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The Mentor's Voice

Sheila Adler
Bet Torah
Mt. Kisco, New York

How do we motivate students to stay involved in Jewish Education beyond Bar and Bat Mitzvah?  We are in fierce competition for their time and it has become increasingly difficult over the years for us to keep our students engaged in Jewish Studies through 12th grade.

Some of the methods we have already used include:

  • Conducting yearly student focus groups in grades 6 through High School to determine their needs and interests
  • Offering “leading edge” courses, such as “Drumming and Chanting”; “Praying From The Mat” (our Yoga and Musar course), and “World Wide Jew” (Using Facebook)
  • Making our programs flexible to meet the hours and needs of all our students by offering on-line courses, outside community service projects and individualized courses as options to fulfill High School requirements.

But even “out of the box” courses and creative scheduling are not enough.

What does seem successful is “empowerment”. What we are finding is that our students are motivated by leadership.  They are staying engaged when we give them opportunities to lead and to teach.  They want responsibility and a chance to “make a difference”. We are continually searching for ways to let our students teach and mentor our younger students; to lead Jr. Congregation; to be aides in our classrooms and to facilitate classes in our High School.

  • Our 6th and 7th graders are mentors to our K-2 students.  They teach them blessings and prayers and facilitate special projects for Bible and Israel.
  • Our 8th, 9th and 10th graders participate in a “Shabbat Leadership” course training them to lead Jr. Congregation.  They receive course credit when they lead several services throughout the year.
  • Our 11th and 12th grade students facilitate a “Mitzvah Corps” where they implement community service projects for the school and the synagogue.
  • Several 11th graders have created their own courses in Bible, Prayer and values and teach their peers.
  • Our 12th graders participate in an Educational Leadership Institute (ELI) training them to be K-2 teachers. They are student teachers in our early childhood department and receive certification from the BJE upon completion of the course.

Not only do leadership courses and teaching opportunities keep our students involved in Jewish Education longer, but they also result in better attendance and more effective learning.  There is no question that students learn much more when they have to teach others. In addition, they feel good about themselves because they truly “make a difference”. 

Shanee Epstein
Town & Village Synagogue
New York, NY

When I reflect on the past year and think of my role as a mentor, I think of the mentor’s ears, rather than my voice. It has been a process of listening deeply and really hearing the concerns and fears behind the words. It has been a time of keen focusing and thinking about when to speak and how to choose my words carefully. Judaism has many laws about words and the words we use.

Shmirat Halashon, literally “guarding of the tongue” (language) is a central concept in Jewish teachings. There are many laws about how we speak about others and these mitzvot are very important. Why? Because words are very powerful. We need to take the time to consider what we say and the impact of our words. Mentoring has made me think more about the words I use. Words have the tremendous power to encourage, uplift and inspire.

Listening. When is it time to listen and not speak? Mentoring is about listening; analyzing and helping my fellows look from different frameworks, to work towards solutions. It is about their needs, and providing objective guidance; pushing when I can and supporting when that is what is needed.  It is about using my experience, but not insisting that my way is right. It is about helping the fellows find their voice.

Relationships. Mentoring is about relationships and the power of time and trust in building those relationships. It is about staying clear, keeping the larger picture in mind while focusing carefully on small details. It is about traveling between the “balcony” and down to the floor where the action is taking place.

Patience. Growth takes time. We are inundated with fast change, instant gratification. But real substantial growth takes time. It takes the time to research clearly, build consensus, and making sure that there is a team of people who want to see growth. And the word  ‘team’ implies that you are on the same team. It takes always going back to the premise that all parties involved are on the same team and if you are on the same team with the same goals, you can take the steps together to improve and to grow.

Respect tradition. Judaism is an ancient way of life with many, many wise principles that help guide us. I prefer the word growth to the word change. And I believe that words are very important, as stated earlier. Change implies getting rid of the old and bringing in the new and sometimes that is what is called for. But often there are many aspects of a program that are good and worth keeping. But constantly looking, reflecting, improving and growing are part of our role as leaders.

Mentoring has had a profound impact on my work as Educator at Town & Village Synagogue. I have become much more mindful of all these concepts; speech, listening, building relationships, being on the same team, patience, protocols for increasing inclusivity, leading in a gentle way, growth and rooting my perspective in the wisdom of Jewish tradition. By helping others find their voice, mine has become much clear.


Meeting with the HUC-JIR Board of Governors
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Ira Wise
Congregation B'nai Israel
Bridgeport, CT

When I was a student in the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, I was blessed to have clinical faculty members—professionals in the Los Angeles community—serving as my mentors. They provided a strong practical counterpart to the formal learning we did with Sara Lee, Michael Zeldin, Isa Aron, Bill Cutter and the rabbinic faculty. These mentors helped shape me as a temple educator, modeling behaviors, giving me responsibilities within their schools and then helping me to reflect upon those experiences and draw lessons from them. When Evie Rotstein invited me to be a part of the Leadership Institute, I knew that it was my opportunity to pay forward the gift the College-Institute. I would like to share three ways in which my participation as a mentor in the Leadership Institute has impacted my practice as an educator—as a mentor, as a learner and as a colleague..

As a Mentor

When my wife and I were expecting our first child sixteen years, ago we devised a test for ourselves. We called it the Ethan-test. We used it to examine our own actions. We asked ourselves whether we would do something we were contemplating if our unborn son were ten years old and watching us. Would we want him to emulate us? If the answer was no, we didn’t do it. It was a great way to parent reflectively.

I have found myself being more proactively reflective as an educator because of my involvement as a mentor in the Leadership Institute. As I prepare for and engage in meetings with my mentees, I fond that I use a variation of the Ethan-test—call it the reflection test. This is a little different. In essence, I try to look back to when I was a student at HUC meeting with one of my mentors. They were both gifted and/or well-trained enough to know that I needed their help in developed analytical skills of reflection, not just their accumulated wisdom. So my self-test is to think about what would have been most helpful to me as a mentee.

