The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Supplementary School Discourse

by David Steiner

When considering the state of complementary Jewish education, I am struck by the absence of conversation about the 800-pound gorilla sitting in front of us: the fact that our Jewish educators are largely untrained as teachers. There is a lot of lip service given to innovation, experiential education, differentiated learning and engagement. I read about the ecosystems of complementary education, the need (or not) to emulate the summer camp experience, the introduction of technology, and the role of families in their children’s learning. What I don’t read about is improving the quality of instruction.

We are known as “the people of the book,” yet we populate our largest gathering spaces for Jewish education with avocational teachers. This is not meant to disrespect these highly dedicated individuals who serve with great care and concern for the future of our people, but they are not an adequate substitute for well-trained professionals.

When I was a director of education for a mid-sized Reform congregation in the Chicago suburbs, I was asked to adopt the Chai Curriculum, which I also do not wish to dismiss. Chai is a very ambitious attempt of the URJ to set a “common core” of sorts for Reform Jews. It is also written as a script for individuals who are not trained to teach. I’m paraphrasing, but I was told at a NATE conference that with Chai, anybody can deliver the Reform curriculum. This may be true, but is that how we understand teaching?

In Pirkei Avot, we do have this model of pedagogy. “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.” In essence, there is a school of thought that says that education is about transferring solid pieces of knowledge to students. Think Charles Dickens’s Hard Times:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Another school of though about education, which comes directly from our Talmud is Rabbi Akiva’s classroom when Moses suddenly finds himself in the eighth row, the equivalent of wearing a dunce cap. Akiva’s teaching confounds Moses until he learns that the subject of the lesson is his own Torah from Sinai. In both models, Torah is the subject of the lesson, but in the former example, Torah is a reified subject of education, which can be handed over to any recipient. In Akiva’s classroom, the same Torah mystifies Moses because it has changed so much. It now holds the stamp of the teacher and is unrecognizable to its original recipient.

I am not suggesting that we abandon any semblance of a uniform curriculum. What I am suggesting is that we need masterful teachers who know how to take facts and data and help students make meaning from them. Hebrew, for instance, is just another language unless a teacher can bring to life the nuances of our magical mamaloshen. The same applies to the study of Torah. Can we expect just anyone to identify with students a code of morals and ethics, of rituals and traditions, in a five-volume tome that defies science and is filled with incest, rape, war and deceit?

According to William Ayers (for the sake of full disclosure, a member of my dissertation committee):

“Teaching is intellectual and ethical work, and teachers live with their students at the center of all classroom practice. Teachers are responsible for the content and conduct of their work – for curriculum, pedagogy and evaluation, and for the lives of a specific group of students. Teachers are not mindless bureaucrats or soulless clerks. Teachers must become relationship-builders, inventors and creators, protectors and advocates, thinkers and doers” (Ayers, 2010).

We will never have great complementary schools without great teachers, and teaching is a vocation. It takes training and it takes learning. It is not something we can bypass with a scripted curriculum. Before we look outside of ourselves and try to find external solutions to the failure of complementary schools, let’s be more self -reflective and ask “would we go to court with an avocational lawyer?” “Would we submit to surgery with an avocational doctor?” Of course not, so why do we continue to do so with the central pillars of our complementary Jewish educational systems? This is the 800-pound gorilla in our educational ecosystem, and he’s waiting to be fed.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is working to complete his rabbinic ordination. He has been a congregational director of education for both the Reform and Conservative synagogues, and he recently returned to America from a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.


Ayers, William (2010) To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, 3rd Edition, Teachers College Press, NYC
Dickens, Charles, (1854) Hard Times, Harper and Brothers Publishers, NYC

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  1. says


    Great article! You are correct when you identify the issue as the professionalism of teachers. This “problem” began in the 70’s when congregations were flooded with students and there were not enough trained teachers to go around. Individuals were hired and given on the job training. They were and are dedicated, passionate, committed, great role models, and unable to teach beyond the text book they have been given.

    As a school director for 13 years, the problem of finding master teachers was always a challenge. Turning non-teachers into master teachers was also a challenge. For the most part, I was able to mold avocational teachers into professional teachers. I recognize that not every school has a director or a director capable of doing this.

    The brother or sister gorilla in the room is how, in our secular world, teachers are treated. We need to move away from the, “any trained monkey could do that” attitude. Public school teachers who may have a Masters degree or a Doctoral degree are also treated this way. Teachers are no longer seen as professionals by a large portion of Americans. This includes American Jews and applies to Jewish education as well. Cash-strapped congregations and communities have stripped professional development from their budgets for teachers AND directors. It is demeaning and discouraging.

    There are schools where students can prepare to become teachers – secular and Jewish. What school teacher can afford an advanced degree unless they are supported by their congregation or district? What teacher, who works a full-time job in a completely different profession and works in our schools for 2-10 hours a week, is even willing to pursue such education? Community scholarship money is often only available to full-time students. Right now, it is less expensive to take out a second mortgage than get a student loan. Central Agencies of Jewish Education and BJEs, where they still exist, have been working to provide teacher professional development. These organizations are subject to the funding whims of donors; every year brings more uncertainty.

