By David M. Scott, RJE
The impact that an educator has on his or her students’ Jewish education is profound. The educator has a direct and immediate path into the minds of learners. As John Dewey described it in his work Experience and Education, educators are “the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated and rules of conduct enforced.” However, administrators, directors of education, and clergy also play significant roles in shaping and providing Jewish education for students. In fact, the partnership between educators and administrators is essential to any successful learning program. As noted by educators David Edgerson and William Kritsonis in their article on the importance of these strong relationships, “Principals have the ability to improve teacher perceptions overall by simply attending to fundamental components inherent in quality relationships. As teachers begin to feel better about themselves and what their collective missions are as a result of significant interactions with their principals, they become more effective in the classroom.”
The teamwork among clergy, teachers, directors of education, administrators, and lay leaders was on full display at Congregation Beth Israel, a large Reform congregation in Houston, Texas, during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. While Beth Israel itself was flooded with over 600,000 gallons of water, The Shlenker School, located on the same campus, did not suffer major flooding. The school, which houses over three hundred early childhood and elementary school students (18 months – 5th grade), was able to open its doors well before a majority of schools in the Houston Independent School District could do so. Despite the campus suffering major damage to its infrastructure, it fared better than other Jewish institutions in the area. The Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston (ERJCC), the Bertha Alyce Early Childhood School also located on the ERJCC campus, and Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a large Conservative congregation with its own attached day school program fared far worse. As a result, conversations quickly began around how Congregation Beth Israel and The Shlenker School could absorb classes and students from neighboring institutions while repairs needed to be made.
Through partnerships among administrators, clergy, and teachers, a logistical Gordian knot was unraveled as space previously unheard of for purposes of learning were transformed. The Wolff-Toomim Social Hall of the Temple became the home of ten early childhood classrooms, cribs from the Bertha Alyce Early Childhood School found their ways into The Shlenker School classrooms, the youth lounge became a preschool, an Israeli dance class sprang up in our foyer, and both the Reform and Conservative religious schools found ways to share space on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings. In total over 300 more students each week experienced Jewish learning on our campus through incredible determination and careful planning. The details necessary to achieve these results were complex. However, everyone worked together, which speaks to the supportive and collaborative Jewish community of Houston.
While the physical challenges alone took the majority of our time, it was our educational vision to intentionally incorporate our shared experience into Jewish learning for our students. Jewish values of hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger), tikkun olam (repairing the world), and lo tuchal le’hitalem (not remaining indifferent) became the themes of our learning. As we invited Jews from around the city into our space, we also invited Jewish values into our conversations. The religious school kickoff with Reform and Conservative Jewish children and families coming together in worship and song is a powerful memory that will hopefully in time outweigh the devastation and destruction we endured.
As the fall turns to winter and our guests begin to return back to their own learning spaces, we have learned much. The partnerships among us have been strengthened through our shared adversity, and we are still working through additional challenges. Yet, as a director of lifelong learning, there are three major takeaways I have learned:
- Listen Actively and Be Open to Creative Thinking. The ability to listen non-judgmentally and allow space for creative discussion is critical to working through crises. Having a strong partnership and collaboration between educators and administrators who seek first to understand each other can provide space for creative solutions to emerge.
- Rethink Functional Space. The ability to use our space in non-traditional ways allowed us to achieve our goals of hosting over 300 additional students on our campus. Had we remained fixed and unable to think outside the box, we could not have achieved this. Most importantly, it was the combined effort of educators and administrators working together to make sure any particular space would be conducive to the intended learning.
- Adjust Your Curriculum. When the opportunity presents itself to engage in hands-on learning, do not dismiss it because it may not be part of your curriculum. Living the Jewish values we hold dear taught our students how relevant Jewish learning can be. The theories we embrace are not limited to time and history; they exist in the here and now and in every moment. As educational leaders we must rise to the challenge of teaching others when unanticipated opportunities emerge. As the Talmud teaches, “a person should always be flexible like a reed, and not hard like a cedar.” (BT Ta’anit 20a).
Through active listening, creative thinking, and being open to new modes of learning, the last several months have been enormously gratifying for everyone. The feelings of gratitude – both at receiving help and being capable of delivering it – have not diminished, and our community is better for it. Our partnerships between educators and administrators have been strengthened through this experience. While many months and perhaps years of rebuilding lie ahead for so many in our community, I am proud of the role that we played and the lessons we learned in ensuring the continuation of Jewish education for our children.
David M. Scott, RJE is the Executive Director and Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. He is a 2017 graduate from the Executive Masters (EMA) Program and received his Master of Arts Degree in Religious Education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.