The Importance of Being Excellent

By Missy Bell, RJE and Beth Young, RJE

In Pirkei Avot, Akavya ben Mahalalel advises reflecting upon three things: from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning. Jewish educators are continually in dialogue with these three elements. Our field is built upon our past, yet is continually in dialogue with an unknown and quickly evolving future. For Akavya it is the Divine before whom one must account, and Jewish educators also have an accountability to our learners – past, current, and future.

For this reason excellence is critical in Jewish education in order to make the field as strong as it can be and bring high standards to the discipline. Striving for excellence ensures the vibrancy and relevancy of Judaism in the lives of our learners. It is critical for Jewish educators to constantly engage in the process of pursuing excellence.

Excellence is a complicated concept in the world of education. It holds multiple, and sometimes contradictory meanings. Excellence is an end product – there are schools of excellence who have achieved distinction in various ways. Excellence is also a process – the same school has set goals and worked towards achieving them. Similarly, excellence can be used as a vision towards which one aspires or can be an achievable location having fulfilled various criteria. And amidst all of these understandings of the term is the reality that excellence must matter to Jewish educators.

Five years ago, the Association of Reform Jewish Educators adopted a new mission statement: 

“ARJE is the voice for Reform Jewish education. We advance the profession of the Jewish educator. We are dedicated to inspiring excellence in Jewish education.”

Over the next several years, as we broadened our membership to include all kinds of Reform Jewish educators as members, rather than just congregational professionals, and as the field of Jewish education continues to expand and grow, we recognized the importance of defining the excellence we referred to in our new mission.

In the fall of 2017, the ARJE board of directors appointed a Task Force on Excellence, filled with educators from the field and partners from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and the Union for Reform Judaism, under the leadership of Missy Bell, RJE, and Beth Young, RJE. Over the next 18 months, the task force explored the meaning of excellence in Jewish education. We looked at many sources, including the Rose Foundations Standards of Excellence and criteria for the Covenant Foundation’s award for excellence in Jewish education. We debated whether excellence is achievable or aspirational. We surveyed our leadership and membership, asking them where they saw excellence in our field. 

The most important outcome of this work was the recognition that there is not a single definition for excellence; rather, excellence is a vision. So together, we created the following Vision for Excellence. For each category in our vision, we pull from ideas found in both Jewish texts and academic texts on education; these can be found on the ARJE website. 

Vision Statement:

Excellence in Jewish Education Is

Aspiring to the highest levels of quality in the following areas:

Vision / Change / Innovation

  • Excellence in Jewish education requires an aspirational vision that drives learning. Educational vision should be principled, and also dynamic enough to intentionally pursue innovation and change as necessary.

Relationship / Connection

  • Education creates and nourishes caring relationships between learners and teachers, building a kehillah kedosha, a sacred community. Learners feel connected to Jews across time and space, as well as to Jewish text and tradition. 

Inspiration / Impact

  • Excellent Jewish education impacts learners, inspiring further learning and action. Excellence in Jewish education leads to tikkun middot (personal growth and self discovery) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Meaning / Authenticity

  • Jewish Education must be relevant and compelling so that learners will experience Judaism meaningfully and authentically. Excellent Jewish Education is deep and content-rich, timely and timeless.

Competence / Confidence

  • Excellence in Jewish education invites and prepares the learner to be an active participant in and a creator/shaper of Jewish life. Learning is aligned with the larger guiding vision of Jewish life in the institution / organization / community, while also taking into consideration the needs and abilities of individual learners.

The full vision statement, including educational and Jewish supporting texts, can be found on the ARJE’s website, https://reformeducators.org/for-educators/arje-vision-for-excellence/.

We are honored to be launching the Vision for Excellence at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial in Chicago, Illinois where the ARJE will celebrate the vision and excellence in our field during a Toast to Excellence on Wednesday, December 11.

Even while we share this Vision for Excellence with the field, our work towards inspiring excellence is only just beginning. Over the coming months, the ARJE will be developing rubrics and processes based on the vision; setting expectations to which we hold ourselves as educators, as well as our educational programs. We look forward to continuing the work!

For our colleagues who are interested in excellence in Jewish education, we encourage you to come to the ARJE’s Annual Gathering 2020: A Summit on Excellence, January 27-29 in Denver, Colorado. Learn more and register online at https://reformeducators.org/for-educators/professional-learning/.

Missy Bell, RJE is Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL and serves as Vice President for the Association of Reform Jewish Educators. Beth Young, RJE is Director of Education at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, FL and is completing her first term on the board of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.

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