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From The New Jersey Jewish News, December 23, 2004

Reform, Conservative seminaries partner to train synagogue school principals

by Johanna Ginsberg
NJJN Staff Writer

In a first-ever joint project, the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion are working together to improve local synagogue schools.

With a $1.8 million grant from UJA-Federation of New York, they have begun a three-year institute focusing on professional development for the schools’ education directors.

The Leadership Institute for Congregation School Educators will accept 40 principals with at least one to two years of experience in the field. Because the funding comes from the New York federation, 65 percent of the participating principals will be selected from New York schools. However, the remaining places in the program are open to principals across the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Connecticut.

“It’s very exciting. They’re combining forces to envision a better future for supplementary schools,” said Susan Werk, education director at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. Werk is part of the planning team during this first year of the project and will also serve as a mentor when the formal program begins in July.

The project comes in an era when many Conservative and even some Reform rabbis are heavily promoting a Jewish day school education to their congregants. Nonetheless, recent studies reveal that 70 percent of children receiving a Jewish education are doing so in synagogue, or “supplementary,” schools. Those schools typically meet on Sundays and one or more weekday afternoons.

“This is the reality. Large numbers of American Jews don’t send their children to day school. It’s our responsibility to see that congregational schools are the best they can be,” said the institute’s director, Evie Levy Rotstein.

The emphasis on Jewish day schools over the past decade has been matched by scrutiny of supplementary schools and their effectiveness. In 1999, the American Jewish Committee released a report stating that “the supplementary school has been suffering from a crisis of credibility and self-confidence.”

Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist principals will follow a curriculum based on leadership, pedagogy, and Judaics, and will break into denominational groups for those subject areas where sharp differences come into play, such as approaches to teaching prayer. “It’s clear that 90 percent of the time, we’re on the same page,” said Jo Kay, director of HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education. “We really wanted to work together on a problem that crosses the movements. So when the differences come into play with theology and philosophy, we agreed to break the group down by denomination.” That assessment and agreement are the result of a process the two seminaries engaged in for a year before this institute even started, with a $56,000 grant to explore whether or not they could work together.

The institute formally begins in July with the first of two intensive 10-day summer seminars. The second will be held during the summer of 2006. In between, principals will attend eight one- and two-day skill-building workshops and a six-day seminar in Israel; they will also make four visits to successful congregational schools. They are required to create an individual education plan and undertake a funded “change” project within their school. The program requires that other professionals and lay leaders within the principal’s synagogue participate as well.

Offering individual education plans tailored to each principal’s situation was critical, Rotstein said. “People come into this field through many venues. Some have a fine Judaic background but not pedagogy or educational leadership; others have extensive educational leadership experience but less knowledge in the Judaic realm. This project is eager to allow people from different journeys to balance where their learning needs to be focused.”

Another important aspect, according to those involved, is the opportunity for principals to share ideas and experiences and create a professional support network for principals.

One of the program’s key components, according to all of those interviewed, is mentoring. “We have found in other projects the power of excellent mentors to help their peers grow and learn,” said Steven Brown, dean of JTS’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. Added Werk, “It’s more directed than any mentoring programs I’ve been part of. It’s a serious, step-by-step program.”

Temple Shalom educational director Cory Hermann told NJJN that the formalized mentoring relationship is one reason she’s applying to participate on behalf of the Succasunna-based Reform synagogue. (She also cited the participation of both HUC and JTS and the “amazing” resources that the collaboration will offer.)

One of the more innovative facets of the program is perhaps the required backing of rabbis and lay leaders at each principal’s congregation.

“We do not want lone rangers,” Brown said. “We want the principals to go back to their schools and be supported. Too often, people do not look at the whole system of education, but just the teacher or principal. But every player is part of a larger system. To have leverage with the principal, you have to realize the principal is part of a larger framework, and all of the players have to have an understanding of what’s happening.”

Application deadlines for principals are mid-January and mid-March. Mentors cannot apply; they will be selected by the organizers.

For more information, contact Evie Rotstein at 212-824-2248.

Johanna Ginsberg can be reached at

Copyright 2004 New Jersey Jewish News. All rights reserved. For subscription information call 973.887.8500.

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