Class strives to bring out the inner-teacher in students

A professional dancer with a bachelor's and law degree, Mary Jane Eisenberg wanted to increase her Jewish knowledge.

"I love to teach, and I wanted to teach and to learn myself," she said.

She found the perfect program at her own synagogue, San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El. Trying to pre-empt the continuous lack of qualified religious school teachers, Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan decided it might be easier to recruit teachers by offering an incentive — to increase their own Jewish knowledge at the same time.

Halutzim — meaning pioneers — is designed to bring out the inner religious-school teacher in those who might not otherwise consider the work.

"It's turning inwards to find people," said Karen Schram, a rabbinical intern at Emanu-El this summer, who is teaching one part of the class.

An announcement about the program appeared in the temple bulletin, and now nine people are enrolled, attending classes two nights a week throughout the summer.

Some have teaching experience but lack Jewish knowledge. Some have Jewish knowledge but no teaching experience. And some have neither, Schram said.

The course has two parts, with Schram focusing on the Judaic content and Flora Kupferman, special needs coordinator of Emanu-El, focusing on teaching skills.

Schram is leading a discussion of part of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, "Chapters of the Fathers," and for many of the students, it is their first exposure to text study.

"We're using that as a jumping-off point for studying issues of today," Schram said, "to further their own knowledge and joy of learning. It brings up issues of liturgy, Jewish ethics and gives us a way to tackle some of the Hebrew."

Eisenberg called studying the text "eye opening," and said it's interesting for her "to see where it fits into the regular siddur liturgy."

The class is also reading "As a Driven Leaf" by Milton Steinberg, which "takes off from some of the same people and sages in Pirkei Avot," said Schram. "The story is about one rabbi's journey through learning and study and all the issues he struggles with."

Kupferman teaches the practical skills, like how to do a lesson plan, how to figure out what is age-appropriate, how to manage a classroom, and even how to discipline students when necessary.

Another participant, Beth Silverstein, is involved with the S.F.-based Board of Jewish Education and chairs its Jewish Family Education Advisory Project Committee.

Silverstein is working toward a credential in early childhood education. Although she has two children in Emanu-El's religious school, and a third who will be in a few years, her reasons for taking the class are more personal. "My main motivation is I love Judaism and I want to be a teacher."

Silverstein also appreciated the opportunity to increase her own Jewish knowledge. "The depth of the Jewish study has been a real asset," she said. "It's nice not to study basic Judaism, which is often how classes start, and study text with someone who knows how to study it and interpret it."

Schram said that in the short time she's been teaching the class, she's seen how well the students have bonded as a group.

"During the first class, a lot of them felt like they weren't qualified to do this, as most of them don't have teaching experience," Schram said. "They felt insecure about their Jewish knowledge."

After a month though, they feel differently. "To be a Jewish educator, you don't have to know everything; it's a constant process," Schram said.

While there is no guarantee that participation in the program will lead to a teaching position in the religious school in the fall, learning for learning's sake seems to be enough motivation.

"I don't know whether I'll get a job teaching, but I'm certainly learning," said Eisenberg, "and that's really exciting to me."

Silverstein said based on this group's experience, she thought other congregations could learn from Emanu-El.

"I'm well aware it's difficult to find well-qualified teachers, and I think this kind of program is a wonderful model for congregations to adopt," she said.

Not only does it create more of a community feeling among congregants, but "this is one thing as Jews we can give our children, to be there with them on Sundays to show them that learning is important for you, but for me as well."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."