experiments, instruments & measurement book

A Day in the Life of the Coalition

A Day in the Life of the Coalition
Posted by Ben Alpert in Express Innovation, Lomed

By Cyd Weissman


Last week, we did a “reporters round up” with consultants from The Jewish Education Project who support New York Congregations in creating new models of Jewish education. Each consultant shared a headline from one congregation in the Coalition of Innovating Congregations. 

Ansche Chesed: A small group of teacher leaders met to identify worthy outcomes for learners. These teacher leaders have learned to use “whole person” assessment with their students. Now they are prepping to help other teachers on staff use assessment tools. Worth noting: the Director is out on maternity leave.  Rabbi Dena Klein, consultant, reporting: teacher leadership essential to changing teaching and learning.

Temple Emanu-El of NYC: Innovation planning. A focused team includes the Director of Education and lay leaders ask: “Because we’ve had great success with our new model Tribes for 3-6th graders, what’s next?” Imagination Kickstart. They begin to shape a brand new model for 6th graders strengthening relationships that are pivotal in the pre-bnei mitzvah years. Lay leader says “How lucky am I that my children go here where innovation is a value that is implemented.” Jo Kay, consultant, reporting: bold new models birth bolder innovations.
Congregation Tiferet Israel: Turn curriculum on its head. No longer is learning focused on covering subjects. Instead CTI is committed to learning that comes from meaningful conversation and story. Professional and lay leaders research and write the conversations that could have happened between Anne Frank and Martin Luther King. Parents and students will be in conversation with these stories next week.  Ellen Rank, consultant, reporting: new ways of learning aren’t isolated programs, they infuse all learning.
Anne Frank
Temple Beth Sholom of Roslyn: Prepping for Machenee Mania when 9 Jewish overnight camp partners will offer “tastes” of camp life for families. Camp connections are normal at TBS, like all the times Eden Village has come to TBS to offer learning for children. After the Mania day  Congregational and Camp leaders will lunch to discuss: “What have we learned from our partnership ? What can we do differently next year?” Suri Jacknis, consultant reporting: a 12 year curriculum is possible through partnership.

Community Synagogue of Rye: Juggling multiple innovations (camp like learning; Shabbat family experience, home learning, Skype Hebrew, Hebrew through movement..the list goes on) has said “The SKY IS THE LIMIT.” A team reviews the data: This is what we learned from all of our innovations. This is what we are learning from experiments around the country? Next year: a whole new redo. “We’ll launch again.”  Hilary Schumer, Coalition Educator reporting: innovation happens in a learning spiral-try, learn, try and do it all over again.

Temple Beth Abraham: leadership sat with the Torah portion Beshalach to uncover how the Israelites managed challenges. “Where will we get our pillars of fire?” they asked. Lay leaders are committed to continued innovation even in their transition when their beloved long term educator completes her tenure at year’s end. Tamara Gropper, consultant, reporting: to lift the spirit and to direct the hand when leading change, turn to Torah.

Congregation Kol Ami: Professional Learning Team meet to imagine how to reshape prayer for their new model. They used Keith Sawyers exercise found on p 37 in the Zig Zag book on creativity to come up with 600 different ways to alter how prayer can be experienced by 7th graders. Next senior staff will do the zig zag. Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith, consultant, reporting: to lift the spirit and to direct the hand when leading change, a little fun and creativity goes a long way.  

And that’s the way it is!

URJ Biennial Raises Up The Jewish Education Project

URJ Biennial Raises Up The Jewish Education Project
Posted by Ben Alpert in KDBB, Lomed, Uncategorized


By Rabbi Jennifer GoldsmithCommunal Education Consultant, Westchester

This is my third URJ Biennial, the Reform movement’s national conference, but it is the first time I left feeling so proud of the work I do.

The Jewish Education Project’s Congregational Learning Department got great press at the URJ Biennial in San Diego last week. Our work was raised up in many sessions including a lengthy description by Dr. Rob Weinberg on our partnership with the Experiment in Congregational Education over the last handful of years. This included not only slides with our logos, an in-depth description of whole person learning with a great picture of Levi, but also a viewing of the latest video which shares a letter write by Carly a student at Community Synagogue of Rye. Mindy Davids RJE, Director of Religious School and Educational Innovation at Temple Shaaray Tefila, one of our grant recipients, also sat on a panel of educators with innovative models. She discussed her MASA program talking not only about the structure of the program, but the change process her synagogue went through to get there.

