Imagine how we might increase the degree to which our learners are engaged in Jewish learning and living if institutions required their professionals to spend “x” amount of time contributing to an environment other than their own.

by Zachary Lasker, Ed.D.

I will always fondly recall David, my childhood teacher and youth group advisor, when I recite Birkat HaMazon. In high school, David taught me that it was customary to markedly lower your volume while reciting one of the last lines of the bracha:

Nar hayiti gam zakanti v’lo rayiti zedek ne’ezav, v’zaro mevakesh lachem.
I was young, I have grown older and I have not seen the righteous forsaken,
nor their children begging for bread.

My friends and I were seated around the Shabbat dinner table in David’s home. I’m sure it was a fun USY event, but the part I carry into my own Jewish observance to this day is his urging to protect the righteous among us by reciting this one line with a bit more discretion and humility than typically marked our rousing rendition of Birkat HaMazon. Sure enough, when we reached that line David modeled this practice, and I’ve been a low-volume reciter ever since.

This custom not only allows me an opportunity to be prayerful, but also to think fondly of the impact David had on the formation of my Jewish identity. During his years as a rabbinical student David was a regular figure in my life. During the school year, David worked at my synagogue as a youth advisor and Hebrew school teacher. During the summer, David joined my friends to navigate his own journey at Camp Ramah in Ojai, from camper to his legendary status as unit head. If I had to seat David at a cafeteria table in the movie Mean Girls, I would place him at the one labeled “Cool Nerds” – glasses, hair either over brushed and gelled or under, t-shirt half tucked /untucked in his shorts, and the most bizarre bounce in his stride. His strong passion for Jewish teaching and learning, and status as a rabbinical student, collided with teenagers in an interesting manner. Sometimes we rolled our eyes and tuned him out. More often, we found his sincere commitment to Jewish life to be magnetic – his love for Jewish tradition, compassion for others, strong sense of right versus wrong, and the loud statement he made by being so present in our lives. As a USY advisor, he embodied the stories he told us about the value of Jewish living, and was a strong role model. As a unit head at camp, he had a reputation for high standards, an exceptional level of organization, and a very strong focus on the “Jewish” in Jewish camp.

I believe that one of the reasons David made such a positive imprint on my life was because I was able to encounter him in different settings throughout the year and over an extended period of time. David was not just the advisor in a synagogue youth lounge. We saw each other there, but also at camp, in the hallways of the University of Judaism, where he studied in rabbinical school and I took classes through LA Hebrew High School, and even in less formal environments. As a result, the Jewish identity I formed under David’s influence was unrestricted to any one particular setting. With David, I learned to recite Birkat HaMazon in a loud camp dining room, in a synagogue social hall, and also at home.

Years later, I was privileged to wear multiple hats in a manner similar to David during the four years when I served both as Assistant Director at Camp Ramah in California and as a part-time Judaic studies teacher at Valley Beth Shalom Day School. From September to June I guided students through an Judaic curriculum and weekly Shabbat celebrations, and accompanied them on trips to AstroCamp and the Marin Headlands. During the summer months, roughly one-third of my students became my campers. I got to know these same kids through classroom discussions and homework assignments in 6th grade and at camp by watching them lead Kabbalat Shabbat, compete for a Maccabiah victory, and – eventually – comfort the next generation of campers through issues of homesickness, bullying, and struggles with prayer and faith. I can’t cite the specific impact I had on them, but I can say with certainty that my connection with kids like Rafi, Valerie, Aviv, Aryeh, Aaron, and Molly was deeper than with others, and that they made an enormous contribution to my own sense of Jewish community and my skills as a Jewish professional.

I believe that our community can greatly increase the likelihood that Jews will develop a strong Jewish identity and a specific set of beliefs and practices by providing opportunities for learners to encounter a core set of Jewish educators and role models across the various domains of their lives.

This idea came into sharp focus for me in a recent conversation with colleagues as we tried to map out program models that engage learners throughout the year. While there might be great advantages to programs (schools, camps, youth groups, trips) that are explicitly linked, we kept focusing on the importance of creating opportunities for Jewish educators (teachers, administrators, clergy, etc.), particularly skilled at teaching and engagement, to connect with learners across time and space.

We are more likely to welcome people we find endearing into one storyline of our lives when they have established street cred in another. Recall the feeling of familiarity and connectedness when Laverne and Shirley made guest appearances on Happy Days, when Mrs. Garrett went from working at the Drummond’s on Different Strokes to Eastland on Facts of Life, or when Ursula appeared on both Mad About You and Friends. The same phenomenon holds true in the real world. It’s no wonder that one of the core principles of experiential Jewish education, or as some refer to it “good education,” is to connect each learning experience with others that have similar goals[1]. While this certainly means that we should try to connect Jewish experiences to those that might seem secular, it also means that one Jewish learning experience should connect to others that are Jewish.

It is up to the professional and lay leadership of our community to create and support a range of models for Jewish educators like David to take primary and supporting roles in multiple domains. Fortunately, there are pioneering models from which we can learn – some long standing and others more recent.

Example #1: Clergy/Faculty-in-Residence Model at Jewish Camp

Many Jewish camps schedule a rotation of visiting clergy and educators who spend anywhere from one to four weeks at Jewish camp. During this period of time the visitors are asked to lead programs for campers and/or staff, tell stories, and serve as a resource for the wide range of questions that pop up in the course of a camp day. Many of these individuals are selected from synagogues, schools, and other Jewish organizations that serve the same catchment area as the camp, providing the visitors and the campers/staff members with the opportunity to connect on fresh soil (and in shorts and t-shirts).

