Calling all students in Israel

NEW YORK, Nov. 15 (JTA) — Flipping through the photos of college students posing on retreats in Israel and California, Paul Flexner is like a father boasting about his children.

“She’s at JTS now,” he says, referring to the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. “This one was teaching at a day school last I heard, oh, and she’s running a family education program. Her? I think she’s in rabbinical school now.”

Flexner, the director of human resources development for the Jewish Education Service of North America, is talking about the Lainer Interns for Jewish Education, participants in one of the largest recruitment efforts for Jewish educators.

Developed in 1991 by Flexner and David Resnick, a professor at Bar- Ilan University in Israel, the program focuses on a group that — if courted — is likely to go into Jewish education: American Jews studying for a year in Israel.

“Jewish college students spending time in Israel are a self-selected, Jewishly committed and motivated group, who are exposed daily to an environment that encourages them to take their Jewishness seriously,” wrote Flexner in a recent JESNA newsletter blurb on the program.

At a time when many are lamenting the quality and quantity of Jewish educators, the program is touted as an important effort to bring new faces to the field.

While in Israel, the students take a for-credit course related to Jewish education, observe various classroom settings and go on a trip together.

Back in North America, they intern at schools or Jewish educational agencies and meet with a mentor. They also gather for a winter retreat, where they meet representatives of graduate schools in Jewish education, talk to people in the field and learn about different career options. Even after their formal internships end, interns generally stay connected and use their contacts for career networking.

“Once you’re connected to JESNA, you’re stuck with us,” joked Flexner.

“Our premise is much like that of other private sector recruitment efforts,” Resnick, who directs the program, wrote in an e-mail interview. “If you show genuine interest in people, you can attract them to your enterprise.”

The program, which has more than doubled during the past eight years — from 23 students at Hebrew University to approximately 60 students at Hebrew, Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.

Two years ago, a spinoff was created for college graduates studying at liberal yeshivot in Israel.

So far, the program is enjoying modest success.

A survey of the first five years’ worth of alumni — 137 people — found that 62 percent were pursuing or had completed formal degrees in Jewish education or were currently involved in Jewish education, either full time or part time.

A number of others were working as or studying to be rabbis, social workers or communal workers for Jewish institutions.

“For me it gave a lot of credibility and depth to the field,” said Wendy Rapport, a former intern who — after earning a degree in Jewish communal service from Brandeis University — is now director of family and religious education at Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta.

Before learning of the internship program, Rapport had been planning to become a rabbi, but, she said, “I realized that one of the things that had drawn me to the rabbinate was that I wanted to improve the Jewish education system.

“This made me realize this was a profession, that I could go to school and get a degree,” she continued. “The classes were high-caliber and raised challenging intellectual issues.”

For John Levisohn, a former intern who is now pursuing a doctorate in the philosophy of education at Stanford University, the Lainer Program “is a no- brainer.”

“It makes perfect sense to support the interests of people thinking about going into Jewish education,” he said.

“This is a perfect start to what the field needs,” he said, adding that better pay and respect for the professionalism of teachers are also needed if Jewish education is to resolve its personnel crisis.

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