In a Midtown room, several 20-somethings are gathered around a scuffed-up table. With papers, cell phones and various caffeinated beverages before them, they enthusiastically brainstorm together and critique each other’s work.
A workshop for young writers or artists? No, this is the weekly meeting of Central Synagogue’s 10 full-time Hebrew school teachers.
Afternoon Hebrew schools, despite competition from day schools and private tutors, continue to be the venues where the majority of American Jewish kids get their religious education.
Yet they are typically staffed by an ever-shifting assortment of part-timers: college students, grad students, volunteers, retirees and moonlighting public school teachers who rush in shortly before class and rush out immediately after, with little time to plan, interact with colleagues or get to know parents.
Not at Central’s 700-student school. Since 2004, the 2,000-family East Side temple has done something virtually unheard of in the field: hired full-time teachers, paying them salaries and benefits comparable to starting day school teachers.
It’s a model two other New York-area Reform congregations —Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and Larchmont Temple in Westchester — have copied, albeit on a smaller scale. And others, such as B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., are seriously considering the concept.
The full-time teachers tend to be recent college grads (often with years of Jewish camp-counseling experience) who stay a few years then continue on to grad school or rabbinical school. They say having more time to plan and evaluate their teaching and to work collaboratively makes for more rewarding and effective classroom experiences.
“Working at other synagogues, you’re often teaching out of a book published by someone else and you don’t have the time to come up with interesting and unique lessons,” said Arielle Garellek, 25, who is finishing her second year teaching at Central. “Here, the whole staff is invested in coming up with the best programs we can come up with.”
“It’s a really exciting model,” said Yonni Wattenmaker, Central’s director of lifelong learning, who meets regularly with the teachers. “We can sit for two hours in a room and say, ‘What do we want to do in two weeks?’”
At weekly staff meetings teachers not only craft lesson plans and group “experiential” activities, but review what worked and didn’t work in the previous week’s classes.
Central’s move to full-time faculty (supplemented by part-timers) comes as congregational schools around the country have been experimenting with an array of strategies and approaches to improve the much-maligned institution.
Whether they call themselves “congregational,” “religious,” “supplemental” or “complementary,” these outposts of part-time Jewish education — which struggle with competition from other after-school activities and limited classroom hours — have been the subjects of a fair amount of scrutiny in recent years.
Last year, the Avi Chai Foundation published “Schools That Work: What We Can Learn From Good Jewish Supplementary Schools,” a study of six schools with especially strong reputations. (The names of the schools, which were located throughout the country, were kept secret, however.) In 2006-07, Avi Chai and Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) professor Jack Wertheimer also conducted the first-ever “census” of congregational schools, estimating that there are between 2,000 and 2,100 such schools in the United States, enrolling approximately 230,000 children.
A national group, the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE), launched recently with a mission to “substantially improve complementary Jewish education in America and to thereby transform the reality, perception and funding of the field.”
Since 2004, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Reform’s Hebrew Union College and UJA-Federation of New York have jointly run the Leadership Program for Congregational School Educators, a mentoring program for education directors in the field. In New York, UJA-Federation and the Board of Jewish Education have also been working with 25 congregations on strengthening their education programs.
Cyd Weissman, director of congregational education at the BJE said “staffing structure” — whether hiring full-time teachers, like Central is, or revamping existing teachers’ training and responsibilities — is one of several “building blocks” that supplementary schools are playing with as they seek to create more engaging experiences.
With Hebrew school meeting only a few hours per week, however, is there really enough work to justify full-time staff positions? And, given that few synagogues have the resources of Central — indeed, one of the key findings of the Avi Chai census was that only 40 percent of American congregational schools enroll more than 100 students — does its experience offer any lessons others can emulate, or is it simply an anomaly?
Proponents of the full-time teacher model say that in a large synagogue at least, it is not hard to find enough work to keep teachers busy. Central’s full-time teachers not only serve in the Hebrew school, where they collaboratively plan and review all lessons with each other and update parents with weekly e-mails, but they also teach adult education courses, assist with other synagogue programming and function as Jewish resources for families.
“This allows the families to have a connection to yet another professional at the synagogue, which is very helpful because this is a large congregation,” said Rabbi Michael Friedman, one of Central’s three rabbis.
