June 14, 2024
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NewCAJE Conference Addresses New Goals Of Jewish Education in Light of COVID

(Courtesy of NewCAJE) “The last year and a half found Jewish educators in survivor mode—keeping themselves, their students and their students’ families functioning,” according to Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, NewCAJE president. “Jewish educators went above and beyond. We succeeded, we failed, we learned a lot. We saw the flaws of our field more clearly and experienced its joys and sorrows. Educators brought Jewish learning to families and confirmation to individuals. They brought light into the darkness for families.”

Speaking at the Second Annual Summit on Jewish Education, held online during this year’s virtual NewCAJE conference, she told those attending the conference that during the pandemic, the Jewish world shifted, so that, going forward, educators need to shift their focus in four critical areas:

1. Making Judaism relevant: In the past 16 months, Judaism offered people solace and meaning. Zoom meant that rituals became ‘Must-See TV,” and lifecycle events found new forms. Educators must resolve to give students the Jewish wisdom they need when life gets rough, show learners how to pray and not just recite words, and teach families to create celebrations and memories both at home and in the community.

2. Jewish history: We need to double down in terms of teaching Jewish history as we deal once again with the cyclical phenomenon of antisemitism.

3. Israel: We must find peace and understanding in our personal and communal relationship with Israel. The romantic notion of Israel’s founding has outlived its usefulness, and we need to understand the Israel of today. We cannot separate ourselves from the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

4. Inclusion: Because we all stood together at Sinai, we need to confront our prejudices, understand that no one is more Jewish than anyone else, and welcome all Jews.

“At NewCAJE, we are all teachers and we are all learners,” Koller-Fox explained, pledging that the organization will offer more professional development during the year to help educators face these challenges. “At NewCAJE, we come together to share and to move the field forward in order to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.”

During the Summit, speakers discussed how to incorporate lessons learned during the pandemic in order to provide relevant Jewish education and influence learning for the betterment of learners, current educators and future generations of Jewish educators. And, during the pandemic, connections with learners and their families emerged as the most important element of instruction.

It was “connection over content” for the teachers at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, according to Melissa Pescatore, the synagogue’s director of religious education. That focus provided a safe space for students to share anxieties while exploring their Judaism and an ability to partner with parents to ensure that the learning experience was successful and meaningful. Zoom brought Jewish education into the home and parents into the frame. Principals and directors need to be advocates for teachers by building strong relationships with the board so that they understand what is happening at the school.

Empathy is a core aspect of the work of Jewish educators, according to Saul Kaiserman, director of lifelong learning for Temple Emanu-El in New York City, who told those watching the Summit that in the coming educational year teachers should acknowledge how tired students are and how hard students are working. Though people want to get back to what was normal, he stressed that because the pandemic is not over, educators must work to achieve their educational goals within the new constraints. And because technology has moved forward as a result of the pandemic, educators will incorporate those new tools, as they did SmartBoards.

According to Dr. Betsy Stone, adjunct lecturer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, post-traumatic growth, rather than simple resilience, involves six areas that can be integrated into Jewish education, in a supportive environment, to help students:

1. Awareness of personal strengths: For example, showing how Moses “grew” from the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster to the Burning Bush to the revelation on Sinai.

2. Reprioritization of values: For example, using the story of Esther to discover personal values.

3. Appreciation of life: For example, discussing personal blessing as part of a Shabbat ritual.

4. Changes in the relationship with others, with an increase in compassion and altruism.

5. Increased creativity.

6. Spiritual changes and spiritual development.

Building connection through content is also important for interactions with the institution’s board of directors. At a board meeting, Stone suggested, principals and directors should use Jewish texts to challenge people to think about who they are and who they want to be. “Engage people with themselves, and not with numbers,” she recommended.

“We must use individual narratives, best practice management theory and the wisdom of our Jewish heritage to ensure that Jewish educators feel blessed,” said Marc S. Young, director of the JCC Association of North America’s JResponse team and author of “Bless Our Workforce.” And, paraphrasing a quote in “Ethics of Our Fathers,” he urged educators to “find a mentor and find a friend.” He encouraged school principals and education directors to get to know their teachers individually in order to learn how to best motivate and inspire them. “We have the power to make our workplace better by engaging with the people around us so they can grow and be creative,” he commented. When teachers use their talents and feel challenged, they feel valued and do their best work.

Young said that there are certain things that Jewish life and Jewish education have done well—listening to each other, connecting work to the mission, leaning into mentors by creating relationships, and being flexible whenever possible so that there are choices available. In the coming educational year, he recommended focusing on staff, which will strengthen the learning experience for students. And he also noted that this is not the time to be austere, adding that we must attract and retain the best Jewish educators.

Koller-Fox agreed, noting that educators remain in their jobs when they are paid well, mentored, challenged, promoted, involved, appreciated, trusted, empowered and valued.

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