Dr. Robert Weinberg at URJ Biennial

Dr. Robert Weinberg at URJ Biennial


In addition to the formal opportunities to hear about our work, I had a chance to catch up with many of our grantees. Including a big hug from Rabbi Mara Young at Woodlands Community Temple where she announced “I love peer consulting!” Peer consulting groups, new for many members of the Coalition of Innovating Congregations this year has grouped synagogue educators from across New York. Groups come together either in person or via phone every couple months to share dilemmas and engage in a rich conversation aimed to offer suggestions and new ideas to the presenter. I was also able to speak with at least 50 people from all parts of the country during my time, sharing with them the work we do. Everyone was captivated with the way we are helping innovation and change happen in our synagogues. People were especially intrigued by the idea that we have a large number of tried and true models and that one focus we have is helping synagogues become excellent adaptors. I even had three different people, one from CA, one from NJ and one from CT ask if they could hire us to do consulting work. I said with a smile… “maybe in our next grant cycle!”

In President of the URJ Rabbi Rick Jacob’s address to the biennial he spoke of “audacious hospitality,” a theme that was carried out and revisited throughout my time in San Diego. Audacious hospitality is the idea of welcoming, being in relationship, sharing, partnering, all values that we work hard to help our congregations realize. From the grant initiatives to the innovative models, from the values we embody to the feeling of camaraderie I was proud to see that so much of the work we do has been embraced by my movement. 

Thoughts from an Educator: Nancy Parkes

Posted by Ben Alpert in Lomed

By Nancy Parkes, Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York


The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference was held from October 13-15.  Over 1,100 people attended and participated in workshops and lectures focused on the “challenges and opportunities we encounter as we reimagine our sacred communities for a changing Jewish world.”  I was honored to speak on a panel with David Bryfman and Jonathan Woocher, two renowned leaders in Jewish Education, about the process of change in Jewish education in the congregational setting. The following are my comments:

The first thing I want to say is that many of my colleagues are making incredible changes in the education taking place in their synagogues settings.  I have and continue to learn from them each and every day.

I was asked to speak today about the process of change, not necessarily the specific changes that have taken place at Temple Israel Center, because those changes are specific to our community.  However, if we have time and there is interest, I am happy to share what learning used to look like and what it looks like today.

So, let’s talk about change.  After all, everyone’s talking about it.  As scary as change can be, I actually think it is very exciting to be in supplementary education now precisely because people are experimenting and implementing new initiatives, and reimagining what education can be in the congregational setting.

But that doesn’t mean that change is easy or that this is about change for the sake of change.  The cost of change is too high for there not to be a very compelling reason to change.  In fact, that reason and the belief that change is necessary and doable needs to be so compelling that it keeps all those involved focused and inspired through all the difficulties and frustrations that are inherent in any change process.  Because change is hard– and it’s not for people who are afraid to take risk and possibly fail.

So what motivated us to start the change process? The first thing I want to say is that it wasn’t because we believed the system was broken or ineffective.  Our learners were learning.  We changed because the world has changed; families have changed, and the way some families connect to Judaism has changed; and education has changed. Those are the core variables that we were responding to. However, there were other motivating factors to change, as well.  For some members of our board, it was financial- our enrollment was down; for the parents, it was about the realities of life- people and children being pulled in too many directions because of the focus and pressures of secular school; for the educators, well, we had to take a good hard look at not only what we were teaching, but how we were teaching it, and whether this really aligned with how learners learn best and what our priority goals were for our school; and I would be remiss if I didn’t also admit that we were feeling the pressure of the change in structure that many supplementary schools were making around us.

So where did we begin?  The first thing we did was listen, listen to what our learners had to say; what they wanted, what they were interested in; how they learned best.  I am using learners here in the broadest sense- parents, teens, even children in some of the younger grades.  Don’t underestimate your younger learners. It’s amazing what they will tell you when you ask them.  And parents, we didn’t just ask them what they wanted their children to know, but what were their Jewish hopes, dreams, and wishes for their children.  Did you ever notice that in the word, “Jewish,” if you put the parenthesis around the “w” and the “h”, the word, “wish” is in between?  Well, we wanted them to tell us what those Jewish wishes were.  We listened by engaging in one-on-one and group conversations and through surveys.  It soon became very clear that their dreams and wishes were very similar to ours as educators, and that if we wanted to help those wishes come true, we were going to need to change the way we were “doing” education. That meant that both the content and the structure needed to change.

