Professionalizing a Field

After-school program; photo eJP archives (via JESNA)

By Rabbi Joshua Fenton

Over the years, at Studio 70 in Berkeley, we’ve been excited about many new and innovative initiatives taking place in the afterschool Jewish learning space. We’ve made it a priority of our organization to share our own work as well as celebrate the work of others. And we’ve continued to highlight the need for much greater investments to support the field. That’s because there are amazing programs being run after school, in supplemental community-based programs, religious schools and Hebrew schools throughout North America; but you wouldn’t know it.

Hundreds if not thousands of talented, imaginative educators can be found in these communities doing fantastic work, but their stories aren’t being told. And much if not all of their exciting work remains siloed. In the absence of a national organization tasked with and funded to develop the infrastructure to support the needs of this domain, the time has come to adopt a different approach – professionalize the field from the bottom up.

What is a professional? Professionals understand their work as an expression of some of their values. Professionals take continuing education and ongoing skills development seriously; seeking opportunities for learning and improvement. Professionals are likely to have specialized training. Professionals’ days are never done – they think about their craft when they’re not at their place of work on the clock. They are passionate about the impacts they make and interested in sharing their work and contributing to the field.

These are the kinds of educators we want engaging with our children. And for many if not most of the educators in the after school learning space, this describes who they are and how they see themselves. If only we’d recognize them as such.

Afterschool Jewish educators are on the front lines of Jewish learning for hundreds of thousands of children making Jewish life and learning meaningful and joyful every day. They support our kids and families to build positive Jewish identities. Yet too often they are undervalued and left out of larger conversations about Jewish learning after school.

Jewish after school educators understand the needs of children in ways traditional teachers do not. They appreciate the limits of their students knowing they’ve already had a long day of school. They adopt a variety of strategies making learning joyous and effective while not burning kids out. And they nurture complicated social and emotional needs following a long day of school. Jewish after school educators are master experiential educators, often with deep and intuitive understandings of children’s needs. And, for many, they represent the only Jewish educator an individual will ever meet.

Our plan is simple, to create a space to listen to the voices of these educators, celebrate them and their work, and in so doing contribute to the professionalization of the field.

To that end, we’re excited to announce a new conference devoted exclusively to innovations in Jewish learning after school – Voices From the Field. We believe there are many shining lights in the Jewish learning after school space. We believe there’s a large community of professional educators who’ve embraced this domain and identify as professionals and educators in it. And we know if we work together, if we develop the infrastructure, and we combine our efforts we’ll be successful in ushering in a new era for after school, supplemental Jewish youth learning.

We’ve seen this develop for Jewish camping, for Jewish early childhood education, for Jewish outdoor education, and for Jewish day school education. The time has come for the professionalization of the field of afterschool Jewish educators and we along with many of our friends and colleagues are stepping up to the plate to say we can do it. We need to do it, we owe it to our students and their families to make these learning experiences as excellent as they can be.

With special thanks to the Covenant Foundation and our growing list of partners, Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Education Project, and the American Jewish University. Look for a formal announcement of the Voices from the Field conference and if you want to learn more now, visit