Etzah: Lessons Learned

By Rachel Lerner

We often hear parents say “my kid’s gonna suffer through Hebrew school just like I did.” But we, as Jewish professionals, can shift the refrain to “Hebrew school is so much better now!” How?

A national conversation about pushing the needle on congregational education has already begun. There has already been so much improvement in the area of part-time Jewish education. (Call it religious/supplementary/Hebrew/congregational/etc. We know what you mean!).

Here at Etzah, which means advice, we have been supporting those in the field of supplementary education in Southern California since 2013. An initiative of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University, Etzah offers unique, university-based expert coaching to supplemental programs undergoing change processes or piloting educational innovation. We have been able to provide highly subsidized consulting to specific educational institutions. Over the four years, we have learned how we can best support those in the field.

There are three major lessons we’ve learned from this work that have implications for everyone working to support the area of supplemental religious education:

1. Educators must be ready for growth in order for the work to be effective.

Not all institutions are ready to make change. In order to be successful, the educational leader needs to identify either a change that needs to be made or a process that needs supporting. The second crucial piece of readiness for change is support from within the institution for that change or a culture that allows for the educator to affect the culture.

If an educator is ready to make a change, but nobody else in the institution is on board, the school is probably not yet ready. If the educator is ready to make a change and has the support of the rabbi and some lay leaders, we can help them lead a change process that will include more lay leaders and educate the entire community about why the change is necessary. When the readiness is not there, our work is less effective. When everyone on board is ready, however, amazing things can happen like a new curriculum can be imagined, innovative and exciting educators can be brought onboard, and the model of Sunday religious school can be completely shattered and restructured.

2. Individualizing the work is key to its success

Individualized consulting, which oftentimes comes in the form of coaching, is most effective and beneficial for an institution. There is no one-size-fits-all remedy to congregational education. Each institution, educational leader, and culture are different and must be taken into account in change-making work. Our work to help part-time schools must focus on the strengths and growing edges of the educational leader, the demographics and history of the congregation, the mission of the school amongst other factors.

In order to do this effectively, we have found that coaches cannot begin the work with an agenda other than to help each school improve along their own trajectory. When coaches apply their knowledge of various curriculum and guides for institutional change they help educational leaders adapt and apply it to their setting.

3. Our assumptions about who might be teaching our children were wrong; yours might be too.

When we came to this work, we had some assumptions about who was working in supplementary schools. We assumed there were two primary groups of educators: young and inexperienced, and older, very experienced. Through a survey of LA area congregational schools, we found that, in fact, the majority of congregational school educators are over 40. Many are professional educators in other settings, and for some teaching in supplementary school is their primary job. Even among the younger teachers, many are professional educators in other settings. In other words, it’s not just college kids teaching in congregational school for some extra cash; it is professional educators, often with many years of experience.

While it is definitely true that there are those teachers who do not see Jewish education as their full time career, the majority of teachers in part-time settings have a lot of educational experience. In addition to recruiting more young teachers, we need to focus our professional development on working with veteran teachers to improve the quality of instruction.

There are many coaching endeavors around the country. We encourage not only congregational schools, but all educational institutions, to consider the power of individualized coaching as an important ingredient in transformational education.

Dr. Rachel Lerner is the Dean of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles where she directs Etzah.