OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

To ensure the future of Jewish education, put teachers in the center

It is crucial that we rapidly equip Jewish educators with the tools and skills needed to thrive in this new reality. If not, we risk losing a generation of Jewish students.

Students at the Lindenbaum Seminary (Midrasha) in Jerusalem, which has been divided into study areas in order to comply with social distancing directives, on July 7, 2020. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90.
Students at the Lindenbaum Seminary (Midrasha) in Jerusalem, which has been divided into study areas in order to comply with social distancing directives, on July 7, 2020. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90.
Mickey Katzberg. Credit: Courtesy.
Mickey Katzburg

On July 5, the Israeli government passed a historic resolution on ensuring the future of the global Jewish community. The first area of activity this resolution highlights is the realm of formal education. It notes, correctly, that many Jewish schools “have difficulty encouraging among their students a sense of community involvement, a deep connection to the State of Israel and a strong and meaningful Jewish identity.”

Having worked for the last 20 years with hundreds of Jewish schools in more than 15 countries, I believe that there is one sure way to increase these schools’ impact on both their students and the broader community: investing in the Jewish teacher.

While such a policy prescription might seem obvious, this is far from being the case. In countless conversations with teachers, I hear over and over again their desire to supplement their passion for teaching with professional pedagogical training and development. While they are appreciative of innovative educational materials and technologies introduced by their schools, they feel the need for in-depth instruction in how to make best use of these new tools, and for ongoing support throughout the year.

Sadly, I have seen numerous times how idealistic teachers, put in front of a classroom without the proper preparation and support, fail to engage the pupils and become frustrated and dispirited. This is one of the main reasons for the high rate of turnover which plagues many Jewish schools.

Conversely, a teacher who truly knows how to make the subject of study relevant and meaningful to the lives of his or her students can turn an ordinary classroom into a transformative experience. An empowered and confident educator can inspire Jewish students to become active citizens of the Jewish world. Such teachers are much more likely to remain in their schools over the long term, thereby bringing both stability and savings to their institutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the centrality of the teacher into sharp relief. As schools have closed and learning has gone virtual, the dry course material has become less important. What has become much more important is the versatility of the teacher, his or her ability to adapt on the fly to changing circumstances, and to maintain the bonds with students through the screen.

Over the last few months, as director of the World Center for Jewish Education (WCJE), I have met, virtually, with over 150 Judaic and Hebrew studies teachers from around the world, from Argentina to the United States, from the Netherlands to Russia, and from Australia to the Arab world (two Hebrew-language instructors at a prominent Arab university.) The number one concern I hear in these conversations is how to structure the educational experience when it has gone virtual, or has become a blend of frontal and online learning.

It is crucial that we rapidly equip Jewish educators with the tools and skills needed to thrive in this new reality. If not, we risk losing a generation of Jewish students.

The second most frequent concern that I hear is the challenge of declining school income, as economies take a downturn due to the pandemic. I believe that there are several effective but underutilized ways in which schools can reduce costs.

For example, in the past, many schools purchased teaching programs that came with their own proprietary technological platforms. Such programs often required paying for annual updates and licenses. Today, with the proper training, tools such as Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams can replace these technological platforms and provide many additional functionalities.

Together with using widely available technologies, schools can reduce costs by training educators to become proficient in creating their own curriculums and teaching materials. While there will likely always remain a need for educational institutions to purchase certain materials and coursework, schools can save money by training their teachers to create their own lesson plans and assignments.

Using the right strategies and methods, committed educators can often create tailor-made materials which address the unique needs of their students, thereby ensuring maximum educational impact.

Some schools have already developed expertise at this task. The next step then is to connect such schools with others that are looking to develop this skill. For example, the WCJE is now facilitating a partnership between a school in the American South with extensive experience in training educators to create their own curriculum, and a group of schools in the Ukraine that is facing the dual challenges of budget constraints and of engaging students with little Jewish background.

This is one partnership being developed through the worldwide network of schools that we are building. Our network of diverse Jewish educational institutions enables teachers with similar challenges or complementary skills to share best practices and strengthen one another.

An additional acute challenge facing many Jewish schools, particularly in light of COVID-19, is the need to convince Jewish parents of the very importance of investing in Jewish education. As many families, faced with economic uncertainty, ask themselves why they should pay for a dual curriculum, school leaders will need to become skilled marketers in promoting the importance of educated citizenship in the Jewish world.

Such “marketing” must be done in a way that speaks to the deepest values and aspirations of their target audiences, rather than to their pocketbooks or calculations of utility. This too is a skill that does not come naturally to many educators, but that can be taught.

As the Israeli government and Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich develop their strategic plan for turning the July 5 government resolution into a reality, it is critical that in the field of formal education, they put the teacher in the center. The budgetary pressures wrought by COVID-19 will require that the Israeli government’s investment in schools abroad be cost-effective and targeted. To borrow a metaphor from the start-up nation, channeling resources to these schools will need to be done through smart drip-irrigation, rather than through rain.

The Israeli government has set a high, but extremely important, bar for itself by adopting the goal of achieving “a real and substantive impact on young members of the Jewish People.” By placing the Jewish teacher at the center, it can achieve this goal in the most efficient, effective and impactful way.

Mickey Katzburg is the director of the World Center for Jewish Education, and an educational innovator with more than 20 years of experience in Israel and abroad.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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