Giving Our Gorilla A Much-Needed Banana

ISJL Education Conference Participants; courtesy
ISJL Education Conference Participants; courtesy

In considering Steiner’s metaphor of the 800-pound gorilla, we don’t think the gorilla is the untrained teachers. The gorilla is us: a Jewish community ready to criticize our teachers without offering them the help they need.

by Rachel Stern and Rabbi Matt Dreffin

We never really thought of ourselves as zookeepers, but as it turns out, we’re pretty good at taking care of 800-pound gorillas. At least, if the “800-pound gorilla” in question is the same simian David Steiner references in a piece just featured on eJewish Philanthropy:

“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…”

Training our teachers is something the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) has been doing for a decade now. We’re located in Mississippi – an area not exactly known for its massive Jewish population, but we believe every Jewish community counts. Our approach is collaborative, trans-denominational, and creates an ecosystem of Jewish education that serves teachers and students in communities of all sizes throughout a 13 state Southern region.

To extend the metaphor, our approach is attempting to give that hungry gorilla a much-needed banana. And we’re not just addressing a Southern problem, nor are we offering a uniquely Southern solution. The issue Steiner is addressing – a largely untrained workforce of Jewish educators – exists here in our region. Everyone expects in a small town that the teachers will be less equipped; but what we know to be true is that Jewish educators in communities of all sizes need better quality of instruction, ongoing support, and engagement as educators.

Take a look at your synagogue’s budget: look for the line designating professional development for teachers (not rabbis or educators, but teachers). The only dollars that exist in most congregations’ professional development budget, if any, are allocated to the professional staff – furthering the learning of those already trained. We provide little to no financial investment to those who need professional development the most. We recognize that we have untrained teachers in our school, and then allow them to remain untrained.

The reality of our situation is that regardless of the size or location of a community, finding good teachers is hard, and our teaching staff experience levels will vary. In so many supplemental religious schools, we “take who we can get.” The big paradigm shift needs to be that once we get them as teachers, we acknowledge and act upon the belief that if we invest in them, train them, and properly equip them, they can become good teachers. We have seen plenty of these teachers, volunteers with nothing approaching a master’s degree in education, become “master” educators when given proper support over time.

Stemming from the belief that these teachers can be truly impactful educators, there are three core components to the ISJL’s approach. Each element reflects an awareness of the ongoing need for supporting teachers at all levels, and ensuring all Jewish children access to an excellent Jewish education. We call these components “the three Cs”:

Conference. Every community participating in our education program must send representatives to our annual summer conference – preferably, they’ll send their entire teaching staff. Requiring conference attendance for program participation is sometimes met with resistance. We expect that; culture change is hard, and giving up three days for professional development for a part-time teaching job that is not most attendees’ “day job” is hard. But we require congregations to invest in their teachers, and teachers to invest in teaching. The ISJL also invests in these teachers by charging no conference fee. We are the only Jewish education conference to charge zero registration fee; participants pay only for their hotel room and meals. We raise the money to pay for the conference and train these teachers, because when we invest in them, we are investing in Jewish students. Somehow, we are both a well-kept secret and a well-regarded phenomenon: speakers who have volunteered their time to teach at our conference have included Joel Grishaver, Ron Wolfson, Evie Rotstein, Harlene Appelman, Kerry Olitzky, Joel Hoffman, Betsy Dolgin Katz, and many other top educators. (We don’t just give the gorilla a banana. We give ‘em the best bananas around.)

Curriculum. At the conference, we spend a lot of time orienting teachers to the ISJL curriculum, a comprehensive, scripted set of lesson plans for Pre-K through high school. We focus on the curriculum because it’s a large part of how we equip teachers for success – not only giving them a tool, but also teaching them how to use it, and connecting them with others utilizing the same tool. This unified curriculum, used by all ISJL education partners, represents something more than a bunch of schools using the same books. It creates a community of educators, students, and parents, all committed to the very Jewish principle that we are all responsible for each other. Though teachers and rabbis can add denominational content, the curriculum itself transcends denomination, just as it transcends school size and region. It does not limit students and teachers to only one point of view. It is a living, breathing document, with teachers providing feedback and sharing emerging needs – which is another way teachers are empowered: they can share their suggestions for strengthening the program, each year.

Community Visits. The final tier of our approach is to put Education Fellows – recent college graduates committed to bettering the Jewish future, trained and supervised by master educators – on the road to visit communities where they are. The Fellows conduct additional teacher training sessions, help develop and implement family program, and serve as a resource year-round to the communities and teachers they serve. In other words, after the conference concludes and the curriculum is in-hand, the teachers are not left to fend for themselves. The teachers always have someone to call. They are treated as professionals and supported throughout the year.

In considering Steiner’s metaphor of the 800-pound gorilla, we don’t think the gorilla is the untrained teachers. The gorilla is us: a Jewish community ready to criticize our teachers without offering them the help they need. It’s a tough banana to swallow, but if we want to improve Jewish education for our students, it’s time to come together and re-think our approach. The solution we have come up with here in the South serves 3,000 Jewish children and hundreds of teachers. We think this regional model and “3 C” approach could satisfy Northern gorillas, too.

Rachel Stern, MAJE/MAJCS, is the Director of Education at the ISJL, overseeing a team that serves 70 congregations throughout the South. Prior to assuming this position seven years ago, Rachel worked at HUC-JIR (Cincinnati), as well as with Jewish Federations and as a director of congregation schools.

Rabbi Matt Dreffin, MAJE, a recent ordinee of HUC-JIR (Los Angeles), joined the ISJL staff in 2013. He serves as Assistant Director of Education, overseeing Education Fellows, developing programs, working with communities, and occasionally also traveling for the Rabbinic Services department at the ISJL.