(August 9, 2020, JNS Wire) Uplifting. Spectacular. Transformative. Nourishing. Awesome. Inspiring. Fun. Informative. Educational.
These are just a few of the words used by the Jewish educators who took part in the recent monthlong NewCAJE virtual conference. Spreading the sessions over a month prevented Zoom fatigue, while empowering educators to offer exciting programming to students in the coming year by honing and sharing their skills and knowledge. The NewCAJE in-person conference is usually held for 6 days in the summer; the virtual conference took “a sad situation and turned it into something positive,” according to one of the almost 1400 attendees from 47 states. Participants chose from 473 unique events for a total of 818 hours of programming, including individual learning sessions, deep-dive longer-term courses, social gatherings, cohort networking, spiritual events, and entertainment.
In addition to offering educators a chance to share best-practices and learn from peers, this trans-denominational conference discussed the future both at its closing session and at its opening session, a Summit on Jewish education.
The real technology revolution has finally taken place, according to Julie Schwarzwald, Director of Congregational Learning at Congregation B’nai Israel in Milburn, NJ, who told those at a roundtable held as part of the conference’s closing session that Smart Boards and tablets are just glorified blackboards. “The pandemic has given us a meaningful tool to enhance accessibility,” she said, adding that supplemental school principals now are talking about using technology for individualized learning for teaching Hebrew language and prayers. Schwarzwald also serves on the NewCAJE Board.
Educators are Marie Kondo-ing the curriculum to refine priorities, explained Olivia Friedman, “and we have discovered that relationships are the key” to keep learning going. Prioritizing values to be taught and setting our goals, as well as being open to determining a means other than tests to verify student mastery, are central. And virtual lessons can be synchronous or asynchronous, she added. Friedman is the EdTech Coordinator and Judaic Studies Teacher at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago and lives in Skokie, IL.
Jewish educators have pivoted to building connections and community from focusing on content alone, noted Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, who agreed that parents need to be seen as partners in their children’s education. The current situation brings Jewish learning and living into the home, she said, and we need to foster joy in the home with the family. She is the Recruitment and Leadership Development Associate at HUC-JIR and lives in the Boston area.
The challenge of providing an education during a pandemic has heightening the commitment that Jewish educators have, Arnee Winshall pointed out. Relying on parents as partners, teachers have shifted their focus from the curriculum to building a relationship with students and helping them building certain proficiencies. Winshall is the President and CEO of Hebrew at the Center in Massachusetts.
The current situation has opened a pathway to expand family learning by creating programming that is interesting to both adults and children, such as for younger children who can’t be on Zoom alone, Merav Berger said. While it will be challenging, she stressed that educators need to continue the dialogue and experiment. Berger is a Jewish educator and consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The opportunities for what can be provided to students are endless, noted Sarah Klein, who also cautioned those in the field to be careful to avoid burnout. “We need to be realistic about what we can provide and about our purpose…and also prioritize our mental health,” she said. Klein, from West Bloomfield, MI, is a young professional and alumna of NewCAJE’s Leadership, a two-year fellowship for those at the beginning of their Jewish education journeys.
Sara Tillinger Wokenfeld is a “techno-optimist” who noted that there is a positive side to giving students independence in their education. A lot can be accomplished when students are empowered and are partners in their own Jewish education, she said. Wokenfeld is the Director of Education at Sefaria and is based in Chicago.
Now is the time to stop tweaking or massaging what we have been doing, and instead, look at computers as gateways to offer learners Jewish teaching that is relevant to the moment, stressed JoHanna Potts, agreeing that contact is more important than content. A consultant, Potts is the founder of Advancing Wisdom & Education and lives in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Jewish education needs to differentiate itself from other Zoom time, Naomi Less said, pointing out that we need to have an I-thou relationship with our students. And, because not all students learn in the same way, we need to create different ways for learners to assimilate material. A singer, composer, musician, educator, and Founding Ritual Leader of Lab/Shul, Less lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Technology offers accessibility for those will disabilities, according to Jennifer Gendel, who added that teachers need support and mentoring, too. And, because of the time we all have spent learning remotely, in the future we may need to adapt in-person lessons to make lessons shorter or allowing people to move around from time to time or eat in class. Matan is a mentor for early childhood, youth, and education directors participating in The Matan Institute’s inclusion training programs for Jewish professionals. Gould lives Deerfield, IL. She is a mentor for early childhood, youth, and education directors participating in The Matan Institute’s inclusion training programs for Jewish professionals and partners with The Ruderman Foundation to support Conservative Congregations to support inclusion.
THE KEYS TO JEWISH EDUCATION
The conference’s opening session, a Summit on the Future of Jewish Education, tackled here-and-now issues such as distance learning, social entrepreneurship, individualized curricula, and building caring communities. The pandemic has forced Jewish educators to adapt to a new reality, and it has provided an opportunity to rethink not only where the teaching is being done, but also the essential Jewish teachings that demand our attention. The summit was planned by a group of educators who included the presidents of educator groups from every Jewish denomination.