During my three years as a mentor, I have fought the natural impulse to respond to questions or problems posed by my mentees by either telling them what I would do or merely by telling them about a similar situation I have faced and how I dealt with it. To be sure this is sometimes appropriate, but I have found it to be more beneficial to the mentee in the long run to ask probing questions that help him or her to examine the situation and develop their own strategies. It’s like the Chinese parable about teaching someone to fish so they can feed themselves forever. While it would be flattering to have them hang on my every word and to continue calling for my help for the remainder of our careers, that would not be helping them. And in developing their skills, I further refine my own.

As a Learner

The opportunities to continue my professional learning with the scholars who have shared their work and insight with the LIC has been incredible. Sometimes I feel like I am working on a second masters. It is rare that was professionals get to return to the safety and warmth of the College-Institute for such in-depth study, and that has been an incredible gift.

I remember near graduation in 1991 I promised myself I would find time for study on a regular basis. While I have had varying degrees of success with that, both on my own and with various chavruta partners, the Leadership Institute has given me a renewed discipline. Moreover, most of my chavruta study has been in the classic texts of the Talmud and Midrash. The institute has brought me to the feet of some of the top minds in education today, such as Joseph P. McDonald, Dr. Bonnie Botel-Sheppard, Dr. David Ellenson, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, Dr. Lisa Grant Jo Kaye, Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress and Dr. Steven Brown. Learning from them as well as from all of the Judaic teachers has been a trhill. And more importantly, when I was a student seventeen years ago, my classmates and I were all embarking on new careers. Our conversations had the high certitude of the relatively inexperienced. I knew everything because I had been a teacher and a camp counselor.

Nearly two decades later, I am learning with my fellow mentors and participants in the program as professionals in the field, with a wide range of experiences. The conversation is now among seasoned people who are only too well-aware of how much we don’t know. The learning is much richer and deeper, because we are all capable of digging deeper. We can truly appreciate what our teachers are saying and are more able to make meaning from it. My mentees and I have all had the opportunity to apply methodologies learned at the institute to our practice as educators.

As a Colleague

Joshua ben Perachyah said: “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.” His words in Pirkei Avot 1:6 remind us that Jewish learning is not meant to be the solitary activity of a scholar in a tower or a hermit in a cave. We need partners in learning. My participation in the institute has given me many such partners and enriched the network of colleagues on whom I can count on to tell me the truths I cannot see and imagine possibilities I could not visualize on my own.

This has spurred me to try and create similar mentor/mentee and collegial relationships among the teachers in my school. My congregation and view my participation in the LICSE as an honor. We also view it as some of the most meaningful and essential professional growth for me ever available.

I want to thank the College-Institute, the Seminary and the Federation for the insight and vision to create the institute, and Evie, Dena, Jo Kaye and Steve Brown for making it a reality and for me to participate.


Moving Past Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit
Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York
Department of Lifelong Learning
April 2008

Anyone who has been involved in a change initiative has probably encountered the phrase “low hanging fruit,” those targets or goals which are easily achievable and which do not require a lot of effort. There are any number of reasons why it is advantageous to focus change efforts on low hanging fruit at the outset.  But what then? 

At Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, in a series of departmental retreats, we identified new challenges that arise as low-hanging fruit is picked, and how we might respond to those challenges.  Here is a summary of the thoughts of our Department of Lifelong Learning full-time staff:  Saul Kaiserman, Rachel Brumberg, Daniel Mishkin, and Amy Geldzahler.

1. What do we mean by “low-hanging fruit?”

  • Things that require little work and can be done easily
  • Things that can be successful more quickly (even if a lot of work)
  • Things for which it is obvious what success would look like
  • Things that may not require systemic change – can stand alone, can be handled departmentally and autonomously, are perhaps less threatening or non-threatening

2. Why focus on low-hanging fruit at the start?

  • To build confidence and trust in leadership & change process though early successes
  • To respond to the hunger for change and for deliverables – start with a bang!
  • To create buy-in and to build trust among stakeholders – people want to see results!
  • To build the morale of the team

3. What new challenges arise as low-hanging fruit is picked?

  • When the low hanging fruit is used up –  what then?  How will we know what to tackle next?  How can we prepare for future challenges? 
  • There is the possibility of addressing symptoms but not causes. As a result, the changes we make may only be superficial and the solutions may only work for a limited duration. 
  • Any new interventions or program changes require systems, structures, and staffing that must be coordinated, managed, and supervised -- they don’t run themselves!  Managing the increased workload resulting from new initiatives, and developing new systems and procedures, can become so time consuming that no further initiatives can be developed.
  • We don’t necessarily learn the skills (or help others learn the skills) that will enable us to tackle more challenging problems or projects.
  • Because this work doesn’t require people to get out of their comfort zones, it does not require us to create an environment in which conflict and debate is effectively managed and resolved.
  • The expectation can be developed that we will continue making positive change at the same pace, even though further changes would be more challenging to institute.
  •  If all the work done is done internally and departmentally, it does not build a collaborative environment or shared sense of accountability.  Therefore, changes may not develop the deep roots that enable them to endure beyond the efforts of the change-makers.

4. What should we do to respond to these challenges?

  • Be willing to shake the tree!  Take risks!
  • Climb the tree: Think strategically and long-term. Set priorities that will have deep impact and stick to them.  Build consensus and shared accountability around these priorities. Be strong and resolute in face of opposition. Learn to say “no” by sticking to our priorities.
  • Focus on infrastructure and build systems.  Use what we have learned so far to develop procedures and routines to handle day-to-day tasks – especially high urgency, low importance and low priority items.
  • Broaden and deepen our relationships with members of the community (including families, faculty, and staff in other departments).  Provide volunteers with real responsibilities, an active voice, and the ability to directly impact the program. Continue to build and deepen buy-in among our stakeholders, not merely as lip service, but because we see their participation as critical to the long-term success of the endeavor.
  • Clarify our expectations (for participation, achievement, and so on) and publicize them widely.  Where our language is vague, clarify what we really mean.  Establish a culture of commitment and responsibility.
  • Think about our legacy – what do we want things to look like once we are gone, and how can we make our changes stick?


