Training Jewish Educators for a Disposition of Inclusion

By Shira D. Epstein

During a coffee break at a recent professional development conference, an alumnus of JTS’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and The Rabbinical School eagerly relayed successes from his first few years on the job. The early career pulpit rabbi described in detail what he viewed as transformative relationship-building at a large synagogue with a vibrant early childhood center: schmoozing with all parents, irrespective of synagogue membership, at drop-off and pick-up; developing personal connections with non-guardian caregivers; and sharing words of Torah during professional development gatherings of both Jewish and non-Jewish teachers and aides. He added, “I recognize that I considered all of this to be a part of the job because of the conversations we engaged in during our training. In likelihood, without this training, I would not have prioritized connections with this population.”

One could argue that this attunement to development of bonds with community members and stakeholders of all ages and stages is common sense for any high-level educational leader. And yet, we know that realistically, the day-to-day demands of Jewish educators will lead to a prioritization of duties that often knocks off the to-do list anything that is not regarded as central to our roles. The rabbi directly attributed these positive outreaches to what he had learned in his graduate school learning – a disposition of inclusion.

A disposition is a mindset, a way of being and doing, an approach that reflects core values. In Jewish education, a disposition of inclusion guides the ways in which we train teachers and leaders to model personal connection with all who participate in our programs, and sometimes, those who stand tentatively in our doorways. Methods and practices of engaging in the daily work of inclusive teaching and learning stem from the embrace of this disposition, which then becomes part of the fabric of our institutional values. This anecdote amplifies the impact and imprint of training in preparing Jewish educators to view every slice of leadership as an opportunity for letting those who walk through its doors know, “This place is for you.” No one element of an institution stands within its own cultural island, be it early childhood center, adult learning, or Shabbat services. Rather, each part contributes to and conveys the “inclusion” story of the larger whole – a feeling within the institution of “I belong here.” Educational leaders need support in understanding their roles in approaching every interaction and teaching moment as a pathway to shaping a culture of welcome and warmth – of belonging.

As Jewish educational institutions revamp mission statements, websites, and publicity to advertise “inclusive learning spaces,” we need to consider the broader question of how we train leaders who hold this mindset to look beyond peripheral vision of who “belongs” – our roles in shaping the culture of inclusion. Jewish educational training programs play a vital role in enabling reflection on how to lead inclusive communities, with many methods stemming from mindfulness and contemplative practice. In our fast-paced work worlds, we need ways to slow down and really see those who are with us. We need to understand better how to hear their diverse perspectives, to hold and facilitate challenging conversations in which beliefs might be polarized. We need ways to evaluate what is within our mission and vision, and what is without, and to learn how to clearly articulate what we can accommodate and embrace, what might fall outside of our domains, and be willing to stand behind these difficult decisions, rather than pretending that the difference does not exist.

Emerging Jewish educators need an incubator for cultivating this disposition of inclusion – through cohort and community of learners, role models, mentoring, and exposure to best practices. Certainly, learning the day-to-day practice of job demands, the spreadsheets, the lesson planning, the program implementation, and the liturgical facilitation – these are all integral steps and skills to leadership success. If, however, we want vibrant learning communities that people want to be a part of, we need to train to the next generation of Jewish educational leaders who can express, describe, convey and enact their visions for institutions of inclusion.

Shira D. Epstein, EdD, is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS, where she has served as faculty for 15 years.

This article is the first in a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS on training educators to lead inclusive learning communities.