By the way, when you ask parents about their Jewish wishes or dreams for their children, they do not tell you that they want them to be a doctor or a lawyer. Or that they want them to know how many sides a sukkah must have according to halakha.  Yes, you do hear, “I want them to marry someone Jewish;” “I want them to have a strong Jewish identity;” and “I want them to continue our family’s traditions.”  But you also hear very passionately, “I want them to be kind;”  “I want them to make a difference in this world;”  “I want them to be happy.”  So why not teach in a way that shows parents that Judaism, Conservative Judaism, can do all that and more?

The question we had to ask ourselves as educators was, “Is Judaism something that we teach for knowledge alone, or do we believe that we teach Judaism because it will add meaning and value to someone’s life?” Since the latter is the case, we knew we had to teach differently.  We had to engage not only the head, but the heart; we had to engage the entire family and community; we had to create experiences, not programs; we had to extend where learning took place beyond the walls of the classroom; and we had to redefine who is the learner, the role of the educator; and what success looked like.

The first thing I want to say is that we did not do this alone. We were fortunate enough to work with LOMED.  LOMED is an initiative through the Jewish Education Project that guides synagogue schools in the creation and design of new kinds of learning experiences.  It challenges educators and their communities to clearly articulate their vision and goals, and this was also a crucial step in the change process.

So we made changes. We began by making small adjustments and testing the waters sort of speak.  And slowly, as we began to feel more comfortable with change, we made significant changes, dramatic changes. This change was in no way easy.  There were many obstacles that we anticipated, and even more that were unexpected.  For instance, we quickly learned that our learners were not used to being active learners; that is, they were used to being passive recipients of information.  It actually took some time for some of our learners to understand that there was an expectation that they would have to participate in their own learning.  There was a learning curve for the parents, too.  Many parents would peak in the classroom and report that the classroom was noisy or chaotic.  In fact, it was simply a change from “traditional” passive individual learning (the image of the child sitting at a desk and doing a worksheet) to active, learning, which was more often than not, done in havruta and small group learning, and required the learners to move around the room or the building.  This was something we never expected, and something we quickly realized had to be addressed by educating both the learners and the parents about what learning could look like.  And let’s not forget the educators.  This, too, required a change in thinking, and a new definition of learning.  And to Jon’s point, we had to fight against the notion – both from parents and educators- that fun and learning are not mutually exclusive;  the belief that if their children were engaged and having fun, it wasn’t “serious” learning.

We also realized that we had to use a whole new language to describe what was taking place.  There were too many old associations with words like, “school,” “classroom,” “teacher,” and “student.”  This language, and people’s associations, were actually preventing people from thinking differently about how and where learning should take place.

So we began using new language, such as “learning space,” “educator,” and “learner.”  And the word, “school,” does not appear in our descriptions of our high school program, and this year we are transitioning into a new name, Shorashim, for our K-6 grade program.

All the change that has taken place at TIC was about aligning the design and settings of learning, the role of the educator, and the language that we use to our vision and priority goals.  And that is crucial in any change process- defining what your priority goals are.

That takes time, too.   But it’s a step that needs to be taken at the beginning of the process.  Your priority goals will be your compass throughout the process as you ensure that the changes you make align with them.

Our priority goals are building community and living Jewishly.  To build community, relationships had to be at the center of everything we did.  As educators, we know just how important the educator- learner relationship is; however, there is a big difference between knowing it and being intentional about it. The same is true for building relationships between learners.  Creating a safe, non-judgmental environment in which ideas and questions can be explored in depth means that there must exist relationships between learners. And that means that the space in which learning and exploration takes place has to be designed differently.

To live Jewishly meant that creating relationships with parents and families was crucial.  We also knew if we wanted what we were teaching to be lived, we needed to take learning outside of the four walls of the classroom.  Where and when learning took place became the focus of many of our discussions, and important decisions and changes followed.

What we have noticed is that these changes have positively affected so many aspects of our educational process- even our Education Council, and the way meetings are run, looks different.  But, do not underestimate how hard the change process is.  It takes a lot of time and energy from everyone involved. It takes patience, soul searching, and help from experts in the field.  It takes a Rabbi that views himself as my partner in this process.   It takes a group of talented and dedicated educators, who view themselves as a team.  It also takes a community, one that I am blessed to be a part of, that is willing to take risks.  All I can say, is that it is worth it- because as Conservative Jews we need to respond to the world in which we live and it is changing.  And so must we.

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