Lauren Resnikoff
December 2007

Last year, at Temple Sinai, after much discussion, our Education Committee formulated a vision for our educational program. Our vision of Jewish education at Temple Sinai is as follows:

Our educational program should:

  • Be centered on the ideals of Torah (Study), Avodah (Worship) & Gemilut Chasadim (Service to others)
  • Allow for and encourage family participation
  • Create Jewish memories
  • Be learner-centered
  • Build community within the synagogue
  • Recognize that students and families can connect to Judaism in various ways and allow flexible learning options.

We looked at our current model of twice-a-week religious school with occasional family programs and recognized that the current model was not aligned with our vision. However, we also recognized that we did not want to alter the entire school program at once, so we thought about an alternative program that we could offer that would be better aligned with this vision.

We decided to pilot an alternative program for our fourth and fifth grade students for the 2007-08 school year. We chose the name Hevra, as we hoped that this alternative learning program would help us to build a community of learners within the school and congregational community.

We designed the program with four basic components:

  1. Traditional class meetings, at times when other students their age meet, so that students have the opportunity to interact with their peers and feel part of our “school.” During these traditional class meetings, students are taught Hebrew decoding skills and have the opportunity to have a routine learning session. These sessions meet once per week.
  2. A Shabbat family workshop, offered various times of the year and on Friday afternoons, Saturday mornings, and Saturday afternoons, to afford flexibility. Each of these family workshops consists of:
    1. Connection activity to build community among the participants
    2. Meal (dinner or breakfast
    3. Family worship service
    4. Opportunity for adults & children to study a topic separately, at their own levels
    5. Social Action/Mitzvah related activity, that parents and children do together, related to the study topic.
    6. Chance for reflection & evaluation
  3. Families are required to participate in six of these workshops per year.

  4. Individualized flexible learning options provide an opportunity for families and students to create Jewish learning experiences that are relevant to them. Families are required to earn a specific number of points through flexible learning options. Among the ways families can earn points include attending services, participating in trips offered through the School, attending additional family workshops, and traveling to Israel. A large number of points are offered to families who send children to URJ camps, as an incentive to encourage families to consider an informal Jewish learning experience for their child. Families can also earn points through parental participation in Adult Jewish learning opportunities at the Temple. We also offer families points for individualized learning activities and have had children set up a lemonade stand as part of the Alex’s Lemonade project, learn about family history from a great-grandmother, and create a Jewish cartooning project.
  5. Journal: So that students have the opportunity to do more than participate in the learning process, families are required to submit a journal entry after each experience. Through the journal writing, we believe that families will take time to reflect on the activities and make a personal connection to them.

To date, the Hevra program has 29 participants; 17 fourth graders and 12 fifth graders. The families who are involved seem to really be enjoying the program. One parent commented that this program puts Jewish learning in context. Of course, as it is a pilot year, we are constantly evaluating the program and learning how to improve it for the future.

February 2007
Richard Zemser 

“A Penchant for Passion”

I feel badly for people who are entirely devoid of passion.  Devoid, as in totally lacking.  On a zero-to-ten scale almost everyone has some degree of passion; hopefully all educators with scores strongly skewed to the right and Jewish educators, especially, as far right as possible.  Passion can not be taught in the sense mathematics, science or any academic subject can be taught.  You can not force passion.  You can not insist a person become passionate.  You can not wish a teacher to shift into a passionate teaching modality when the natural inclination barely exists or does not exist.  But, you can encourage a person to release the hidden passion within, if that is possible.  Consider that innate passion does exist in all of us, and then we as educators can demonstrate this feeling by regularly and unabashedly being positive role-models for our teaching colleagues.   

Passion is not an emotion that comes and goes at will.  As our emotional levels, energy levels, frustration levels, etc., vary, our passion level might be internally modified accordingly.  It can be both enhanced and subdued depending upon a variety of outside forces.

Passion is passion.  But, not quite like “a rose is a rose is a rose.”  I imagine most people recognize the general shape and variety of flowers we commonly call roses.  Oddly, many roses happen to lack the easily recognizable rose form.  Our perception might be fooled by this, but the flowers do not change … they are still roses.   Not so with passion.

Passion might vary anywhere from “in your face” to second-nature subtlety.  Unlike roses, passion does not usually fade within a teacher’s lesson.  A keen observer will feel and recognize the sustained level of excitement shown by a classroom teacher.  The children could probably not name it, but they will undoubtedly feel the positive energy present. Whereas some rose varieties might be unrecognizable, the passion exuded by a classroom teacher is clearly identifiable. 

Hypothetically, it is my contention that almost everyone has some degree of hormonally/genetically available passion.  It is present.  A problem might be that choosing the field of education, especially Jewish education, may a poor choice for those who fail to regularly demonstrate this emotion. 

Is there a way to actually measure a person’s “passion level?”  Can we squeeze the handle on the carnival game to see how many lights shine indicating our degree of passion?  Is there a passion scale?  Does a passion barometer really exist?  Whether or not it can be accurately measured, a passion rating is purely hypothetical.  We can demonstrate passion by painting our faces with our favorite team colors to cheer the team on; or consider the teen who makes a passionate plea to his parents in hopes they will purchase the newest available Ipod for him; we know an attorney can make a passionate plea to a jury regarding his or her client’s innocence, while the prosecutor might do likewise regarding a conviction; and parents become passionate about the care and love of their newborn infant.  And, who could deny the passionate first kiss of a bride and groom?  Regardless of the example, can a “unit of measure” be attached to these varying emotional displays? 

I firmly believe that the parent, salesman, chef, physician, repairman, etc., who performs his or her task with a strong sense of feeling, conviction, enthusiasm, energy, etc., which all adds up to passion, will do a substantially better job and achieve far better results than others.  Teachers are no exception.  Jewish teachers especially so.

In our position as administrator and as mentor, and we are all mentors, we should be “naturals” at displaying our passion for what we love to do.  Our job is often a struggle because we recognize there are some teachers who appear “lifeless” in a classroom and that usually results in poor student behavior, a “stale” class environment, and a general lower level of learning.  Their passion is lacking, or possibly hidden.  We must attempt to ignite the passion in those teachers.  We owe it to ourselves, the children and parents, and our beloved profession.  I passionately believe this.

