When Rabbi David Wallach was looking for an institution to help him become a better Jewish day school teacher, he was frustrated to find that most of the places he researched offered either training in Jewish studies or general teacher training. It was hard to find both.
Then he discovered the Pardes Teacher Fellowship in Jerusalem, where he ended up getting his master’s degree in Jewish education.
“Pardes is the only place that integrated for me both the Jewish studies and the pedagogy,” said Wallach, now 32 and a teacher and assistant director of Jewish studies at Les Ecoles Azrieli Herzliah High School in Montreal, Canada. “It wasn’t that you learn Judaism in one place and learn education in another. This entire program is about the pedagogy of Jewish learning. That approach is unique, powerful and invaluable for me.”
More than 270 Jewish teachers and educators-in-training from North America have gone through the Pardes Teacher Fellowship, a two-year master’s program that offers participants intensive Jewish learning, Jewish educational pedagogy, practical student-teacher training and mentoring in North American day schools.
A mainstay for over two decades, the well-known fellowship is being redesigned for next year to make some key changes that administrators believe will better serve the future teachers of Jewish day schools: Instead of requiring two years in Israel with monthlong student-teaching stints along the way, Pardes is offering an accelerated program that requires just one year of intense study in Jerusalem followed by a second year of teacher training in schools in North America.
The program is funded, so students’ expenses are minimized and they receive a stipend, and at the program’s conclusion they obtain their master’s degree. Pardes is currently accepting applications for the fall.
“This is a unique opportunity to study pedagogy with spectacular teachers in Jewish education,” said Aviva Lauer, director of the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators.
There’s another reason for the changes at Pardes: a looming crisis in Jewish education to which the Jewish world hasn’t fully woken up, according to some educational leaders.
“The crisis that we knew was coming is here. Jewish day schools, early childhood centers and part-time congregational schools across the country face a shortage of educators to fill multiple openings for lead teachers, assistants and substitutes,” wrote the authors of a recent piece in the online publication eJewish Philanthropy published by leaders from the Association of Directors of Communal Agencies for Jewish Education. “This is no longer simply a ‘challenge.’ Rather, it is a crisis because of continuing trends in the overall job market, exacerbated by the pandemic.”
The shortage is related in part to low salaries in the profession. A recent report by the Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education showed that fewer new teachers are entering education and more current teachers are leaving. As a result, many Jewish schools are hiring staff without appropriate training.
“We are looking for teacher candidates who love Jewish text, Jewish living, and Jewish tradition, recognize that the children are our future, and want to serve their communities as role models for the next generation,” said Rabbi Avi Spodek, director of recruitment at the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators.
Pardes’ revamped fellowship program tightens its format with a more modular structure that offers more credit for the pedagogy courses students take in Israel and credit for some courses online. The purpose of the change is to enhance the practical training and enable those who can only get away to Israel for a single academic year (plus two summers) to participate.
“The new format is a soft easing-in to teaching,” Lauer said, giving students time to immerse themselves in a school before becoming full-time teachers.
The principle that guides the Pardes approach is subject-specific pedagogy, according to Lauer: “Not just how to be a teacher but how to be a Jewish studies teacher. It’s learning how to integrate and balance textual content with what we call ‘meaning-mining.’ It’s about introducing our students to varied lenses through which they might teach Jewish texts, and helping them explore what will be important and meaningful to them to teach their future students.”
The Pardes program boasts a star-studded staff, including Yiscah Smith, Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, Judy Klitsner, and Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield for Jewish studies, and Rachel Friedrichs, Reuven Margrett, Sefi Kraut, and Susan Yammer for the pedagogical components.
“The teachers are so special,” said Josh Less, a current fellow. “They are all unique in their own ways and have a great grasp of their subjects.”
Pardes attracts students from a diversity of Jewish denominational, cultural and professional backgrounds. The program’s alumni include six heads of school, five principals, 12 Jewish studies department chairs and six directors of Jewish life, among scores of Jewish teachers.
Less, 28, who recently completed a round of teacher training at the Milken School in Los Angeles, said the Pardes program has given him critical classroom experience and essential Jewish study skills that he learned in Pardes’ beit midrash, or Jewish study hall. He plans to become a full-time day school teacher but first wants to get his rabbinical ordination.
“My advice to someone thinking about this program is: Definitely do it!” Less said. “The program is such a blessing for the right person who wants to do intense learning and teaching. It’s intense but indispensable.”
Wallach said the most valuable thing he took away from the Pardes program was how to connect learning to practice. When he teaches about Passover, for example, Wallach turns his classroom walls into an art gallery, hanging dozens of images of the Seder’s four children drawn from different haggadahs and asking his students to explain which images speak to them. That gets them talking. Once they’re done analyzing, he asks the students to create their own images of the four children.
“This kind of exercise always gets them. They are intrigued by it. They are involved,” said Wallach, who has been teaching for seven years. He credits Pardes with showing him this kind of approach to learning.
“It wasn’t just: Here’s how to teach, in theory. It was about how to teach this specific Jewish studies text, the pedagogy of it,” he recalled. “We practiced it, and we had a chance to actually live it, both with our peer training and the teaching.”
Wallach added, “All the best teachers I know went through Pardes.”
Having excellent teachers is critical for the future of the Jewish people, Lauer said.
“Our goal is to give our fellows outstanding training – for their own sake, for the sake of the schools that will hire them, for the sake of the children and for the sake of the future of the Jewish people,” she said. “People who graduate from our program are avidly sought-after and seen as stars in the field. We are hoping to find the new stars. The Jewish world needs new stars.”
This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Pardes, which offers an accelerated, two-year Jewish teacher training program with an MA degree in Jewish education through the Pardes Teacher Fellowship. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.