By Robin Kahn
“I need to hire another teacher.” This is my August refrain. My colleagues around the country share it because there is a shortage of Jewish educators in the US. Year after year, I have lamented the dearth of qualified religious school teachers. So when I was asked late last August to direct the Mandel Center’s Undergraduate Fellows program, I jumped at the opportunity to foster the professional growth of young adult Jewish educators.
And so my journey with a group of Brandeis undergraduates began. Each fellow had committed to teaching in a local supplementary school in 2020-2021, which was a commitment to waking early on Sunday mornings, preparing lessons in their free time, and arranging their course schedules to allow for mid-week teaching.
The fellows and I met 12 times over the year, over dinner, to explore teaching and learning in a supplemental Jewish educational setting. We covered such topics as the Hawkins Triangle, multiple intelligences, social, emotional, and spiritual learning, teaching Israel, talking about God, studying Jewish texts with young children, child development, and choosing materials.
From the very beginning I was inspired by the fellows’ passion for engaging their students in Jewish life. I was confident that over the year, they would become more thoughtful and better Jewish educators. I also knew this experience would be an opportunity for me to learn.
The fellows’ optimism and creativity energized me.. They spoke highly of their students and of their desire to become more effective educators. Throughout the seminar, they were excited to learn educational theories that supported their intuitions and practices, and were eager for concrete ideas based on that theory. They saw their classrooms as labs for trying out what they were learning about in our seminars. If the fellows are representative of the next generation of Jewish educators, I feel good about the future.
With few exceptions, each fellow credited a Jewish day school or an overnight Jewish camp experience as a reason for wanting to teach religious school. They brought ideas from these settings to our seminars and their classrooms. We discussed the power of havruta learning, Israeli dancing, and recreating a memorable peulat erev with content from their curriculum.
Teaching new teachers takes meticulous planning, transparency, and honest reflection. Authenticity always leads to stronger relationships. Along with the fellows, I kept a journal throughout the year. As the year got underway, students began reaching out to me to workshop teaching scenarios and lessons. While I did not see myself as a mentor, I have come to think of these occasions as mentor moments.
At the end of the year, we held a Zoom siyum for the fellows.. I began by sharing this text: “Rabbi Chanina teaches, I have learned much from my teachers; I have learned more from my colleagues than my teachers; I have learned even more from my students.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit, 7a). I then told them, “I have been reenergized and learned so much from each of you this year! Thank you for sharing fresh perspectives, new insights, and ideas. Please keep in touch. I am proud to have you as my newest colleagues.”
Each fellow is now a more sophisticated educator, and each now holds a toolbox filled with educational concepts and ideas for the settings in which they will teach. I hope that the Jewish community continues to support their optimism, energy, and creativity. Perhaps because of the Mandel Center’s and the fellows’ commitment, some August my colleagues and I will sing a different refrain: “I am fully staffed!”
Robin Kahn leads the Mandel Center’s Undergraduate Fellows Program and is director of education and teen engagement at Temple Israel of Natick, MA.