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