Example #2: Jewish Camp Service Corps Program & Nadiv

In 2010 the National Ramah Commission piloted the Ramah Service Corps, a program aimed to maximize recruitment and retention efforts amongst their camps and to widen the impact of camp-style programming beyond the summer and into year round settings. A cohort of approximately 20 emerging adults who worked at Ramah camps over the summer and in part-time/full-time positions at Conservative synagogues or day schools were trained to serve as recruiters and camp-style educators from September through June, and received an extra stipend for their efforts. Ramah has built on the success of this pilot each year by increasing the number of service corps members, expanding the number of hours that they spend in the year round communities, and – most significantly – by partnering with the Union for Reform Judaism so that two such service corps programs are now operational, doubling the scope of impact.

Similarly, the Foundation for Jewish Camp initiated a program titled Nadiv for senior experiential Jewish educator positions to be shared by nonprofit camps and Jewish day or synagogue schools. The expressed goal of Nadiv[2] is to build synergy and collaboration in Jewish education, and specifically to:

  • Enhance the quality of Jewish education at the participating camps with a sustainable new model;
  • Increase the use of “informal” educational techniques at the participating schools;
  • Create a new career path for select, talented educators.

Models with an anchor in Jewish camp are a great place to start, but we need more of them. Fortunately there are many instances where a Jewish professional elects to spend time at camp, but most of these instances rest on the initiative of the individual and are not by organizational design. We also need models separate from camp, since a good number of Jewish children aren’t (yet?!?) at camp. For example, my sister, and fellow Jewish educator, once served Adat Ari El in Valley Village, CA as a full time youth director while also teaching a limited number of hours per week in its day school. This unique combination allowed her to get to know more layers of the children’s personalities and interests than other teachers, and also allowed her to better recruit day school students to youth group activities. The potential combinations are endless: synagogue staff, who teach in communal Hebrew high programs; youth group staff, who work on Maccabi sport teams, day school teachers; who staff March of the Living, Hillel staff; who lead Birthright trips to Israel, and so on.

This approach to leveraging our professionals has the potential to greatly impact our learners in a variety of ways:

  • We can benefit from a professional’s areas of strength/expertise in both a primary and secondary environment. These models can allow Jewish educators and clergy who are particularly skilled prayer leaders, story tellers, Israel educators, text teachers, song leaders, etc. to broaden their impact.
  • Learners get to know different dimensions of the professional’s personality, and start to see them as a more complete person than is otherwise the case. I remember seeing Jewish professionals in my community at camp over the summer and thinking, “Wow – Rabbi Shulman wears shorts!?! Rabbi Netter plays basketball?!? Mrs. Rosenthal sits out by the pool?!?”
  • Jewish professionals have time to break down their silos by sharing ideas and hatching plans for collaboration; plans which otherwise lie unexplored when professionals stay only in their primary domain.

This approach may have equally powerful benefits for the professional:

  • Professionals can exercise a different set of skills in one environment than they carry in another. In my own experience, my job as a camp director was primarily administrative and didn’t afford many opportunities to teach. My work at the day school allowed me to maintain my skills in pedagogy.
  • Professionals get an insider’s look into different settings of Jewish living and learning, and are more easily able to understand the ecosystem of Jewish education. I am certain that the clergy who spend time at camp are more easily able to promote camp amongst their congregants, and that camp staff who work at synagogues are more easily able to build on the experiences that learners have at shul.
  • Jewish professionals learn more about the children, adults, and families with whom they work when they see them in different settings.
  • Jewish professionals receive an inspiring “shot in the arm” when they spend time in a secondary environment. Most Jewish professionals feel a high degree of responsibility to serve the needs of their members/learners in their primary settings, but might feel rather liberated and inspired when they can play a more supporting role elsewhere.

Imagine how we might increase the degree to which our learners are engaged in Jewish learning and living if institutions required their professionals to spend “x” amount of time (2-hours a week, 1-day a week, 1-week per summer, etc.) contributing to an environment other than their own. Models for how this might unfold will vary greatly depending on the skills/talents of the professional, the goals of the particular communities involved, and the resources (money, time, space, etc.) available to best support this work. Employers and employees will need to draw on a certain degree of flexibility and patience, and the ability to prioritize our common goal to stimulate Jewish life over goals that might be particular to one institution. Some models might consist of an official job share where the professional is officially employed by two (or more) institutions, such as the model with Nadiv. Other models might be rooted more squarely in one institution, such as the synagogue that builds in an added amount of vacation or discretionary time for professionals who are able to secure a secondary commitment.

As I look back on my own trajectory I am grateful for the instances when I have been able to walk in David’s foot steps. Perhaps this optimized impact will continue on through Molly, an emerging educator I first met when she was a 6th grader in my day school classroom. We proceeded to spend over seven summers together as Molly grew from a camper into an exemplary counselor, taking advantage of many leadership opportunities afforded by Ramah. This coming summer she will take her place as a unit head, and I hope our community will create opportunities for Molly to multiply her impact on this summer’s campers and counselors as she tries on Jewish leadership roles in multiple environments.

*Rabbi David Stein passed away on May 24, 2014 at the age of 42. He is survived by his children Evan, Toby, Hadassah, and Noah, and a loving, extended family. Zichrono livracha, may his memory be a blessing.

[1] Jeff Kress, “What is experiential Jewish education?,” 2013
[2] www.jewishcamp.org/nadiv

Dr. Zachary Lasker is director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California, and a teacher in day and congregational schools.