You might wish to refute this.  Certainly do it with a passion.

December 2006

Rabbi Jodie Siff
Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore
Plandome, NY

The ultimate revisionist rehabilitation of Judah the Maccabee was found at our synagogue holiday book sale last year: a beardless, boyish, stuffed Judah holding a plush shield in one hand and a padded sword in the other. Even if you subscribe to the popular version of the Hanukka story, no one would call Judah cuddly. To the contrary, what fed Judah’s "rep" as a Jewish hero was that he was an uncompromising zealot who was intolerant of the assimilizationist tendencies of the upper-class urban Jews of Jerusalem. Judah fought to cleanse Jewish life of hellenistic taint, spilling the blood of his fellow Jews in the process.

There are two aspects of the Hanukka story that make me increasingly uncomfortable as the years go by. (1) If I had been a contemporary of Judah, I certainly would have been on his hit list. As a Reconstructionist Jew who believes that Jews live in two civilizations, I take advantage of the best that America has to offer. This includes a belief in the democratic process and an embrace of diversity. Had I lived in second century b.c.e. Jerusalem, there is no question I would have been a regular at the gym, sartorially indistinct from Greek citizens on the street, and a habitué at public eateries. I might even have had a god or two from the pantheon in my living room, not to worship, but for decorative purposes.

(2) I’m uncertain if Judaism would have survived as a distinct entity in post-biblical Israel if Judah and his supporters had not stemmed the assimilationist tide so uncompromisingly. In their embrace of the best that cosmopolitan Greek culture had to offer, would the sophisticated Jew of the time have been ethnically erased with kindness? Would the distinctive elements of our tradition been obliterated or syncretized to the point of no recognition had Judah been more ecumenical in his approach?

Of course, these questions cannot be answered, and clearly the world is quite different twenty-two hundred years after Judah. But the questions raised are humbling and should temper how we live our lives as Jews so unselfconsciously.

Despite the unvarnished reality of Judah the zealous brute and questions that might raise the specter of self-doubt (would any of us be Jewish without them?) we can still enjoy Hanukka for what it has become in its popular form — a celebration of the victory of the few over the many, and a good excuse to indulge in latkes, jelly doughnuts and plenty of good cheer.

Wishing you a happy Hanukka,

Jodie Siff

October 2006

Keeping the Flame

Ilana Davidov
Beth El Synagogue Center
New Rochelle, NY

A priest was complaining to his friend, the Rabbi: “Our church has been invaded by squirrels; we have done everything to get rid of them, but at no avail.”

“Oh”, said the Rabbi, “we, too, have experienced that same problem awhile ago, but now there are no more squirrels in our temple”.  “How did you do that”? asked the priest.

“Well”, said the Rabbi, “I just bar mitzvah’ed them, and they never showed up again”!

For Jewish educators and community leaders, this is no laughing matter. How sad it is that many of our bar mitzvah students (and perhaps some of their parents as well) view their bar mitzvah as the end of their Jewish education rather than a beginning of a life long learning and of following the Jewish way of life.  How many educators have sadly witnessed the drastic rate of post bar mitzvah drop out from Hebrew high school in spite of their attempts to come up with different models of educational programs for high school students? No matter how good the program may be, it will still be in fierce competition with the many secular activities our students are engaged in, in order to win over some of their precious time.

Numerous studies show a direct correlation between the level of Jewish education for a child and Jewish identity as an adult. One of these studies is the 2004 report by Steven M. Cohen, The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults’ Jewish Identity, published as part of the United Jewish Communities Report Series. According to Cohen, only 16 percent of those who received no Jewish schooling felt that being Jewish was “very important”, compared to 51 percent who had at least seven years of supplementary school and 86 percent who had at least seven years of day school. “Rises in the level of childhood Jewish schooling are almost always associated with increases in adult Jewish identity years later”, Cohen concludes.

Affirming the importance of continuity in Jewish education, Beth El Religious School Board has devoted many hours of discussion on how to entice children to continue their Jewish education beyond their bar mitzvah year and throughout their high school years.

First, we conducted a survey for high school students and their parents in order to learn what their desired schedule of classes may be (ours is a 6 hour a week program), and what topics would be of interest to them. From the information we had gathered we learned that they were basically interested in three features: 1.The subject matters need to be relevant to the life of an American Jewish teen. 2. The class experience needs to be distinctly different from the one in public school. 3. Consideration needs to be given to students who cannot commit to the full program.

Based on this information we came up with an all electives program offering 3-4 classes to choose from for any given hour, and an online course in lieu of two classroom hours for students who cannot attend the full program. With a variety of courses students create their own schedule and may change it each semester. In most of the classes students deal with Jewish views of contemporary issues using classical texts as well as current and popular media as a basis for discussions. The following is a sample of such classes along with a brief description for each. If you have a high school program, or if you are contemplating to develop one, you may find this list useful.

  • Oh, God – Jews in Film

In this class students will watch a number of American films and TV episodes and see how Hollywood presents the Jews to the world. Among the films: “Oh, God”, “Stranger among Us”, “School Ties”, and others.

  • Comparative Judaism

Students will explore the four branches of Judaism: How do they differ? What makes them similar?  And learn more about Conservative Judaism.

  • Jewish Ethics in the Siddur

Chancellor Louis Finkelstein said: “God speaks to us through the Torah, and we speak to God through the prayer book”, In this course students will discover the dialogue between God and the Jewish people that guides our daily lives and encourages us to make a difference in the world.

  • Medical Ethics

Medical technology gives us new perspectives for looking at traditional Jewish thinking. In this course students will discuss contemporary medical issues through a Jewish lens.

  • You Be the Judge

In this course students will be presented with different ethical cases, which they will examine and pass a verdict on. Then they will learn the Jewish answer to these cases and find out if they have passed the same judgment as our rabbis of antiquity.

