Michigan synagogue draws on parents to educate kids

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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 Walk 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 Walk Katz.

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

In addition to study and planning sessions with Walk 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.