New Jewish Educators Get Ahead at Summer Training
Thirty-one educators gathered deep in the Maryland countryside this summer as part of USCJ’s (the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism) New Directors’ Institute (NDI). The four-day intensive training, held at the Pearlstone Conference & Retreat Center, united religious school and early childhood education directors from across the country to discuss the philosophical and practical challenges of leading a school. Despite their diverse backgrounds, all were newcomers to their positions in synagogue education, and they found themselves asking the same questions about developing curriculum and connecting with students as each created a 30-day plan to guide their kehillot (Jewish communities inside and outside the walls of a synagogue) through September.
Fifteen years ago, the NDI was founded to do just that, says USCJ’s Director of Learning Enrichment Ed Frim—to bridge the gap between educational professionals with a strong operations background and those rabbi and cantor educators with a Judaic background. “Right now, it’s the only onboarding and training program of its kind offered in the Jewish education field,” says Ed. “This is not something being offered in the Reform movement, the seminaries or the synagogue Jewish education system.”
The interactive program features group-building activities, planning exercises, guest speakers and roundtable discussions, all with a Jewish flavor. The program offers two tracks, one for education directors and the other for early childhood education directors. Each day centers around a theme, such as navigating the larger framework of a synagogue, and includes a service, where the educators come together as a minyan (quorum).
Julee Snitzer Levine, Director of Supplemental Education at Adat Ari El, traveled from Valley Village, California, for this year’s NDI, held July 17-20. Julee, who has been running the synagogue’s Youth Education & Programs for 15 years and Jewish Learning Center for one, says the program offered “a sampler platter of critical issues” facing religious school educators, such as the transition between early childhood education and the next part of a child’s Jewish education. From the first workshop, a self-assessment of strengths and challenges, Julee recognized kehillot from Los Angeles to Chicago to Philadelphia shared the same struggle: How do we reinforce that our program is more than just another extracurricular activity?
“None of us work in kehillot that are bar and bat mitzvah factories,” says Julee, who found in NDI a community of educators with “a passion for and a deep-seated belief in the importance of a Jewish education.” Over the next few days, she and her peers learned how to incorporate hands-on and project-based learning while prioritizing a long-term commitment to Jewish identity. At NDI, they started conversations that continue daily in a Facebook group, where they share resources and stories, knowing they are all striving to meet similar goals. Recently, a group member hosted a webinar on how to best teach and structure a Hebrew program.
“A lot of what we do is try to foster connection,” says Ed. In the year after the training, Ed and USCJ Early Childhood Education Specialist Dr. Eileen Flicker hold webinars, update a listserv and check in with alumni monthly by phone. Ed calls, he says, not to give lessons but to support new educators and help give them “permission to think.”