Taking Stock of Reform Jewish Education

Inside Leadership

Taking Stock of Reform Jewish Education

A Conversation with Rabbi Stanley Schickler, executive director of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE)

Two little girls sitting on the floor as they work on a craft project in the shape of trees

Reform Jewish education has changed radically since 1955, when the National Association of Temple Educators (now the ARJE) was founded. Today, innovation remains the guiding principle of those dedicated to advancing the profession and inspiring excellence in Jewish education. I caught up with Rabbi Stan Schickler, RJE, recently to learn about how his organization is contending with contemporary challenges in the field.

ReformJudaism.org: What was the impetus for your association changing its name in 2014 from the National Association of Temple Educators to the Association of Reform Jewish Educators?

We are not limited to the United States, and while the majority of our members still work in congregations, others serve as youth and camp directors, Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion professors and administrators, Reform day school faculty, Union for Reform Judaism staffers, independent consultants, and communal organization personnel.

It has become clear that Jewish education is at its best when integrating learning and living in multiple domains and settings. A great example of this type of collaboration is the Shared Professionals Program at URJ Camp Harlam. The camp partners with congregations in Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., in sharing the cost of employing young, full-time professionals.

“Having someone from camp in the temple during the school year,” write Abra Lee and Emily Halpern of Temple Emanuel in Westfield, N.J., “breaks down the silos between camp and school” and brings the energy of summer camp to the congregation year round.

ARJE is partnering with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in a Community of Practice called Reimagining Congregational Education. What are some of the lessons learned so far?

First, we learned that more experimentation and innovation than we expected are happening in supplementary education settings. Many congregations are committed to transforming their religious schools, some in radical ways, most incrementally.

Second, while many congregations have specified social-emotional goals, such as connections to peers, belonging to a Jewish community and discovering the joy and excitement in learning, the majority still focus on Jewish identity-building and knowledge of holidays, Torah, and mitzvot.

Third, while there is an ongoing debate regarding the desirability and efficacy of integrating Hebrew and Judaic learning, decoding and reading are still usually introduced in grades three or four with the goal of teaching Hebrew prayer literacy for b’nai mitzvah.

Fourth, there is a growing awareness of learners with disabilities.

It sounds like teaching Hebrew remains a formidable challenge. What is the latest thinking on this subject?

Perhaps the most innovative approach is a program called Onward Hebrew, developed by Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz, director of curriculum resources at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.

This approach centers on “sound-to-print” learning – the idea of introducing and infusing the sounds of Hebrew before going on to teach the letters. Once the foundational groundwork has been laid – ideally in the fifth or sixth grade – students learn to read the language. Other aspects of this approach include learning words used in everyday conversation and basic Hebrew prayers.

How do Reform educators approach the teaching of contemporary Israel?

Just about every Jewish educator I know wrestles with the question: How can we best teach students how to engage with the people, the land, and the state of Israel? There are many different lenses through which educators view current events in Israel, which is why Israel education requires a commitment to ongoing learning and reflection in ways that are respectful of people with conflicting opinions. In recognition of the complexity of the subject, the ARJE has formed a task force on Israel education/engagement.

What would you say is the ARJE’s most significant achievement, and what remains its greatest challenge?

I believe that our greatest achievement has been the professionalization of the field of Jewish education. We have grown throughout the past 63 years from a fledgling organization of fewer than 100 members to nearly 800.

Our founders had a vision of the Jewish educator as a noble and full-time profession, and they worked, and we continue to work, tirelessly and vigorously to upgrade our profession and to elevate the educational standards of Reform Jewish education in North America.

Our greatest challenge is recruitment. Not enough people are choosing careers in Jewish education, despite a high demand for qualified, trained, professional Jewish educators. I urge anyone interested in exploring a fulfilling career as a Jewish educator to contact the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

If not now, when?

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Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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