By Rabbi Gordon Fuller
During the last five months, we have celebrated first responders. But there is one group of first responders we have overlooked.
Our religious school teachers have been first responders in our Jewish communities, not just for bringing Jewish content into homes when the children could no longer go to religious schools, but also in responding to the social and spiritual crises their students strove to cope with and understand.
Some teachers had no more than a week or two to learn what Zoom was, let alone how to teach on it. I know because I was one of them, teaching fourth grade Judaics and sixth grade Hebrew at my congregation.
You cannot imagine the frustration and disconnected feeling of staring at a screen of 10 or so student “tiles,” most of whom had their videos turned off. I had no idea if they were even paying attention. The proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” is even truer with the pandemic hitting all of our Jewish “villages.” We learn in the v’ahavta paragraph of the Shema prayer that “V’shinantem l’vanecha — it is all of our duties to teach all of our children.” Most parents today don’t seem to value Jewish education as much as secular, and so don’t have the background, the time and/or the tools to teach their children all the things they want them to know Jewishly. Religious educators need and deserve more support.
Some 90 percent of non-Orthodox American children who get Jewish education are learning in congregational or community schools. In addition to the learning, these schools also provide an important Jewish social community/village for our children. This is truly front line, in the trenches work that Jewish educators do for our children.
We teachers can’t do it alone. We need better training, better curriculum, better pay for the amount of time it requires to do the jobs expected of us, more opportunities for full-time work and benefits like health insurance and retirement. We need funding for conferences such as NewCAJE (which replaced the original CAJE – Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education — about 10 years ago).
NewCAJE has been a model for a seamless transition to online Jewish learning. The annual conference, which normally draws up to 500 participants a year from around the continent and overseas, was supposed to take place this summer in Towson. Due to the pandemic, the entire conference switched to an online format in about 12 weeks. Going for a full month, the conference included more than 450 sessions, giving educators the opportunity for professional development as well as time to deepen their own learning and network with colleagues.
But NewCAJE isn’t just for teachers. Some of us go for what’s called Torah lishmah – Jewish learning for its own sake. Any learner from teens through senior adults can attend its many sessions. Additionally, there are cultural offerings like concerts by Jewish musicians, artists and storytellers who are themselves transmitting Jewish culture through their work.
When in person, NewCAJE is sort of like Jewish summer camp for grownups. (Online, we miss the hugs and campfires.) It is also an incredibly supportive, collegial networking opportunity that refuels many of us who do teach to get through the challenges ahead. Join us next August, when NewCAJE plans to be at Gaucher College in Towson.
You can also help just by advocating for teachers in your community. Check your congregation’s website — are the teachers honored by being included as “professional staff?” Is there appropriate support and training for them, and funding to benefit from conferences like NewCAJE?
Expectations for our religious school teachers are incredibly high. Not only do they need to keep students engaged after “regular” school and/or on Sundays, but they now have to individualize learning for every student, many of whom have varying special needs, while online. And then they were expected to make the transition to online learning without much training or support, and little recognition of how much extra time it took to prepare lessons and communicate with families in this strange new world.
Ahad Ha’am said, “Learning, learning, learning… that is the secret to Jewish survival.” It can only succeed with the emotional, financial and professional support it deserves. That’s what the next generation of Jews is depending on to keep the village thriving. WJW
Rabbi Gordon Fuller is the recently retired executive director of the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies. He now works independently as a rabbi through his website, myfamilyrabbi.com.