The Successful Jewish Educator: When Instinct Meets Know-how

[This series of two articles reflects the learning from our experience with the four-year old Executive MA program in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR. In particular, we focus on two aspects of our learning: 1. why successful mid-career Jewish education professional choose to engage in a rigorous academic experience while working full-time, and 2. how “hybrid” (online and in person) learning at the graduate level can build relationships and result in impressive and profound professional growth.]

By Lesley Litman and Michael Zeldin

Why would a successful Jewish educator with job security choose to pursue a Master’s degree in Jewish education, a project that demands a significant investment of both time and financial resources?

Debbie Kardon-Schwartz is typical of many successful Jewish educators. She and many of her colleagues were catapulted into leadership roles in their schools, camps, synagogues and nonprofits without the benefit of professional preparation. They did what they knew worked, but not always with the understanding of why it worked or how to help others also do what works. They often saw their tasks as administration rather than as leadership. Nor could they always articulate a compelling sense of what is important to them as Jewish educators. Without a better grasp of past and present trends in Jewish education along with the sophisticated educational language and tools, they were hesitant to share ideas on the future of Jewish education.

Debbie exemplifies what it is that drives successful, mid-career Jewish educators to enter HUC-JIR’s Executive MA program in Jewish Education. She was seeking the support, language and tools she needed to deepen her practice and make a difference in the field of Jewish education. The program enabled her and her fellow students to become more intentional about what they do and more reflective about who they are and want to be as Jewish educational leaders. They learned to understand what is going on around them rather than judging it, and at the same time they developed powerful tools for bringing about change. In short, students in the Executive MA acquire the tools and the language which, when coupled with their maturity as professionals and human beings, can transform Jewish education in the 21st century.

Although she completed the program only six months ago, Debbie has already had national impact on the field of Jewish education through her groundbreaking Israel internship program for college students. College students take part in a 5-week summer residency to deepen their connection with Israel. After the internship, they return in mid-June as counselors allowing them to fulfill their need to gain work experience in their fields and their desire to return to camp, which also enables Jewish camps to benefit from committed, experienced counselors.

The Executive MA students represent an important pool of Jewish educators who are not looking to leave their jobs and are committed to deepening their work through rigorous graduate study. Because of their maturity, they are willing and able to take certain risks in trying out new ideas, reflecting on them and then refining those concepts. As a result, they bring insight and wisdom to their learning and their work. At the same time, many students have shared that the program gives them courage to become the leaders they aspire to be. Hebrew Union College-Jewish institute of Religion is committed to reaching this potentially powerful group of Jewish educational professionals. We are looking for more talented Jewish educators like Debbie who can join the next cohort of educators who will help transform the face of Jewish education.

Lesley Litman is Coordinator of the Executive MA Program in Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Michael Zeldin, PhD, is Senior National Director of HUC-JIR’s Schools of Education. The Executive MA program in Jewish Education receives generous support from the Jim Joseph Foundation.