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The invaluable role of a Jewish educator: A funder’s perspective

The long-term goals of Jewish education are to shape a committed, thoughtful, ethical generation of Jews

Last year, as public health requirements necessitated remote learning, technology became front and center in discussions about lasting educational change. While I recognize the value of technology, and support its ability to make the educational process more efficient and relevant, the pandemic has made me even more certain about the invaluable role that human beings — specifically, talented, well trained and well supported Jewish educators — play in shaping a human being and nurturing Jewish identity. The development of educators has become a particularly timely topic of discussion as the field begins to learn from the findings in CASJE‘s (Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) new study, “Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators.”

Only humans have the capacity to help children develop healthy, authentic relationships with others, the community and G-d. As such, Jewish educators should be encouraged to exercise this talent authentically and from the heart. Their talent should also be valued enough to prioritize developing it professionally.

Throughout the pandemic, person-to-person interaction has continued to prove its unique power to convey identity, love of learning and enthusiasm for being part of a community. Jewish day schools doubled down on relationship building; a great many invested in safe, creative ways to bring students and teachers together in person. And throughout the pandemic, day schools, camps and youth groups were lifelines to so many children with their strong emphasis supporting social-emotional needs including personal check-ins with kids, as well as new virtual community-building rituals and programs.

Funders should be actively thinking about how we can best elevate educators to maximize their positive impact on children’s Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief, whether through distance learning or in person.

Educators are unique facilitators and role models in developing children’s Jewish identity.

We should help ensure that educators are given the opportunities to provide children with precise, positive and consistent messages about their Jewish learning because it directly influences how they emerge as Jewish adults and parents.

Educators should be trained to help nurture children’s Jewish souls, which is far more personal than focusing on content knowledge or skill development. I’m referring to aspects of human development such as compassion, humility and a connection to G-d. Helping children find relevance from our timeless wisdom and values will guide their day-to-day choices, sense of self and role in the community and greater world. Educators, like family members, are uniquely positioned to offer personalized feedback and coaching grounded in Jewish principles aimed at honoring children’s efforts to grow and find meaning in their lives.

I remember when my kids would come home from their Jewish day school with exam schedules that included both Judaic and general studies subjects — side by side as if they were one and the same. Sometimes, they even felt general studies courses were more important than the Jewish ones. Certainly general studies provide students with critical knowledge and skills in service of broad-based literacy and career preparation. However, Jewish education is vastly different as it integrally and uniquely guides the student’s Jewish identity with messaging that potentially influences the trajectory of each one’s personal life journey. The goal is to instill a sense of pride and confidence in emerging Jewish identity, while building a strong inner core of character traits and beliefs that support strong self-esteem independent of comparisons, external approval or grades.

Enhancing Jewish identity happens at different times and settings in the life of a learner. Educators can seize teachable moments in school, camp or youth group settings when children are building life skills and an understanding of the world outside of themselves. From the classroom to the playground to the dining hall to social media “spaces,” there are so many teachable moments for children to learn resilience, kindness and self-respect among other values. These moments are augmented by seemingly daily opportunities to address head-on Jewish responses to current events and crises impacting local, national or global communities.  

Many of us can recall a time when a Jewish role model said just the right thing at just the right time in an encouraging pep talk with a seamless and authentic connection to Judaism. My son recounts often about a time he shared his uncertainty about a significant upcoming decision with the program director of his Jewish youth group’s summer teen leadership program. This Jewish educator had the knowledge and skill to offer my son sage advice that guided him in that decision – and other decisions since then. “When life presents you with two choices, consider the tougher one. God knows you can handle it, and growth comes from challenge.” Such simple and yet profound framing of life wisdom that speaks to Jewish foundational thought will last him a lifetime! Those kinds of Jewishly-inspired teachable moments happen uniquely through a teacher or mentor who is trained to understand that if attentive and invested in another, Jewish education is finding opportunities to develop the greatest potential in a person.

These are the opportunities when Jewish educators of all types — teachers, counselors, advisors — nurture children’s identity by leaning on and sharing the Jewish wisdom and values that have guided personal growth for generations. Consider the impact if all educators were trained to seize those unexpected opportunities and seamlessly integrate this kind of Jewish learning into children’s identity building.

Funders can strengthen our Jewish future by strengthening educators.

Funders play a crucial role in all of this. We can convey a clear expectation that Jewish education delivers a package of foundational wisdom, values and relationship building that empowers every student and builds positive Jewish identity, in addition to providing skills training and exposing students to Jewish texts. We need to partner with one another and with professionals. There are many questions we can consider together: What are the pieces that need to be put into place to strengthen children’s Jewish identity and communal participation? How can practitioners and stakeholders best use the Jewish wisdom and values that have sustained us through the ages to reassess Jewish educational priorities? What research is needed to pinpoint how to synthesize best educational practices with timeless Jewish tradition? What Jewish learning and experiences should be emphasized to enrich children spiritually, emotionally, socially and intellectually?

While funders collaborate with practitioners and researchers to envision the future, our creative and talented educators are the ones empowered to make that future a reality. For example, the Mayberg Foundation is seeing positive outcomes from Pedagogy of Partnership (PoP), a research-based relationship-centered educational approach that is meaningful for students and teachers alike. I was amazed watching middle schoolers engage thoughtfully and respectfully with Jewish texts using PoP’s guidelines for productive chavruta/partner discussion. With two human partners and the Jewish text as an equal partner, the children were learning from the guidance of the educator that everyone has something to teach and to learn. Learning to listen actively with the intention of elevating the conversation by understanding another’s perspective is a shift we can all use. When funders support innovative methods and experimentation, we provide an invaluable platform for educators who perhaps never before had the opportunity to exercise their visions and dreams. Imagine what educators, funders, board members and parents can accomplish together.

Many people are wondering if, in the pandemic’s wake, there will be significant lasting change in the education world and even more importantly, how we, as human beings, will be changed. As we look ahead — whether learning is happening in person, virtually or both — we must strive to realize that the long-term goals of Jewish education are to shape a committed, thoughtful, ethical generation of Jews. Jewish educators are the most important resource in realizing these goals, so it is incumbent on all of us to elevate and encourage their creativity and talent, invest in them, and hold them to high standards of excellence. Their success determines the strength of our Jewish future.

An entrepreneurial philanthropist who embraces collective effort, Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, founded Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), catalyzing radical improvement in Jewish day schools, and MyZuzah, bringing kosher, fair trade mezuzot to Jewish homes across the globe. She and her husband, Louis, express their commitment to foundational Judaism and the connectedness of all Jews through their foundation’s grantmaking and operating programs, which are all dedicated to proliferating Jewish wisdom and values in the contemporary world. She can be contacted at Manette@Mayberg.org.