The Reform Day School Externship: The Business of Building JDS Advocates

by Ken Gordon

At PEJE, we always stress the importance of two goals that align with our long-term vision: (1) community collaboration and (2) advocating strongly for the value of JDS. Turns out, we’re not the only ones who believe in this powerful combination of ideas. We’re excited to tell you about a superb capacity-building project: The Reform Day School Externship. Now in its fourth year, the externship is a model of collaboration of between PARDES: Day Schools of Reform Judaism, host member schools across North America, Hebrew Union College-­­Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and the Union for Reform Judaism (UJR).

The school-based experiential learning component of the externship recently hosted ten specially selected HUC-JIR students at The Rashi School in Dedham, Massachusetts.

“This externship fosters a network of emerging rabbis, educators and cantors who are able to partner with their local day schools across North America because they understand the day school as an educational institution with unique, yet similar properties to a URJ member congregation,” says an enthusiastic Dr. Jane West Walsh, PARDES Executive Director and URJ Day School Specialist.

The externship week was packed with activity. As externs worked with faculty in and out of classrooms; met with board members, parents, faculty and community leaders; as well as worked carpool lines and helped with lunch duty, they became participant-observers who brought their academic questions to the reality of Rashi’s Jewish learning and living culture. The externs even attended the Rashi annual dinner in Boston, which celebrated the school’s authentic commitment to social justice.

One of the best parts of this program is that when the externs head back to their HUC-JIR campuses in the fall, they will conduct programs for fellow students, faculty and campus leaders about the contemporary Jewish day school from a Reform perspective. This will go a long way to spreading their insights about day schools to academic communities – and eventually to communities all over North America.

Dr. Matthew King, Rashi’s head of school, says that the externs’ presence at the Rashi dinner “enriched their understanding of the school’s values, culture, and history and the role of fundraising” – an important component if HUC-JIR is going to produce savvy leaders who will likely have to deal with financial sustainability.

Walsh notes that the externship concept was the brainchild of Dr. Michael Zeldin, HUC-JIR Professor of Jewish Education, who was recently named National Director of the HUC-JIR Schools of Education. She added that, on May 23rd, a group of Reform movement leaders including new URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs; URJ Senior Vice President, and Rashi parent, Rabbi Jonah Pesner; plus VIPs from of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the National Association of Temple Educators spent the day observing and engaging at Rashi.

Walsh emphasizes that this a capacity-building project for the movement as a whole that will impact not only Reform day schools, but every day school that seeks to welcome Reform affiliated families. She also explains that PARDES, URJ and HUC-JIR partners behind the externship believe this project will have a broad impact in the years ahead, especially if the program can continue to find funding.

Chances are that the externs will go on to make a strong case for Reform day school.

“The externs will begin to understand the language of day school life and the attraction day schools have for the families who choose them,” says Walsh. “Externs will become leaders who know how to advocate for day schools with knowledge and insight. They will be prepared to understand the differing assumptions and expectations of day school parents and graduates as they lead their congregations in years ahead.”

Ken Gordon is the Social Media Manager of PEJE. He cordially invites you to friend their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.

An earlier version of this article appears on the PEJE Blog.