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Kehillat Israel and the Avocational Teacher Program

KI has been at the forefront of seeking to provide the best possible Jewish education for the children of Lansing's Jewish community. In 1991, a group of education leaders of our community proposed a model for solving the problems faced by virtually every supplementary religious school program: finding and retaining quality teachers for our community's children. The result of their work was a pilot project funded by the Covenant Foundation to create an "Avocational Teacher" training program at the KI Religious School. The articles excerpted here attest to the success of this program, which continues to serve as the model for our School's teaching staff.

Teachers Are at the Core of Schools

The shortage of qualified teachers is a major problem in Jewish education. Directors of congregational schools, day schools, and early childhood and high school programs in communities large and small scramble to find enough teachers. All too often, they find themselves hiring people without sufficient background and preparation, keeping teachers on staff because they cannot find suitable replacements, or replacing teachers year after year because the incentives to stay are not in place.

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In 1992, the Covenant Foundation awarded a three-year grant to Kehillat Israel (KI) in Lansing, Michigan, to design, implement, and disseminate an avocational teacher program. The purpose of the program was to develop a group of volunteer teachers for the religious school and to create a structure for ongoing teacher recruitment and support. Over the three years of the grant, the school became a more serious place where students and teachers grappled with texts and gained access to some of the big ideas that Judaism espouses. The presence on Sunday mornings of ten or more avocational teachers sent a message to parents and students alike that Jewish education is not just for kids. Five years after the grant ended, eight avocational teachers were still teaching, mostly Torah, in third through seventh grades. Ten years later, one veteran avocational teacher is directing a restructured school based on a different model, and one former teacher is working in the field of adult Jewish education. In fact, my own move into Jewish education was strongly influenced by my work in this project.

The KI project was partly inspired by Isa Aron's early writing and question, "Where will the next generation of Jewish teachers come from?" While the project illustrates one of the five models identified by Ms. Aron and her colleagues — transforming parents into teachers — its lessons go beyond the strategy of turning congregants into teachers. It also provides critical implications for the recruitment, retention, and development of teachers for congregational schools, day schools, and other education settings. Below I briefly describe the features that came to characterize the KI approach to avocational teaching to show the links between teacher recruitment, teacher retention, and teacher development.

Reliance on good curricular materials. To support teachers' work with children, the project supplied teachers with good curricular materials. We depended on teachers to learn content and get ideas about how to teach that content from studying these materials. At the same time, we knew that teachers would adapt the materials to their classroom, creating a living curriculum with their students.

Grade-level teams as a primary source of study, preparation, and support. We formed two- to four- person teams at each grade level, pairing people with complementary strengths. Having co-teachers offered built-in opportunities for joint planning, problem solving, and support. Teachers felt less isolated and more accountable because their practice was public.

An integrated approach to content and pedagogy. Unlike conventional teacher education that separates the learning of content from the learning of teaching strategies, we adopted an integrated approach. We provided opportunities for teachers to work with consultants, to study their subject matter with master teachers, and to see master teachers teaching that subject matter to students. Afterwards, we analyzed the teaching and learning that teachers had experienced or observed and the conceptual and pedagogical issues that arose.

Engagement with authentic texts. Avocational teachers engaged in serious study, including text study. People reported spending three to four hours preparing for class and cited their own personal learning as the most powerful part of the experience. The avocational teacher project was truly adult learning in the service of children's Jewish education.

Experienced teachers mentor new teachers. A major goal of the project was to create an ongoing system of teacher recruitment and support. In the third year, we recruited new teachers to join existing teams so that they could learn to teach alongside more experienced teachers. When the project ended, we had a pool of experienced teachers who could coach and co-teach new volunteers as well as a bank of lesson plans to share.

Placing teacher learning at the center of efforts to transform congregational schools represents a powerful strategy for linking recruitment, retention, and development. While this will take imagination, time, and resources, it is a necessary condition for teaching and learning to flourish in any school — religious or secular — and for teachers whether they are full-time or part-time, paid or volunteer, professionally trained or avocational.

Sharon Feiman-Nemser,
Mandel Chair Professor of Jewish Education,
Brandeis University
Sh'ma, 2001

Friday, June 30, 1995. The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California

Michigan synagogue draws on parents to educate kids

Sarah was raised in what she once called the most "Christian" Jewish home she'd ever seen.

