Educators Going Viral
Fri, 01/15/2010
Israel Correspondent

Jerusalem — Conference organizers usually frown on participants who Facebook, Tweet or Google during a seminar, but no one objected when some of the 14 participants in a new fellowship program for Jewish educators did just that during a lively lecture. 

Hand-picked for their expertise as educators and their eagerness to utilize Web technology in their work, the participants — the first batch of fellows in the new Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship Program directed by the Lookstein Center at Bar-Ilan University — are actually being encouraged to get online in the name of education. 

The goal of the two-year fellowship is to give these veteran educators the tools needed to develop and maintain virtual (online) communities of educators in their particular 

 fields of Jewish education. These communities, known as “Communities of Practice,” or COPs, will facilitate communication over long distances and enable educators to jointly work on long-term projects regardless of their locations.

The fellows recently spent 10 days in Israel honing their skills in leadership, group building/dynamics, educational techniques and online collaborative technology. During tours to historical sites and workshops with some of Israel’s most creative thinkers, they encountered new ways to tackle traditional topics. 

The fellows spent hours exploring the ancient port city of Caesarea, for example, where tensions between Jews and non-Jews 2,000 years ago ignited the 66 AD revolt against the Romans that culminated in the expulsion of the Jews and the destruction of the Second Temple. 

The visit prompted a modern-day discussion about who may or may not belong in a certain community, “a question fellows will face when they create their own virtual communities,” explained Shalom Berger, who co-directs the Jim Joseph Fellows Program at Bar-Ilan.

In a similar vein, a seminar with mediator Nurit Bachrach taught the participants strategies to deal with conflict resolution, while a lecture by actor and artist Robbie Gringras “demonstrated how different people can look at the same thing and yet see things very differently. It raised the importance of being sensitive to cultural differences,” Berger said.

To prove his point, Gringras displayed a photo from the 2005 Israeli Disengagement from Gaza that depicted Israeli soldiers praying on one side of a metal fence and Jewish settlers praying on the other side. 

“Depending on your point of view, you may see this event as an expulsion or a disengagement,” Gringras noted. “You might even view this as an interesting ‘mechitza’ [separation barrier].

One of the most talked-about sessions was led by conductor Itay Talgam, whose “Maestro Programs” show listeners how to create a sense of community and to focus on individual efforts and collective achievements in their professional and personal lives — just as a conductor does this with an orchestra. 

Howard Blass, director of Tikvah, Camp Ramah’s inclusion program, said Talgam “showed us different leadership styles. It brought home the fact that there are many different teaching styles, just as there are different ways of conducting.”

Robyn Faintich, executive director of the Florence Melton Communiteen High School, says the program has encouraged her to explore different approaches. 

“Our guide, an archaeologist, showed us ruins, and he asked an important question: ‘How do we know that a ruin is Jewish?’ One way is if there is a mikveh.” That, Faintich says, got her thinking “about what artifacts need to exist so that when you launch your Community of Practice, people in the future will be able to identify it as Jewish.”

That led Faintich to consider the concept of “virtual space” — an online meeting place. 

Faintich recalled that during the program’s first joint activity, a retreat in California last fall, the fellows “sat around a campfire and told stories about community.” That led to the question, “How do you recreate this kind of experience virtually?”

The community Faintich envisions “would need to be infused with Jewish values, guided by Jewish values.” It would also have “lots of links to Jewish resources.” Thirdly, it would serve other Jewish educators in a particular field. 

Faintich’s virtual community would also “honor, celebrate Jewish holidays and Shabbat. It would not function 25 hours a week.”

Noting with a laugh that Jewish gatherings invariably include food, Faintich wondered how she could create a “virtual nosh” for a community of far-flung educators.

“It hit me that I can order kosher treats online and have them delivered to everyone in my COP,” Faintich said, smiling broadly. “Then, at an appointed hour, everyone would open their treat.”

Faintich said the creativity required for this exercise and others have strengthened the fellows’ problem-solving skills. 

“Sometimes the process is just as important as the product,” she said.

Nechemia Ichilov, Lower & Middle School Head of the Jess Schwartz Community Day School in Scottsdale, Ariz., believes that the fellowship program didn’t come a moment too soon. 

“I’ve always been a believer that education has not kept up with the world around us. The marriage of resources between the Lookstein Center, which has always been associated with the technological revolution, and the Jim Joseph Foundation was an opportunity not to be missed.”

Ichilov would like to create a COP to “cultivate professional leadership” that would help prepare assistant heads of school and others potentially capable of assuming top educational positions.  

Ichilov’s COP would focus on improving “skill sets” such as fund-raising and strategic planning. 

“There’s a lot of talent out there, but it needs to be nurtured,” the educator said. 

Jonathan Fass, co-director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning at the Houston JCC, believes that of all the different types of Jewish educators in North America, “those who work in communal institutions are the most disconnected to each other.” 

Fass hopes to create a COP that will enable other community-based educators “to continue professional growth and Jewish learning, so when professionals join the COP, they will gain something from it professionally.” 

Like the other fellows, Fass is mulling over the potential dynamics of his virtual community, “how the majority and minority of members will influence each other. It starts with who to invite.”

 Blass, from the Tivkah program, said he has plans for his COP for professionals who work with special needs kids to include young camp counselors.

“If you take 18- and 19-year-olds who view working in [a special needs camp] as just a summer job, and professionalize the experience for them, they may decide to work in the profession as a career,” Blass said hopefully.

Blass noted that when he is not working at camp, he tutors kids with special needs in Jewish subjects. 

As they formulate their online communities, the Jim Joseph participants say they will draw on the community they themselves have formed since the program’s launch a few months ago.  

Rachel Meytin, the vice president for programs at PANIM, BBYO’s Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, said the fellows, who come from diverse religious and professional backgrounds, have fostered a community that has given her “great pleasure.” 

“I came into the program knowing only one other fellow, and I now consider each one a friend and, even more importantly, a colleague upon which I would not hesitate to call for advice or assistance,” Meytin said.