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein of Beth Elohim, which has 300 students in its religious school, said that, among their other contributions, her four full-time teachers supplement the clergy’s pastoral support. When two students lost their grandparents, the teachers notified the rabbis and organized classmates to pay shiva visits.
“It’s very hard to make that kind of thing happen when teachers are only here a few hours a week,” Rabbi Epstein said. “Though dedicated, they just can’t be here enough to know what’s going on, can’t devote that much time.”
At Larchmont, which will have two full-time teachers starting this fall, the new hires will also run family education programs, teach trope to bar/bat mitzvah students, lead student prayer services and participate in the temple’s “education think tank.”
“This is going to hopefully give us a more cohesive, integrated staff in general,” said Rabbi Mara Nathan, Larchmont’s associate rabbi.
But is the model replicable beyond a few New York-area mega-shuls? After all, the prospect of revamping the staff structure can be daunting even for large, affluent synagogues.
Saul Kaiserman, who was Central’s education director when it made the move to full-time teachers, doubling its school budget, said the synagogue “had a perfect storm of leadership” in which funders, lay leaders, rabbis and other stakeholders were all in favor of the idea. The synagogue received a three-year grant to fund the full-timers; when it ran out, the board voted to incorporate the added costs into the synagogue budget.
“Every one of the stars were aligned, and I’m not sure if it would have happened if even a single one were not in place,” he said.
Now a few blocks away at Temple Emanu-El, Kaiserman said it’s not surprising that more synagogue schools haven’t yet followed Central’s lead, because “it’s a huge investment, not just financially, but also in the willingness to take a risk. And the model itself isn’t a magic bullet; it’s not like having full-time teachers is going to solve all the problems of supplemental education.”
Echoing Kaiserman, the BJE’s Weissman emphasized that full-time faculty is “a building block, not the building block. The bigger question is how are you going to access and nurture teachers to be Jewish role models and leaders for our children and families?”
So far, the full-time teacher model seems to be paying off for Central and Beth Elohim, both of which have managed to keep their tuition comparable to similarly sized Hebrew school programs at neighboring congregations.
Although she did not have precise numbers, Central’s Wattenmaker said more students are staying on after their bar and bat mitzvahs and she noted that “those that stay are the ones who had the closest relationships with their teachers.” The synagogue also recently hired a Brandeis researcher to evaluate the program, and preliminary findings have been encouraging.
Certainly teachers, students and parents seem to be happy. The congregation has a wait list for membership, although non-member children can enroll in the school when there are openings in their grades.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon before Hebrew school began, some students happily roamed around the Central Synagogue Community House lobby with packs of friends, while others shmoozed with teachers and others sat on the floor, chatting, getting homework out of the way and noshing on pretzels, French fries and other snacks.
Despite the conventional wisdom about the horrors of Hebrew school, these kids, when asked by a reporter if they like Hebrew school, seemed almost surprised by the question.
“I love it,” said Ben, a seventh grader at the Little Red Schoolhouse who has been coming since third grade. “It’s really interesting. I learn a lot about Judaism that I never knew before.”
Hope Newman, a sixth grader at Columbia Grammar who has been coming to Central since nursery school, said, “The teachers are really nice and welcoming. They teach the most important things and make it interesting to learn.”
Nicky, a seventh grader at Trevor Day School, echoed the positive reviews of the teachers.
“They’re all really nice,” he says. “It’s easy to talk to them about stuff. My mom says they’re hip.”
Not that Central is free of problems. That Wednesday, few of the seventh graders had their required homework or tzedakah when it was collected after group prayer services in the basement chapel. Meanwhile, in the second grade classrooms upstairs, even as most of the students seemed engaged in the day’s activities celebrating Israel’s birthday, a handful were acting up and talking out of turn.
Caryn Newman, Hope’s mother, said that while the full-time faculty was not her reason for choosing Central (the family has been involved with the temple since Hope was a baby), she thinks it “makes a big difference” in the quality of the school.
“When I went to Hebrew school, the teacher was an old, grumpy guy,” she said. “These ones are all young and fun and involved in Judaism. It’s nice for the kids to relate to them ... you have a different attitude when you’re doing something part-time versus full-time.” n
Next in the series: Harnessing technology beyond the classroom.
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