  • Torah Yoga

After several minutes of warm-up postures, a synopsis of the weekly portion will be read. Then, a few minutes of meditation and Yoga Session will allow students to discover for themselves the meaning and messages of the Torah.

  • Great Biblical Female Figures

In this course students will learn how Biblical women impact the shaping of Jewish women in later history. Students will discuss core values, which emerge from the Bible and from the world in which American Jewish women live today.

  • Sibling Rivalry in the Bible

How did siblings relate to each other in the Bible? Love, Competition, trickery, revenge, murder, attempted murder, premeditated murder and downright nastiness. The class will do a survey of the relationships between siblings in the Bible and compare what we learn in class with our experience today.

  • Bible as Theatre

In this class students will study and interpret various Biblical stories through the lens of drama. Using acting techniques and improvisational games, students will not just act out the Torah, they will experience it.

  • Swords and Plowshares – Jewish views on War and Peace

With terrorism and violence pervasive worldwide and much of the Middle East in a state of war, the age-old concerns about war and peace have fresh relevance. What does Judaism say on the subject? Is war ever justified and under what circumstances?

  • Jewish Questions for daily life

This class will deal with students’ generated questions that you have not been able to get the answers to.

  • Teen Dilemmas

This course will be based on short stories and films for teens, which will address the conflicts, which modern teenagers face trying to forge a Jewish identity while navigating in the secular American culture.

  • Sex in the Text

Using primary texts in Hebrew and in English, it will be clear to students that in its 4000 years history, Judaism has had an astonishing breadth in its perception on every aspect of our sexual lives. Topics will include sexuality, love, dating, marriage, adultery, abortion and rape.

  • Jewish Literature

In order to be more in touch with our cultural heritage, we should make use of the rich literary heritage left for us by great Jewish authors. In this class students will read short stories and explore the roots of Jewish humor.

  • Creative Writing

In this class students will read and discuss Jewish stories and poetry in order to spark their imagination to write their own creative pieces. Selected students’ writings will be published in the bulletin.

  • Ups and Downs in Jewish History

This course is designed as a timeline, which will cover major events in Jewish history. The dates will range from the time of the Patriarchs through the establishment of the State of Israel.

  • The Case for Israel

This class will prepare students to respond to peer, faculty and media pressure and misinformation regarding the history and current state of Israel. Printouts from Alan Dershowitz’ book “The case for Israel” will be used.

  • Media Smart

This course is designed to examine the power of the media to influence public thinking. Emphasis will be placed on how Israel is perceived and portrayed by major media outlets. Students will be encouraged to “read between the lines” and become media smart. 

  • Both Sides of the Sea – Jewish Popular Music from Israel and America

In this class students will fall in love with the sounds of our people and try to figure out what matters to these acoustic artists.

  • Internet study

This course is designed to take the place of two hours in school in order to enable students who are experiencing scheduling difficulties to participate in the full program. This course will be an independent study of the cycle of the Jewish year as they are reflected in Jewish texts after the Bible. Students will study online by visiting different websites, and will be guided through these sites with questions and discussions.

September 2006

Debra Siroka

As the new year begins and we find ourselves caught up in the details that make our schools work efficiently. It is important to remember why we work so hard to make things right. I hope, even in the craziest of times, the words below will help us to remember why we do our sacred work.

What is the purpose of Jewish Education?

I have been disturbed recently by what I hear about the changing tide in general education. I have watched and listened to my students as they talk about “regular school”, preparing for college, and the college application process. What I hear is disturbing. They are stressed, overtired, anxious, and burdened. One student told me about a 15-book summer reading requirement. Another told me about wanting to shriek at the word “college’. And I know many who spend hours doing homework, the sole purpose of which is to get a better score on a test rather than to expand the mind.

When I think about this kind of education, I feel sad. I feel sad for our students who are missing out on childhood. I feel sad for parents who also feel the pressure. I feel sad for the teachers who spend so much time preparing students for high scores instead of for life. And I feel bad for our society, which will be lead by a generation that may not be able to think deeply about or act to improve the state of our country and the world.

You might be asking why a Jewish educator is ranting about public education. The reason is simple. Jewish education is not about the text, not about the pressure, not about scoring well on the bar mitzvah exam so that you can get into the right confirmation class. We teach not the test, but to how we can make a Jewish life worth living.

In an issue of Educational Leadership was dedicated to “the whole child” (the emotional, social, physical, and spiritual aspects of growth). I was struck by how this emphasis on the whole child, as well as on parent involvement and character education is exactly what we emphasize in our children’s Jewish education.

Aristotle wrote, “The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather make all the difference.” If he was right, than applying the lessons for the classroom to life is what teaches us how to live, which in our case is as Jews. Celebrating holy days, participating in tikkun olam, and attending Shabbat services regularly so not get one an “A” on a test but lead rather to a greater understanding of Jewish life and the importance of community. This understanding will lead to making each of us and the world better.

Piaget wrote, “The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.” If Piaget was right, then children who actively engage in Jewish life will become a new generation of committed and knowledgeable Jews who will carry Judaism forward, not exactly the way their ancestors did, but in a way that helps them make sense of their world by using the past to create the future.

John Dewey wrote, “Education... is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” For us as Jews, this could not be truer. Jewish life depends on participation in the community. It is not the gathering of facts (which, by the way, is different form acquiring knowledge) to apply at some later date, but rather the crafting of a Jewish life. Through participation in Jewish activities, we discover ourselves and our people.

Though education can have many results it has, I believe, one main purpose. If education is done right, we ourselves change and grow so we can change the world. The knowledge we can acquire is valuable only if it leads us to action. I believe this to be the essential purpose of Judaism. We study so we can learn. We learn so we can do. We do so we can make change. We make change so we can create the world anew for the next generation. 

April 2006

Time Wars
Episode IV: A New Beginning?

Ira Wise
Congregation B'nai Israel
Bridgeport, CT

In the late 80's I helped research an article by Joel Grishaver called Time Wars. In it he explored ways in which educators had succeeded in overcoming the shrinking amount of time available for religious school. There were some very creative solutions that in retrospect may have only been possible in the places where they functioned. Over fifteen years later the challenges have continued to mount. I would like to explore the role of time in Jewish education and issue a challenge to my colleagues.