    In order to “get the monkey off our backs,” the community needs to rededicate itself and its resources to teacher professionalization. Individuals skilled in the art and science of teaching AND knowledgeable in Jewish content are hard to find, but they can be created. Richard Solomon in his text, “Toolbox for Teachers and Mentors,” and other experts in Jewish Education have made this point over and over again. This path can satisfy the 800 lb gorilla’s appetite. Then “just get my kid through bar mitzvah” can stop.

    BTW, I found your description of Hebrew as the Yiddish word, “mamaloshen,” interesting. (smile)

    Gloria Becker, EdD
    Jewish Learning Venture

  2. Melanie Berman says

    Dear David,
    Your thoughtful article has encouraged me to jump from “lurking” into actually participating in the conversation. I’ve worked as an educational leader in both complementary schools and day schools, and have faced the challenges that you describe.
    I believe that you have made a significant contribution to the discourse by identifying the two models of education described in our tradition; they parallel the distinctions between traditional and progressive education outlined many years ago in Lawrence Cremin’s book “The Transformation of the American School”. For over 40 years, I have been trying to implement the insights and formats of progressive education into Jewish settings, and while the schools were generally successful, my ability to negotiate the politics of challenging ‘conventional wisdom” was not as well developed as my educational vision!

    That being said, I think that we need to hone our intuitive sense of the qualities that we need to identify and then nurture in our teachers. While formal training in education may certainly have major benefits, I think that it is equally important to find people who have a passion for learning themselves and also a delight in the potential that can be found in every student. Without these qualities, teachers can “go through the motions” but rarely inspire their students.

    Perhaps we can utilize new technologies to develop new models of teacher education. Thinking outside the institutional box, perhaps we could establish small clusters of teachers around talented mentors through social media, creating a flexible, supportive, and non-threatening learning environment in which teachers could share their personal experiences and grow from exposure to new ideas.
    What do you think?


  3. scott aaron says

    kol hakavod David! I agree completely. One additional thought though – you get what you pay for. We pay B’nai Mitzvah tutors, SAT prep tutors, math tutors, etc, far better per hour than supplementary school teachers. If we want to attract the best talent who can use their skills in this setting, we need to pay them what they are actually worth and not just what the going rate is.

  4. says

    Steiner is spot on. Our reality is that supplemental Jewish educators are educating the largest majority of Jewish children and yet they are under-trained, under-valued and lack sufficient resources (i.e. paid prep and collaboration time, ongoing professional development, supplies, etc.).

    It’s only logical that to attract trained educators to be Hebrew School teachers, we must create competitive incentive packages.

    The challenge is HOW do we attract, train, retain and adequately compensate qualified teachers for a 5 hour a week gig?

    The biggest elephant in the room is WHO is going to take on the challenge of the struggling supplemental education system?

    It’s a NATIONAL SHANDA: most Jewish children who get a Jewish education get one at Hebrew Schools, and yet so many Hebrew Schools and Hebrew School educators are under equipped to take on the task.

    I don’t know the answer, but at Jewish Kids Groups we are attempting to address this challenge by hiring Jewish educators who work 35 hours a week over 6 days. We are able to do this because we run both a 5 day a week Jewish afterschool education program and a Hebrew school. Families pick the combo of days that work best for them and teachers work for us nearly full-time. We pay our team for prof development, prep time, etc. it is my hope that in the future we can also provide health insurance and other benefits.

  5. says

    Thank you David for raising up this issue for conversation. As First Vice President of NATE and as a Jewish educator, I share your concern that we do not invest enough in the training and support of our teachers.

    NATE (National Association of Temple Educators) recently addressed this concern with a conference dedicated to exploring how we can enrich the professional growth and learning of teachers. While NATE itself does not train classroom teachers, NATE members do. In partnership with Learning Forward, we looked closely at the Standards for Professional Learning that Learning Forward endorses, we explored some of the challenges implementing those standards may pose in Jewish educational settings, and identified opportunities that NATE educators could seize in making changes in the work they do with their teachers. (Learning Forward is an international association committed to the mission of “every educator engages in effective professional learning every day so that every student achieves.” Those interested in seeing some of the notes, learnings and reflections that came out of that conference can reference them at

    Many of our teachers consider that their avodah kedosha, sacred work; they see it as part of living out their Jewish life. If teaching is sacred work, then our teachers are k’lei kadosh – the sacred implements of that work. Thus, we need to invest in them not only as teachers – giving them the skills and knowledge they need to do the work effectively – but we also need to invest in them as individual Jews who are on their own ongoing journeys of Jewish living and learning.

    We cannot be afraid to set expectations of learning and growth for our teachers – learning about the practice of teaching as well as enriching their own Jewish knowledge and connection. To put it simply, no one wants to do a poor job at something they care about – all the more so something they see as sacred. I believe that many of our teachers would appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow as educators and as Jews.

    Yes, the Jewish community needs to think systemically about how we might support this very large cohort of teachers in their professional and personal growth. At the same time, each of us in our communities and institutions should be working to make realistic and impactful changes that set expectations and goals for learning and growth.

  6. says

    Mr. Steiner neglected to mention the part the Education Director plays in finding the right people. I have worked with gifted Directors who are clear about the mission of the synagogue and the school and know what it takes to teach. These Directors hire equally gifted teachers who may or may not have formal training, but know how to teach the facts, engage children in learning, and connect them to their synagogue and larger community. Adequate compensation and ongoing professional development is as vital in this profession as it in others, and skimpy communal funding undermines long term engagement for both teachers and students.