Her family viewed assimilation as social progress and celebrated Christmas. Her religious school education was "a total wasteland."

Yet, today Sarah (not her real name) is imparting all the lessons she didn't learn to a class of Jewish high-school students each week at her synagogue, Congregation Kehillat Israel, in Lansing, Mich.

Following three years as a participant in an innovative teaching project at the synagogue, she became both a student and a teacher of Jewish learning.

Her story, as well as the details of the project, were recounted earlier this month at the 10th Conference on Research in Jewish Education at Stanford University.

About 60 religious and secular educators and researchers gathered to discuss studies on key questions plaguing Jewish educators: What is family education? What are the best methods for teaching Torah and Hebrew? How can teacher training be improved?

The Lansing School Project that Sarah participated in focused on the latter issue.

According to a policy brief issued several months ago by the Cleveland-based Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education, most Jewish educators are devoted to their work but sorely lacking in Jewish knowledge.

The situation at the Lansing synagogue exemplified that trend. Sharon Feiman-Nemser, a member, explained that most of the teachers at the Reconstructionist synagogue were students at nearby Michigan State University. They were young and energetic, she said, but mostly lacking in Jewish and Hebrew knowledge.

In addition, their teaching stints tended to be short, two or three years at best.

Feiman-Nemser, also a professor of education at Michigan State, cited another problem: Leaders at the 125-family-member congregation were burning out. They were the same people who had founded the synagogue 25 years earlier as a chavurah (study group), later turning it into an affiliated congregation.

"The leaders were tired," she said "There were too many roles and not enough people. On top of that, our kids weren't getting turned on in school."

And because of the unorthodox structure of the synagogue, which maintained neither a full-time rabbi nor an education director, "there were few models for us [to look to for change]."

With the help of Gail Dorph of the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education, Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, Michigan State's education department and funding from the Covenant Foundation, Kehillat Israel created a program to solve the congregation's two problems. The project trained a group of volunteer teachers — mainly parents with full-time jobs who received no pay for their many hours of collaborative study, planning and teaching.

Thirty-five congregants volunteered for the three-year experiment, which had some surprising results.

While the project fulfilled the goal of providing better teachers for the school at no cost to the congregation, it also turned the teachers into more committed Jews.

Rene Wohl, a doctoral candidate in education at Michigan State, told conference participants that the parents got involved as volunteer teachers because they were concerned about their children's Jewish education and wanted to give something back to their community.

However, in the process, "they gained internal gratification," she said.

After months of planning, the program's organizers took their first major step. They used their entire education administration budget and a portion of a grant from the Covenant Foundation to hire rabbi-educator Wallk Katz.

Relying mostly on existing teaching materials, Wallk Katz and Feiman-Nemser divided volunteer teachers into teams and prepared them for the classrooms.

In addition to study and planning sessions with Wallk Katz and Feiman-Nemser, the volunteer teachers attended on-site workshops, out-of-town retreats and courses with other Jewish educators.

The new teachers discussed stumbling blocks in the classroom, including their limited Hebrew and Judaic knowledge and their tendency to gloss over unfamiliar concepts. Dorph, meeting periodically with teachers and congregation leaders, offered no easy solutions to these problems. Instead, she encouraged them to look for "bigger concepts...using textbooks as springboards," to understand the concepts oneself " before trying to teach to students."

The teachers who were interviewed yearly during the program developed a more personal connection to Judaism, which led to more active participation in congregational life, Feiman-Nemser said. They went "from passive to active, public to personal Judaism."

Sarah, the product of an assimilated home, reported "increased Jewish knowledge, increased Jewish self esteem," said Wohl.

And Dave, another volunteer teacher said Jewish "text replaced [the] rabbi as my spiritual connection."

At the Stanford conference, participants seemed excited by the innovative model presented to them.

The challenge, said Michael Zeldin of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, is not to replicate the program, but to learn from it and to disseminate information.

This is about "rethinking what it takes to bring congregations into teaching" and looking at "how we help people grow spiritually as Jews," he said.

"Providing knowledge skills to teach our adults rather than our kids," Zeldin added, is the most critical piece of the program.