Eight Days A Week — I Lo-o-o-ove You...

I was recently asked to consult with a colleague at a Conservative congregation and members of her school board. They were interested in how we had managed our curriculum review several years ago and wanted to explore how to go about their own. When we sat down, one of the first things the vice-president for education said was: "There are families that would like us to go from three days a week to two days. Can you help us?"

This was a very different question from the one I thought I was coming to address, and at the same time it was the same thing. The concern of the leadership was the overall quality of the education each child receives. It had been the belief of this congregation that there were a variety of essential skills and body of knowledge each graduate should possess—and that led to the schedule they currently had. Some members felt that their children could be given a proper education in two days.

As I see it, the two groups are answering different questions. The leadership was focused on the learning outcome. Those advocating a schedule change were focusing on the number of days per week. I believe both have some validity. The leadership, through a review of both the curriculum and of actual classroom practice needs to determine whether the time they have is being well used. Then they need to decide whether they need the time they have to meet their revised learning goals. They are at the beginning of the process. I suspect they will raise the bar on their goals and their faculty and will need the time they have. Because they have always had it, and because there has not been a huge groundswell opposing it, I suspect they will keep the three days.

The twice-a-week advocates do have an important point. As a school, we have an obligation to make good use of our students' time. The demands on an eleven year-old have increased massively over the past 30 years. There are many sociological reasons, none of which I will address for the simple reason that Jewish educators can't change them. They merely are. How we each deal with the many parents seeking an exception to the norm to accommodate their child's special interests (dance, musical instruments, choirs, elite sports teams, etc.) varies from educator to educator and case by case. The one thing I continue to observe as I speak to parents and colleagues is that the demands on us to reduce time decrease as the children's reports of enjoyment and good use of time increase.

So it seems to me the questions are:

  1. How much time and frequency do we need to meet our educational goals?
    (This assumes we have developed goals that are in concert with the mission of the synagogue.)
  2. How well do our parents and students understand our educational goals, and how bought into them are they?
  3. How well are we using the time we have?
  4. How do our students and parents perceive how well we use the time we have?

The Challenge—What Would Walt Do?

Walt Disney Imagineering is the master planning, creative development, design, engineering, production, project management, and research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company and its affiliates. Representing more than 150 disciplines, its talented corps of Imagineers is responsible for the creation of Disney resorts, theme parks and attractions, hotels, water parks, real estate developments, regional entertainment venues, cruise ships and new media technology projects.

In 1957 a man named Richard Sailer wrote an article entitled "BRAINSTORMING IS IMAGINation enginEERING." In that article he coined the term imagineering, which became the cornerstone of the Walt Disney Company's design concepts and eventually the name of the part of the company that creates the rides and so much more.

When asked how someone should prepare for a career as an imaginer, Doug Wolf a Project Manager with Walt Disney Imagineering said:

"Dream and pursue your imagination and goals. Do anything that stirs your creativity—read, write, draw, observe and travel. Learn what you enjoy and excel at, whether it be model-building, drawing, writing or construction. See if there's a fit. Most likely there is since Imagineering encompasses almost everything imaginable. But above all, enjoy what paths your life travels and learn from each experience." (

A number of years ago, I wondered how we could apply the principles of Imagineering to Jewish education. I invited some colleagues to join me in developing a CAJE module where we each presented some ideas for re-imagining the religious school experience. The participants used those ideas as a jumping off point.

So let me issue a challenge to you, my colleagues. The question is time. I am not asking how many hours or days per week are optimal. I am sure we could all answer that, and whatever our answers were, they would be right for our own setting and wrong for someone else's. Instead, I want to ask you to consider the many demands upon our students' time and upon their parents. Think about the time our teachers have available and how we compensate them. Take as granted that less is not more when it comes to time. Imagine how we can reasonably or unreasonably bring our students to spend more time at the task and joy of Jewish learning. Don't just think outside the box. Toss the box aside. I look forward to your responses.

March 2006 - The Israel Experience

Dina Eliezer
Temple Beth Sholom
Cherry Hill, NJ

The Israel experience, like most experiences has its positives and negatives. I would like to reflect on the positives as they are most relevant to our institute and the goals that we are aiming to achieve.

As we prepare ourselves to become leaders in the field of Jewish education it is evident that Israel would be a vital component of our program. Our leadership Institute offered the greatest way to include it, by taking the participants to Israel.

Israel served as our text study and as our bonding catalyst:

Being that we had very limited time in Israel, instead of going over the entire “text” we had the members from Lokey Academy highlight for us some important “chapters” They made sure that the language of the “text” was clear - Tzohar, that we had an opportunity to add our comments, that we met some of the text’s characters and experienced their way of life.

As the bonding catalyst, Israel served as a shared and treasured place and a faraway neutral ground. A place where we ate together, grouped for discussions, heard lectured, laughed and cried together. We discovered some new qualities about our peers. We opened ourselves because it was safe to do so. We made new friends. We developed a new language – our Israel experience Lashon

As the future leaders in the field of Jewish education I am confident that many of the aspects shared on this trip will add to our understanding of the fundamental place Israel holds in our programming, resources and connections.

Lynn Lancaster
Forest Hills Jewish Center
Forest Hills, NY

Monday morning, after arriving home from Israel, I got in my car and was serenaded by the opening song from Rent.  Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes how do you measure, measure a year? By my limited estimation, the group was in Israel for approximately 10,000 minutes but the same fundamental question can be asked. How does one measure what happened over that seemingly short period of time?

Most obvious I think is where we went and what we did.  The program was extremely well crafted. I doubt that anyone on the trip was not exposed to a piece of Israel that was new to him or her. As important as the places and experiences themselves were, I think that the filter that we saw them through was crucial.  We had the opportunity to speak first hand to the participants in programs. With the help of Shelly and other participants in the program we placed them within the context of day to day Israel. Yet, perhaps most importantly, we grappled with what we saw together in both formal and informal settings. Within the short time frame of six days there were certainly places and experiences that were not possible.  Yet, the trip as a whole was substantive and meaningful on many levels.

