized.  Davening the Ashrei from this visual tefillah allows the person praying to experience the words in new ways— no translation needed.  The facilitator would offer occasional preview cues to create a framework of meaning for the coming prayer.  There were moments of quiet for individual prayer and many moments of clapping and singing and moving.  It was a prayerful start to our day.

It is obvious that spirituality and developing a relationship with God and prayer are part of this culture.  We could see that by entering a classroom to see a small group of young learners clustered around a computer with the teacher at the keyboard typing learner responses to conversation starters about a time when they prayed and when they felt close to God.

The atmosphere was one of a purposeful and welcoming community. We learned from the director that a big theme of this year is welcoming and inclusion and that many learners with special needs are part of the community.  We were introduced to the learning specialist who seemed so lovely, beloved and integrated into every part of the learning tapestry.  We heard from Nancy Parkes about her building community by using the techniques from The Responsive Classroom, especially the welcoming circle where children learn to listen and tend to each other, to make eye contact, to ask appropriate follow-up questions, and to value and appreciate each other.

The physical environment was inviting and beautiful and supported the learning. We appreciated that the walls of the entire educational space (and this space was the best part of the three floors of the building) were “an educational tableau.”  Nancy explained that the educational council had moved from prohibiting the hanging of things on walls to inviting the beautification of the walls as a rich opportunity to display deep learning and reflection.  Indeed the walls are adorned with magnificent and well placed works of art that are culminating projects, learning benchmarks, and educational resources that are so engaging that they invite further learning and exploration and engender pride in this learning community.IMG_1516

The Day of Learning is bookended by set-induction/connection and reflection. Nancy mentioned to us that the practice of welcoming and beginning learning with a connection and a trigger that sets the learners up for a productive day of learning has become part of the way that all meetings in the synagogue community open.  Similarly, the day of learning closes with multiple opportunities for reflection and processing the learning that happened that day.  I witnessed reflection happening in small groups where the learners drew and wrote a comment about what stood out to them from that day and what they want to think more about.  Learners wrote and drew with crayon on construction paper and the facilitator carefully collected and treasured each reflection.  You could tell that the learners were used to meeting this challenge each time they met.  Everyone sat quietly and wrote and drew something that was meaningful to them.  The teaching team reviews these reflections and builds some mention of them into the next learning session.

I feel lucky to have visited Temple Israel Center’s Shorashim on an ordinary day.  I will treasure my own powerful learning experience as an extraordinary opportunity to see learning that makes a positive difference in learner’s lives in a very Jewish context of everyday life.  Thanks to Nancy Parkes, to Lisa Schwartz, to Michelle Steinhardt, to Amy Rosenbaum, Ilene Bloom Cohen, and Alex Schostak and to the entire staff at Temple Israel Center for their warm hospitality and amazing work!

Jewish Educators: Dust or Angels?


By Cyd Weissman

Educator – who are YOU? Are you just below the angels and (if we could get it right) could you grow the next generation of Jews? Or are you poorly-trained-trapped-in-a-box-folks who are as helpful in growing the next generation of Jews as the dust in your pocket?

The answer depends on who is standing on the soap box.

Beth Cousens’ piece, “Can We Disrupt Religious School” in yesterday’s ejewishphilanthropy seemed to describe Jewish educators as both – a bit above the dust of Philip Roth’s basement and just below the angels, single-handedly able to make seven-year-olds understand the depth and meaning of Judaism.

Points I feel we need to consider:

1. There is no Jewish educational experience that can counter familial and societal norms. Let’s humbly recognize that family values, practices and expectations, not educators, are the prime operating system for the Jewish development of 6-12 year olds. When families check-out and drop-off, there is no Holy Grail of education to counter the family.

2. Religion itself is having a challenging time in 2015 in the USA – ala Pew and the rise of the nons. America at large is not having a religious field day. By overwhelming numbers Jews are still proud, but their knowledge and participation is far less. Again, how could Jewish education counter predominate societal norms?

3. Synagogues, Federations and much of the existing organizational Jewish landscape is still standing for Torah, avodah and gemiliut chasadim, but parents are simply asking: How do I raise a whole child in a seemly broken world?

Jewish education is one component of the larger ecosystem that grows a child. The truth about families, societal norms and reshaping religious ideas that speak to people’s real lives is complicated. It is not as easy as pointing the finger at Hebrew school (the whipping boy of Jewish life).

At our best, using wisdom, rhythm and the comradeship of Jewish life, Jewish Educators are able to connect the questions Jews have when they wake in the morning and when they go to bed at night. When we are at our best, we make possible, each person’s birthright for children and adults to discover their unique path and responsibility of making our challenging world better.

Next month, I’ll have the results of interviews with 100 parents whose children participate in bolder new models of Jewish education emerging across the country. In these interviews, we hear parents who talk Torah with their children, change their hectic schedules to meet Shabbat, and act out Jewish teachings in their lives. I’m glad to add this new body of research to the narrative.

It is not helpful to say in the same breath that Jewish education can make all the difference and makes little difference. Let’s instead talk about addressing the complicated landscape that makes the difference in a child’s life.

Jewish educators are neither dust nor angels. At our best, we are… well what would you say from your soap box?

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