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From The New Jersey Jewish News, July 21, 2005


Extreme makeover — the Hebrew school edition
Local educators join initiative to revolutionize religious education

Forget what you know or think you know about “Hebrew school.” According to educator Cyd Weissman, religious school education is about to undergo a significant shift.

“This feels like a pivotal moment in Jewish educational history,” she proclaimed to 52 religious school principals in a classroom at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan on July 13.

If Weissman is right, then that moment will belong in part to a cadre of educators from eight local schools who took part in the Leadership Institute, a two-year seminar launched last week and designed to provide professional growth to synagogue school principals across the denominations.

Local participants include Leah Beker from Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston; Gail Buchbinder from Temple Beth Ahm in Springfield; Stacey David from the Summit Jewish Community Center Synagogue; Cory Hermann from Temple Shalom in Succasunna; Judy Levine from Temple Har Shalom in Warren; and Linda Specht from the joint program of Oheb Shalom Congregation and Congregation Beth El, both in South Orange.

Susan Werk of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell is serving as a mentor, as is Rabbi Paula Mack Drill of West Caldwell.

Educators, project administrators, and speakers view the institute as the beginning of the re-envisioning of religious school education.

“People around the country are watching you. They want to learn from what you’re doing. This is like a wave starting in New York, a wave of change in thinking, framework, and language [for religious school education]…. It’s a paradigm shift,” said Weissman, the NY coordinator of The RE-IMAGINE Project of the Experiment in Congregational Education, a program of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Los Angeles.

Backed by a $1.8 million grant from UJA-Federation of New York, the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and the Reform HUC have partnered for the first time ever to create the two-year institute. It marks the first time many of the leaders of Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative schools have worked together.

The project comes at a time when many within the Jewish community have been pushing day school education, and supplementary schools are sometimes treated as an afterthought. But, according to Evie Levy Rotstein, the Leadership Institute’s director, people have been complaining about the lack of attention paid to supplementary schools. “Sixty-five percent of kids receiving a Jewish education are getting it in a congregational school setting. The numbers speak for themselves.”

Each Leadership Institute participant will work closely with a mentor, who aids in tailoring the larger subjects covered by the project to the individual reality of each principal’s school and community. The 12 mentors were invited to participate by administrators of the institute; the 40 participants were chosen from among 60 applicants.

The project kicked off July 5-15 with the two-week seminar held at HUC.

Sessions led by key figures in Jewish education, from Jonathan Woocher of Maplewood, president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, to Steven Brown, head of the education graduate school at JTS, focused on effectively redesigning religious schools from the ground up.

This is the first of two intensive 10-day summer workshops; the second will be held in 2006. In between, principals will attend eight one- and two-day skill-building workshops, a six-day seminar in Israel this winter, and four visits to successful congregational schools. Educators are required to create an individual education plan and undertake a funded change project within their schools. In addition to principals, other professionals and lay leaders are required to participate.

The seminar that ended July 15 included a session led by Weissman. In it, participants in small groups discussed and analyzed the way they have made changes in the past. She elicited examples that reflected administrators’ single-handed implementation of change, whether related to curriculum, staffing, even parking-lot rule enforcement. Weissman roundly rejected their methodology. “What happens if people at an organization have a shared vision, and it is not just the educational director driving the change?”

She devoted the bulk of her talk to describing how to rethink the process, from identifying stake-holders, to developing relationships with parents and board members, to creating a team including these parties and administrators. And she offered ideas on analyzing the capacity for change at individual synagogues.

While principals shared with a visitor the nuggets they would take home to their congregations, most talked not of the tangible things they will bring back, but the process ahead, and the internal growth they are experiencing.

“We often come to programs and get band-aids or handouts as a quick fix. This is changing us internally. It is true growth, and we can make an impact,” said Buchbinder.

“It builds from our own experiences and gives us a new framework to look at our jobs,” said Levine. “It gives us the building blocks to continue growing. They are giving us the tools to become change agents, to look forward and say here’s where I want to be, and to figure out how to get there. Levine also pointed out that working in groups helps support the development of a professional network, something she called “an additional gift.”

Providing mentors also creates what David called a “safe space” in which to talk about what is happening in individual synagogues. “It gives us a chance to talk things through and work [the kinks out] together.”

One principal, Specht of the joint religious school of Oheb Shalom and Beth El, had already begun a re-envisioning process before even learning about the institute. She indicated that the program had value in “validating” the work she has already completed. While the others could say not say where the work they are about to do will lead them, they told NJ Jewish News they are looking forward to the process, particularly working closely with their mentors.

Several are planning to bring their learning to bear locally not just through their own schools but in forums for all area principals. And Werk added, “We hope our federation will take this model and create something locally.”

Johanna Ginsberg can be reached at

Copyright 2005 New Jersey Jewish News. All rights reserved. For subscription information call 973.887.8500.

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