Lesley Pearl, Bulletin Staff

Remaking Jewish Education in Our Time

Report of Commission on Jewish School Excellence
Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, January 2001

Objectives of the report were to document efforts and methods to:

  • expand the supply of qualified teachers.
  • develop ongoing programs to train and retain teachers.
  • strengthen all Jewish schools.
  • experiment with new educational models.
  • encourage parents to become partners in their children's Jewish education.
  • inspire the community to treat Jewish education as the burning issue of the day.

This report suggests approaches for crafting initiatives to achieve these goals....

Expand the Supply of Qualified Teachers

Before the start of each new school year, CAJE receives numerous requests from panicked principals of Jewish supplementary schools along the Front Range for leads to prospective teachers. In recent years calls have begun to come from preschool and day school principals as well. While the number of students in our Jewish schools continues to grow, the job of finding enough qualified teachers has become increasingly difficult. Schools are often extremely short-staffed at the start of the school year, forcing principals to hire what Brandeis University Professor Susan L. Shevitz and Susanne A. Shavelson, Ph.D. called "Labor Day Specials" in a 1997 report on professional growth co-published by JESNA. These last-minute hires are often people who have little or no Jewish knowledge or experience in teaching, and who receive no additional training once hired. These dedicated people often leave the field in frustration, or teach for years perpetuating mediocre Jewish learning....

Develop Ongoing Programs to Train and Retain Teachers

After teachers for our Jewish schools are hired, they receive few, if any in-service training opportunities tailored to their specific classroom needs. Teachers complain of being isolated, many overworked principals have little time to provide guidance and moral support, and in many cases principals lack the training they need to help train their teachers. Professional development for many Jewish teachers consists solely of workshops during the annual convention sponsored by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (national CAJE) or at local conferences...

Support the creation of teacher study groups

Schools can institute sacred text study groups quickly. These groups would not only study sacred texts, but would find ways to tie the lessons into each student age group. Incentives could be offered to promote these study groups in the early stages. Study groups for camp counselors have also been successfully formed at summer camps. Commission Guest Speaker Dr. Gail Z. Dorph strongly endorsed the creation of "professional learning communities" as an excellent way to develop Jewish adult study habits, and encourage the growth of "critical collegiality" which reduces the sense of classroom isolation. Teachers who are committed to their own study make better role models, and students emulate the habits of those they respect, as well.

It would make sense to explore successful models such as the teacher-study group formed at Kehillat Israel in Lansing, Michigan, a group that has been running for about nine years. The synagogue school received a Covenant Foundation award in 1992 to broaden its excellent results.

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Commission on Alternatives in Jewish Education

Celebrating a Decade of Commitment to Jewish Education

The Covenant Foundation
1990–2000: The First Ten Years

The Covenant Foundation was established in 1990 by the Crown Family Foundation in partnership with the Jewish Education Service of North America, Inc. (JESNA). The purpose of the Foundation is to build on existing strengths within the field of Jewish education in North America across all denominations and in all educational settings. By honoring outstanding Jewish educators and supporting creative approaches to programming, the Covenant Foundation hopes to strengthen endeavors in education which perpetuate the identity and heritage of the Jewish people.

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From Synagogue to Community. In 1994 the Bureau of Jewish Education in Orange County (BJE), California, was awarded a five-year Covenant Grant to implement an avocational teacher recruitment and training program as the core of a comprehensive program to improve the quality of Jewish education in nine Orange County synagogue schools. This project, From Synagogue to Community, was an extension of Congregation Kehillat Israel's 1991 Covenant Grant, Preparing Avocational Teachers: A Model for Small Communities. One aspect of Orange County's grant was to explore how a program developed for a single congregation could be redesigned for an entire community. Informing our work was the strongly held conviction that good Jewish teaching can only occur where there is good Jewish learning. The Covenant Foundation provided us with the money and, equally important, the time and space to create a program which would meet our needs. We found it difficult to encourage teachers to value something that was not valued by their communities, which, in most cases, saw Jewish study as something to be imposed on those least able to protest: children between the ages of eight and thirteen.

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Congregation Kehillat Israel, Lansing, MI.

Preparing Avocational Teachers: A Model for Small Communities. To recruit, prepare, and support a corps of volunteer teachers for the religious school and to develop a thematic curriculum for the school built around existing materials. Original Project Director: Dr. Sharon Feiman-Nemser.

The Covenant Foundation Report, 2001

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