The less obvious measure of what happened over our week was the dynamic of the group.  I think it is fair to say that on arrival the group was an entity made up of many smaller groups held together rather loosely as a whole.  That first night together I heard many people say quietly “I still don’t know everyone’s name”.

Over the course of the week we sat together ate together, learned together, celebrated together, and sometimes struggled together. We had the opportunity to see each other in different ways. We saw how weaknesses in one area can emerge as strengths in another and heard voices emerge that we had not yet heard.  The sum of what happened emotionally in the group was powerful.  By the end of the week we emerged as a group of caring colleagues who had experienced real life and real learning together.

I think that the true measure of our week in Israel will only become apparent over the course of the next year and a half.  We sorely missed the mentors who could not be with us and are looking forward to your rejoining us on the journey.

February 2006

Susan Werk
Congregation Agudath Israel
Caldwell, NJ

"Look and You Will find"

Engaging new talent to take part in building the community is a skill that I have developed throughout the years.

In Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ - where I serve as educational director -there has never been a policy not to hire congregants. In fact, one of our core values is to seek ways to recruit our congregants to become active participants in the community - through multiple portals. At our yearly new-member teas, the professional staff members always say that one of the strengths of our institution has been a willingness to welcome new ideas for serious consideration from a wide array of sources. The professional staff takes pride in this flexible attitude and on acknowledging that an openness to outside resources and people can bring new and effective initiatives to engage our congregants. With this core concept in mind, I have always kept my eyes open to the possibility of bringing new people from the community into the synagogue's educational framework. Three examples of the success of this approach are Lea, Michael, and Peri.


Lea was the mother of Josh, a nine-year-old student in Agudath Israel's religious school. I knew she had no background in teaching but had attended yeshiva as a youngster. After the Pesach break, I learned that Josh had recited the Kiddush at his family's seder. The Pesach Kiddush is not taught until the following year so I congratulated Josh on his achievement. He told me that it was his mother who had taught him the Kiddush.

I contacted Lea to discover just what kind of tasks she could handle in the school. The following year I engaged her to tutor one student who was struggling. Her involvement grew from there, and 14 years later, Lea is the cantor's assistant, training youngsters for their b'nei mitzvah services, teaching classes, and modeling master teacher skills. Lea was the first congregant to serve as mentor, assistant, or tutor for at least one year - in her case, three - before being given classroom responsibilities. Her yeshiva background, kindness, and willingness to learn have enhanced her development of the valuable skills she acquired in her training. Today she is an anchor on the staff, someone who is looked to for insight, teaching ideas, and collaboration. She feels proud, as a congregant, to be a beloved and valued educational staff member.


Michael's wife come to me 10 years ago and said that her husband was interested in teaching. To be honest, I was initially apprehensive. Michael is a lawyer, a Shabbat service regular, and a very funny and personable man, but that was all I had to go on and the fact that his wife thought he would make a good educator. I did some delving, gave him a try, and for two years, Michael was the assistant to the Junior Congregation leader. He observed, learned from, and trained under a master educator. While Michael was acquiring his skills, he participated in a "Journey Group," congregants who met twice a month to study text and share their personal voyages through life. In the group, Michael continued to learn and eventually presented divrei Torah and prepared lessons. He became so engaged in this work that I gave him his own Journey Group to run, a role whose every aspect he enjoyed. As a lay leader he became a fixture in adult education classes, at lectures and workshops, in my office - in fact, anywhere he could learn.

Today Michael is attending the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school. He is Agudath Israel's full-time Kadima Junior Congregation leader, a rabbinic intern teaching adult education classes - and my good friend. I kvell every time I see him teaching, leading, and contributing to our community. He is a beloved member of the congregation, respected and sought after for his knowledge and guidance.


Peri was actually wooed to the Agudath Israel community. We learned that a young couple - Peri and her husband, Dr. Alex Sinclair - were coming to the states from Israel so that Alex could teach at the Davidson School. We learned more about this young couple and invited them to check out our synagogue and the greater area, for it was evident that their skills and talents could strengthen the congregation and that they would both be great assets to our community.

Peri has a background in Jewish education, specifically informal Jewish education. Today she is my assistant and the NOAM adviser. It was clearly her informal education skills that enabled Agudath Israel to become an American site for NOAM (Masorti Youth), the international peer-led youth movement centered in Israel.

Peri has done a remarkable job with NOAM. Since the fall of 2003, approximately 25 ninth- through 12th-graders have been trained as NOAM madrichim who develop and oversee activities for youngsters in the third through eighth grades. NOAM sessions are held in the synagogue Shabbat afternoons and include a creative, child-friendly Mincha service, followed by graded activities created and led by the NOAM teens. While Peri supervises this program, I conduct a class on the Torah portion for the youngsters' parents. Parents, children, and teens come together for a closing Havdalah service.

In the three years since the program's inception, we have seen a marked change in the Shabbat afternoon culture; witnessed the spiritual growth of the participating children, teens, and parents; delighted in the young children's growing admiration for their teen counselors; and observed the teens' becoming valuable role models for their young charges.

In promoting NOAM, Peri - who grew up in Israel participating in every stage of the program - stated, "I am who I am today because of all I learned and experienced in NOAM." And it is clear that the enormous success of NOAM in our synagogue is because of Peri's wisdom, warmth, and guidance.


I have learned that when building a community it is important to keep in mind:

  • Always keep your eyes open to the talent that surrounds you.
  • Network to the wider community and actively encourage talented individuals to come live in your community.
  • Be on the lookout for new approaches and new ways of thinking and welcome for consideration ideas from individuals outside the professional staff.

December 2005

Sheila Adler
Bet Torah
Mt. Kisco, New York

Several years ago, I created the Educational Leadership Institute (ELI) in order to motivate teenagers to attend Hebrew High School, to complete the 12th grade and to extend their Jewish Studies beyond secondary school education.