In distance learning “we have been given a remarkable transformative educational tool that will long outlast the pandemic…[and one] that we need to exploit,” noted Dr. Jonathan Sarna, University Professor and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Distance learning supplemented by face-to-face learning can prevent a generation of illiterate Jews, he noted.
“We have moved from ‘a Chosen People’ to ‘a choosing people,’” Dr. Jonathan Mirvis, Senior Lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University’s foremost academic specialist in social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and adult Jewish education, told those attending the virtual summit. “We need to create high impact programming” using Birthright as a paradigm, he said, adding that “this would transform the world of Jewish education” through multiple impactful experiences each year.
“There is a growing consensus that Jewish education needs to be more than accumulation of fact and figures,” according to Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress, who said that it needs to be about “living a good, values-oriented life, and it should help us enrich our own life while also helping to build kehillah [community].” Dr. Kress, Dr. Bernard Heller Chair in Jewish Education, is the Director of Research at the Leadership Commons of the Davidson Graduate School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“Now is the time to “exploit the openness of parents to change,” according to Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin. Sympathetic to the individual needs of each set of parents and students and also fearful that they might choose to take the coming year off in terms of Jewish education, Zimmerman has developed a flexible education program that can be customized for each family. The congregation has developed a values-based educational program that will support students in developing a strong Jewish identity and connection to the community; instill in them the Jewish values of compassion, equity for all people, intellectual curiosity, and ethical deliberation; and involve them with Jewish teachings that will help them grapple with the most engaging problems of our time.
We are being given “an opportunity to show children that Judaism has a central place at home, and not just at school or at camp,” noted Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, NewCAJE President. “And to help them understand that our ethical behavior is rooted in Torah” and why Jewish tenets can help children, and adults, “find their way in life.” And while we are teaching, she added, “we need to be sure to include the pandemics of the past and how our ancestors managed to survive them just as we will.” We have come to understand that “in our little corner of the Universe, we Jewish educators, we who transmit Jewish religion and culture from generation to generation, we are also essential,” said Koller-Fox.
THE VALUE OF THE CONFERENCE
While participants saw tremendous value in the sessions on Ed Tech and social justice, they also took part in professional development sessions that offer training in classroom subjects such as teaching Hebrew, Israel or history; curriculum development; and teaching methodology. There were traditional one-off session sessions that provided a focus on a particular subject, as well as deep-dive workshops that took place over a few weeks, focused on the same topic. In addition, NewCAJE offered four certificate courses: Director Certificate, Early Childhood Educator Certificate, JEd-Tech Teaching Online Certificate, and Teacher Certificate. And NewCAJE trained 11 new storytellers to revitalize that art form.
At its conference, NewCAJE offers a Teen Fellowship program for madrichim and a two-year track for college students interested in the field of Jewish education. College student Sam Arnold of Farmington Hills, MI, had this to say about the value of the program: “The main idea that I am walking away (from the conference) with is that Jewish education is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would call ‘radical amazement.’ As educators, we get the joy of being able to hand over seeds to our students so that they can grow Jewishly and mah yafeh, how beautiful it is to watch those seeds be planted, and grow into trees! Overall, we as Jewish educators have the power to make Judaism come alive. The NewCAJE conference was the perfect way to help make that happen.”
“We are excited that twice as many teachers and educational directors as usual took part in NewCAJE this year, but we are not surprised,” noted Koller-Fox, NewCAJE President. “Jewish educators have had to learn new skills to be able to operate in a virtual reality. They are essential workers, working overtime to provide their students from preschool through adults a quality experience.
“In these uncertain times, NewCAJE is helping Jewish educators prepare for the school year ahead, and lifting their spirits along the way. “Everyone understands that the future that we face concerns us all. Pluralism is a value that has animated NewCAJE from the beginning. The organization believes that a field of Jewish education that works together and knows each other across all silos gives us the greatest chance of success,” she explained.
Participants met with job-alike cohorts for a homeroom-style gathering. Each week, there was a chance to highlight something that has been learned, brainstorm solutions to problems, and network with peers from around the country. These cohorts provided an opportunity to plan and think big for the fall, discuss how COVID-19 has affected communities and schools, and collaborate with to come up with solutions to the unique challenges Jewish educators are facing. Job-Alike groupings include Adult Educators, Artists/Musicians, Early Childhood Educators, Grades K-3 Teachers, Grades 4-6 Teachers, Grades 7-8 Teachers, Teen Educators, School Directors (Large Schools), School Directors (Medium Schools), School Directors (Small Schools), and Young Professionals.
The virtual Conference also offered an online concert and storytelling series. Each Sunday, participants enjoyed up to five unique and compelling storytelling performances. Then on Monday evenings, they tuned in to see favorite NewCAJE musicians. Each week, there was a social night with three simultaneous activities. One room was a Happy Hour hangout room, one a fun-and-games room, and one a Kumsitz Room.
NewCAJE is a non-profit trans-denominational organization advocating for Jewish education and Jewish educators in all job descriptions in the field.