NewCAJE presenter Susan Rancer sits on the floor with a guitar and bunch of kids
Susan Rancer, a music therapist who teaches music to preschoolers at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, will lead a session on autism at NewCAJE.

Jewish educators mull finances and innovation as NewCAJE comes to Bay Area

If there is one theme that runs through Jewish education, it’s that one size does not fit all.

Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools address the needs of students and families in myriad ways, noted an “Excellent Schools” study conducted by NewCAJE, an umbrella organization for Jewish educators that is convening its yearly conference Aug. 6-9 in Moraga.

Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox
Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox

“The results were enlightening,” says Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, NewCAJE’s president and executive director. “There is everything from a school that provides two hours of instruction with a full-time staff, to schools with no teachers and no board but with parents who decided they wanted to give the best Jewish education they could and who created an outstanding program for their kids. Another school, with kids scattered because there is no Jewish neighborhood, changed its focus to give kids time to get to know each other through retreats as well as education. These are all radically different.”

Unfortunately, what unites the field is the impact of the economic downturn in 2008 and its subsequent consequences. It began with many schools redlining the expense of professional development from their budgets. This resulted in fewer full-time and more part-time teachers, which resulted in a teacher shortage.

The outcome, according to Koller-Fox, is that teachers are not making a living wage. And that has resulted in the inability to attract younger people to the field.

“When I went into the field [in the 1970s] you could earn a living teaching in day schools or tutoring teens,” she says. “You could cobble together a job as a Jewish educator.” Today, few full-time educators are making a living unless they are principal of a day school. “That doesn’t mean teachers aren’t dedicated, but without professional development, they have no sense of what’s going on with others. No one is teaching them how to be better.

“The good news is there are teachers who are doing a wonderful job, as are principals. They are building great relationships with kids that make a difference.”

This relationship-building is reflected in recent trends toward “open” Judaism — showing students how meaningful and fun Judaism can be. Other trends include teaching Hebrew in a less rote, liturgically focused manner; using music and storytelling as teaching tools; and a return to spirituality.

The conference at Saint Mary’s College will touch on these and many other topics, with some 80 workshops daily, roundtable discussions, keynote speakers and Shabbat activities on-site with scholar-in-residence Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram
Rabbi Goldie Milgram

There also will be five-hour intensive seminars, including one topic that may resonate with many Jewish families: “Re-envisioning Bar and Bat Mitzvah Through a Spiritual Lens.” Rabbi Goldie Milgram, the founder and director of and program dean of Jewish Spiritual Education for the Maggid-Educator Training Program, will lead the session.

Inspired by her son, who at 12 years old asked her why bar and bat mitzvahs couldn’t be more interesting, Milgram looked at what she calls the “B-Mitzvah” process through his eyes. She outreached to college students and adults for their perspectives, researched the history of b’nai mitzvah, and drew from her work with more than 1,200 families in 600 communities. She found that for a great majority of individuals, the process brought about tremendous stress and great disappointment along with lingering questions, such as “Why do I have to be Jewish?”

“It’s a perfectly reasonable question for a young person to ask,” she says. “The experience never revealed [the answer] to them.”

Why do I have to be Jewish? — It’s a perfectly reasonable question for a young person to ask.

Milgram’s systemic approach is to shift the Jewish rite of passage from a “trauma-driven” and skills-based methodology, to one where teachers guide students and their parents through the transformation from childhood to adulthood. This includes teaching educators how to listen so students feel supported, translating metaphorical lessons in the Torah so they can be applied in everyday life in creative ways, and putting the “mitzvah” back in “B-Mitzvah” so young adults lead a mitzvah-centered, rather than self-centered, life.

“Their preparation becomes having a Jewish lens for living,” Milgram says. “Then they feel they’ve changed from a child to a young adult. We prepare them to be part of Jewish life according to who they are. We have to cultivate the inside. Students have to perceive themselves differently.”

Presenters on the all-volunteer roster come from across the education spectrum, from nationally known figures to respected Bay Area resources.

Susan Rancer, a Bay Area music therapist, Jewish music song leader and preschool music director at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, is leading a session titled “Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism: How Best to Work with Students on the Spectrum.”

With a private caseload of 50 students aged 2 and older, the majority of whom are on the autistic spectrum, Rancer teaches piano as a way to reveal her students’ unique abilities to themselves, their families and their teachers. Her goal is to reframe deficit-based perceptions to skills-based ones.

Brimming with stories about the empowering nature of music and a pitch perfect paradigm, the Piedmont therapist also aims to raise awareness about children with photographic memory skills and Irlin Syndrome, where words jump off the page or letters swirl around.

“I want teachers to see things they overlooked and that need to be looked at so the child has a chance,” she explains. “What happens in the classroom is that it is focused on teaching, but where are the gifts? I want teachers to be more aware of the signs.”

With the explosion of autism over the past years, Rancer says, “The composition of the classroom has changed to accommodate children with special needs. I’m hoping to raise awareness for teachers so students can be addressed appropriately and not written off.”

Too often these students are bored and, therefore, don’t perform. “We don’t look at the root of the problem, we treat the symptoms,” she says. “I look at the root. I can teach students how they learn.”

Learning, of course, is the goal of the NewCAJE conference. “It is the place where people are passing along Jewish culture and are coming to learn from others,” says Koller-Fox. “I call this the transmission of innovation.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.