Site Visits: A Chance to See Jewish Education in Action

by Renee Rubin Ross

A “site visit” is just what the name implies – an opportunity to leave our climate-controlled downtown San Francisco offices and get into the action of the Jewish educational initiatives that we fund, whether they be schools, camps, teacher training projects, youth groups, or study groups. Site visits are inspiring – each is an opportunity to experience the power, energy, and hope that come across in the projects that we fund.

I learned early on in my employment at the Foundation that a critical rule is to approach site visits with a feeling of humility. We visit organizations that we currently fund, are considering funding, or about which we want to learn more. Grantees or potential grantees clearly appreciate the opportunities that Foundation funding makes possible. So as one might imagine, when we visit a site, the staff of the organization wants to make a good impression. As representatives of the Jim Joseph Foundation, we are honored guests.

When I visit a site, I draw on my training as an educator and researcher. As a congregational educator, I was responsible for hiring and supervising teachers. One aspect of supervision was visiting classrooms in order to observe teachers in action. I observed the teacher’s behavior: was he or she warm, organized, clear in her explanations? How did students respond to the teacher? I observed objects that were in the environment (the setup of chairs, tables, learning activities, wall art, etc.). Most critically, I put all of this together to get a sense of the classroom – did it feel fun, engaging, stimulating, energetic, or something else? I use the same observation tools during site visits.

For example, in early August I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s (CJM) Jewish Education and Technology (JET) Institute, generously funded by the Covenant Foundation (and supported with funds from the Jim Joseph Foundation’s Innovation Grant to the CJM). From the time I arrived I started observing, noticing immediately the proper welcome and the obvious organization of JET: I was greeted at the entrance, given a name tag, and oriented as to what had transpired over the past four days of the seminar. These seemingly small factors gave me a sense of the “tone” of the JET experience, and contributed to what I believe was a productive and fulfilling visit for both the Foundation and grantee.

As I interacted with the 30 participants—teachers and educators from Jewish day schools in California and beyond – I heard firsthand their enthusiasm about the time that they had already spent together. The learning was high-quality. It had provided them with numerous Jewish and general resources that they could bring back to their classrooms and schools. They were excited to have a new network of colleagues for whom they could reach out to in order to continue to learn about education technology.

Similarly, this past January I visited BBYO’s “Staff Conference” in Baltimore, Maryland, a four-day professional development and team-building gathering for more than 100 BBYO staff from around North America. My primary purpose, on behalf of the Foundation, was to observe the recently hired Directors of Jewish Enrichment (DJEs). The DJEs throughout the conference taught Jewish content to BBYO staff, which they could then share with teens.

The conference also was an opportunity to meet a number of Professional Development Initiative (PDI) participants. PDI was a combination MBA/Jewish Studies program for BBYO staffers. While I had been integrally involved in this grant, I had only met a few participants until this site visit. Now, I had the opportunity to hear directly about their experience in the initiative – the successes and challenges. Many excitedly told me about the promotions they had received after participating in PDI.

As these examples suggest, site visits help to add faces, stories, and lessons learned to grant proposals and reports. They help us to share knowledge across grantees: an effective strategy we see at one site visit could very well be emulated or adapted for another grantee. And while personal testimonials from event or seminar participants are helpful, they simply cannot replace observing that event or seminar in person. Goals, objectives, logic models, and budgets – all critical aspects of the Foundation’s grantmaking – are enhanced and brought alive by the diverse and interesting Jewish teachers and learners with which our grantees work.

Ultimately, along with these tangible benefits, the Jim Joseph Foundation professional team views site visits as a way to express a sense of partnership with our grantees. They are a key component of our relational approach to grantmaking, in which collaboration and an honest exchange of ideas are highly encouraged.

In taking the time to travel to our grantee visit, we signal that we are interested in and care about their work. We express the gratitude we feel for the work that they put in each day so that these projects are successful. Site visits are an opportunity for the grantee and Foundation to observe and learn together – to witness firsthand Jewish education in action.

Renee Rubin Ross, Ph.D., is a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Cross-posted on Jim Joseph Foundation Blog.