NEW YORK, Dec. 1 (JTA) — Hebrew Union College, Reform Judaism’s flagship institution, and its Conservative counterpart, The Jewish Theological Seminary, have embarked on their first-ever joint project — a cross-denominational leadership institute for principals of congregational schools. School directors from about 40 yet-to-be-determined New York-area synagogue schools will participate in two extensive 10-day training sessions starting next summer. Workshops will focus on enhancing Jewish studies curricula and developing strategies for staff development. Participants will also be assigned veteran synagogue school administrators as mentors, take part in six one- and two-day seminars over the next three years, and visit Israel in January 2006. The leadership institute is being funded by a $1.8 million grant from UJA-Federation of New York. Steven Brown, dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Education at JTS, said the grant recognizes at last the importance of supplementary Hebrew schools. “Many people believe that putting all our eggs in the day-school basket is the way to go,” said Brown, who will co-administer the institute. “I don’t agree. Day schools are crucially important, but congregational schools can also have a powerful impact on families.” Brown will lead the institute with Jo Kay, HUC’s director of the New York School of Education. Kay said the program identifies Hebrew school principals — as well as rabbis, cantors and board presidents — as invaluable players in synagogue life. “It brings the educator into the leadership team of the entire congregation,” Kay said. Added Richard Abrams, director of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, a Reform synagogue: The 2000 National Jewish Population Survey “showed us that while all the great ideas that have been funded in the past — Jewish summer camps, day schools, Israel trips — are crucial and need continued funding, the synagogue school has and will be the main center for Jewish education for most of our youth.” Abrams, a graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at the Los Angeles branch of HUC, said many education directors at congregational schools are former Hebrew school teachers who have risen through the ranks and lack graduate degrees in education or Judaic studies. Nationwide, about 70 percent of children receive their Jewish education at congregational schools, according to Rabbi Deborah Joselow, managing director of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal. The percentage is much lower in the New York region due to the large number of yeshivas and day schools in the area. Still, some 35,000 students at about 300 schools under the federation’s eight county auspices attend supplemental, congregational schools, according to federation sources. “We wanted to improve the schools where the vast majority of Jewish kids get their exposure to Jewish” learning,” she said. The federation provided the HUC and JTS schools of education a $56,000 planning grant. “We said, ‘We want quality educational leadership. Can you help us?’ ” Rabbi Joselow said. Six months later, seminary leaders came back with an answer: Yes. “It’s clear that we’re more similar than different,” Kay said of the transdenominational effort. Over the next three years the participating Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregational school principals will learn leadership skills and study Jewish texts side-by-side. Only about 10 percent of training sessions will take place in movement-specific breakout groups, Kay said. “We may have philosophical differences, but for all of us, the Torah’s our treasure chest,” said Felice Miller Baritz, religious school administrator at Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in White Plains, N.Y. “We’re all trying to create Jewish children who will grow up to be Jewish adults and part of the Jewish community.” JTS graduate Rabbi Iscah Waldman, principal of the Hebrew school at Anshe Chesed, a Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, agreed. “Our (congregants) don’t necessarily see themselves allied with a movement,” she said. “They’re just looking for a good place for their kids to get a Jewish education.” The leadership institute is in the process of seeking mentors and putting together applications and informational brochures for prospective participants. Institute board members, composed of academics from HUC and JTS and federation leaders, will be reaching out to synagogues in the coming months. The principals are expected to be identified by early spring. The program is open as well to congregational school directors in New Jersey and portions of Connecticut and Pennsylvania, which are outside the UJA-Federation’s catchment area. Applicants should have two or more years of experience leading a congregational school. Synagogues must be willing to give participants time off to attend training sessions and pay for half the cost of the principal’s airfare to Israel. “It’s not a lot of money to get more well-trained and sophisticated principals who can move a school light years ahead,” Brown said. “It is a big-time commitment,” he acknowledged, but noted that the typical daylong workshops “don’t work if you want to bring about a systematic change at an institution.”
Gabrielle Birkner is JTA's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter @gabibirkner.