In order to be eligible for the ELI Training, a student must have completed their studies in our Community Hebrew High School. Our students graduate in the eleventh grade and can continue as a post grad in the Institute.

The purpose of the institute is to train twelfth graders to teach in the elementary grades (K-2). The requirements include:

  • Attending formal classes in Lesson Planning, Classroom Management and Teaching Methodology
  • Observing in elementary classes
  • Teaching in the elementary grades under the supervision of a mentor teacher.
  • Participating in two in-service sessions during the year

Upon completing the program, students are issued Certificates by the Board of Education of Greater New York. The certificate has proved to be a solid credential when applying for teaching positions in congregational schools.

Because many participants teach in Hebrew Schools during their college years, the program also serves to keep them involved in Jewish Education and thus connected to the Jewish Tradition and the Jewish Community.

Initially, students are motivated to join ELI because it offers them work opportunities in the school and the chance to include the experience in their college applications. As time goes on, the motivation shifts because they want to become part of a special group.

Whatever the reason for the motivation, the program has attracted more and more participants each year and has created an expectation that students will remain in Hebrew High School through the twelfth grade.

Under the auspices of the Board of Education of Greater New York, the program has been replicated in several high schools.

November, 2005

Yonni Wattenmaker
Temple Shaaray Tefila
Bedford Corners, NY

We have a program in our school called Tzedakids, aptly named by one of our founding students. I created Tzedakids four years ago in an attempt to take social action for our youngest students and their families to a new level. Tzedakids is a steering committee of students in grades K-6, and their parents, who come together at monthly half-hour meetings to discuss people who are in need in our world and in our local community. We talk about some of the options they mention, and ways we can reach out and help the people who fall into those categories. Once we have brainstormed and shared our ideas, we vote on the top 4 choices, and organize a Mitzvah Night for our congregation to benefit those choices. The Mitzvah Night activities have included:

  • Decorating onesies for infants at the Bedford Correctional Facility
  • “Build-a-Bear” dolls for the children at Tikva Children’s Home
  • Painting and planting small planters for the residents of Somers Manor Nursing Home
  • Collecting new and used sports equipment for donation to the Bensonhurst JCC which has a high immigrant population
  • Decorating for caps for kids with cancer
  • Creating packages for kids who have to go through trials against an abusive parent with My Sister’s Place
  • Sending care packages of magazines, hard candy, gum and letters to our soldiers in Iraq

The additional piece of Mitzvah Night is that these are held on Shabbat. Once the families arrive, we gather together for Kabbalat Shabbat before we begin the activities. Once we move into the classrooms and begin our work, our Tzedakids members guide the other students and families as the leaders of the program. I have thoroughly enjoyed this program, and the pride I feel in watching these families is immeasurable!

September, 2005

Lauren Resnikoff
Temple Beth David
Commack, NY

Several years ago, my former senior rabbi, who is computer maven, decided that we should follow the lead of secular schools and begin to use computers in our school. He found a donor to fund the purchase of equipment and gave me the task of trying to figure out what to do with the technology, how to train teachers, and how to get teachers on board.

We made a decision that we would NOT set up a lab. Instead, we would put computers into each classroom. We also made a decision that we would not spend all of our funds up front; rather, we would allocate funds so that each year we could purchase additional hardware so that our hardware didn't all become obsolete at once.

I have to admit that many teachers felt that we already had limited time – how would we make time for technology? I had to agree – technology, for us, could not be a pullout activity. Instead, it had to be integrated into what we were already teaching. Although we did not want to use technology to change the way we teach everything, we did feel that there would be some subjects that would benefit from the use of computers in our classrooms.

We also needed to get "buy-in" from the staff. So, we sent some of our teacher's home with computers for the summer. (This was years ago when not everyone had a computer in their home.) I send my most resistant teacher to a secular workshop on educational technology that made her a believer. And, I got funding to provide a stipend for each of the 5th grade teachers to work with me over one summer to develop a technology-enhanced curriculum for our life cycle and Israel units. Together, we created a curriculum that incorporated software that we sent home with the students and Internet sites that we used both at home and at school. Because the teachers were part of the process, they were eager to work with the curriculum and the computers that year. Once one grade was excited about what was happening in their classrooms, the rest of the staff wanted to be involved as well.

Today, we have a desktop station with a 27" monitor in every classroom. For the past four years we have also purchased 2 laptops per year and now also have eight laptops. We have "wireless" Internet access, and a wireless printer, within our building. This setup affords us a great deal of flexibility in integrating technology into our classes. Students can do independent work on a computer or can work in small groups. They can also work as a class using the large-screen monitor. And, for larger projects, we also have an LCD projector.

So, what can we do with the computers? Among other things:

  • We can instant message a teacher's son who is studying in Israel. He can email the class pictures of himself as he puts their notes into the Wall. We can also use videocams to talk with him "live."
  • We can get instant access to the Bill of Rights when a child brings up a question on freedom of speech.
  • We can work together as a class to create PowerPoint presentations of cities in Israel and send the files home to parents. E.g.
  • We can create a mock newspaper of a period of Jewish history.
  • We can access information on current events in the classroom.
  • We can take our students on "virtual field trips" around the world.
  • We can use a webquest (that one of our teachers created using a free template) to learn about world religions. E.g.
  • We can reach students using a methodology that motivates and excites them.
  • We can teach our students that although much about Judaism is "ancient," being Jewish is very contemporary.
  • We can bring the greater Jewish community into our classroom.

Yes, I had it easy in that the funding was in place for me. But, in this day and age, with technology tools as they are, using computers does not have to be an expensive endeavor. Most likely, your building already has Internet access. For under $100, you can purchase a wireless router to provide wireless Internet access. Find a few parents with laptops with wireless cards who are willing to come to school one day. Design a project that has students doing research with Internet sites you have pre-selected and ask one parent to work with each group. (For an example, see the first link above for a project I created about Israel.) Ask the group to put their research into a PowerPoint – a program students in grade 5 and up are VERY comfortable using. Then, show off the student work at Open House and at a board meeting!

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