Foreword by Rabbi Barry Holtz
How to Be a Jewish Teacher is a book for adults grappling with the decision of whether or not to teach in a Jewish school. Included are profiles of Jewish schools, job descriptions, lesson planning, classroom management, notes on supervision, and more.
Deciding and Choosing to Teach
What Makes Me Think I Can Do This?
I know that a very difficult choice is before you. Some outside force—the rabbi, an educator, a teacher, a friend or neighbor—is suggesting that you can make a contribution to the Jewish community by serving as a teacher. This external force is meeting with an internal force, your heart and head, and giving you a headache. You are not sure that teaching in a Jewish school is what you want to or can do….Mike is an attorney with a small firm. As a child he went to “Sunday school” and to Hebrew school, became a bar mitzvah school and was confirmed. While an undergraduate and during law he had little to do with the Jewish community. Belong to a synagogue? There was no reason; his parents had the family memership.
After law school, marriage, and two children, Mike joined a congregation. One day the rabbi asked him if he would talk to the eighth grade about the relationship of Judaism and law. With some interest and much concern he agreed.
Before the class session he went to the library. Finding several books that would help him, he went about designing the lesson plan. Time went by very quickly, and he actually enjoyed the challenge.
Sunday morning he stood in front of the class secretly hoping that he would not find a “Mike” in the room. Once the group quieted down, Keren Ami was collected and attendance was called, and then he began. The class period, just like the preparation time, flew by. Before he could answer all the questions about the Jewish view of the death penalty, the difference between English law and the Talmud, and how a Jewish court works, the bell rang.
“Boy,” he thought, “my old Sunday School classes never seemed to go that fast.”
Just then the rabbi began to talk to him: “Mike, you were super. Would you teach another class for us next week?”
“It was actually not as hard as I thought,” Mike said to himself. Before he had a chance to change his mind, he heard himself telling the rabbi that he would be happy to accept an invitation for a return engagement.
Pat is the mother of a three-year-old. She grew up in a family that was comfortable with its Jewish identification, though it would not label itself as “religious.” Pat attended religious school and finished Confirmation. After that, she even worked in the school office for a year.
After high school she went on to college ‘and became a skilled speech pathologist. She built up a solid private practice and was much sought after. She married Cary, and when Jamie was born she decided to stay at home during his early years. All during this time the organized Jewish community seemed far from her life.
One day, while visiting with her friend Leslie, she discovered that Leslie not only belonged to a local synagogue but was teaching its fourth grade. “It does not pay very much,” said Les, “but it does get me out of the house—and the kids in my class seem to like it.”
Pat made a mental note to talk with Cary. Maybe it was time that they joined a congregation. Jamie was almost ready for preschool. The synagogue would be a wonderful place to meet other young couples. But she was not sure how Cary would feel.
One Friday Leslie called Pat for help. She had a horrible cold and wanted Pat to substitute that Sunday. “The lesson plans are all written and all. The resources are ready,” explained Leslie. “All you have to do is show up, smile, and let the students know that you want them to learn something—you will have a good time.”
She didn’t know why she agreed, but Sunday morning Pat was standing in front of the fourth grade class. Eager faces stared at her, all of them wanting to know where Miss Leslie was. Suppressing the slight feeling of panic in the pit of her stomach, Pat began the lesson. “Hi, everyone. Please open your Bible People book to page twenty-two.”
>It was amazing how the room and hallway smelled just like they did when she was a student in religious school. Even some of the materials and textbooks seemed to be the same.
The class session went almost without a hitch. (She did forget what time to take the class to music, and she did have to step in on an argument between Sara and Dayle, but…) After school she drove home feeling good about herself and the contribution she had made.
During the week Pat called Leslie to see how she was doing with the cold. Of course, Leslie wanted to know all about the class, and Pat was only too eager to tell her what a great day it had been. “Leslie,” she asked, “do you know if the school needs any Teachers? Please let me know. I think I would like to give it a try.”
Ellen lives in a small town with an even smaller Jewish population. It is common for these little settlements in the West to have a Jewish family or two, but Ardtown actually has a community of twenty families. It even has a lovely little synagogue, constructed twenty-five years ago, though the Jewish community has no full-time rabbi and no real Jewish professionals.
There are six children in the congregation including Ellen’s seven-year-old. They range in age from five to twelve. Everyone wanted some sort of religious school, but no one had taken the initiative to get it started. All the parents seemed to be immobilized by the magnitude of the task.
Ellen, having grown up in Ardtown, knew the problem well. In fact, her father had been the only Jew in town who knew any Hebrew. He acted both as the religious school teacher and as the “rabbi.” He trained all the children for bar and bat mitzvah, and he conducted the Shabbat services.
Ellen realized that she had to carry on the family tradition and put together the religious school. On top of that, she would have to be the first one to volunteer to teach the children. It would be a terrific amount of work, but it was the only way these youngsters would get any formal Jewish education.
In May, Ellen traveled to Capital City to meet with the educator at a large temple. Though it was a three-hour drive, Ellen believed that she would get invaluable help. She was starting almost from scratch, needing texts, materials, and some semblance of a curriculum. The trip was a great success. She came home armed with all she needed to begin.
During the summer Ellen ordered books and supplies for the school. She met with a parents’ committee that she developed in hopes of getting them to assist her with the work. They put the curriculum in a sequence that would make sense given the “one-room schoolhouse” nature of the school. By the end of August everything was in place.
The second week in September the school opened. Ellen welcomed all of the children and began the lesson. “Who knows what Jewish festival happens at this time of year? It is a time when we all gather in synagogue. All the faces that looked up at her seemed blank. Then she produced a shofar. Eyes lit up and smiles broke out. “A ram’s horn,” someone called out. “What do we call this in Hebrew?” Ellen inquired. None of the children remembered until Ellen reminded them. They had a lively class, discussing Rosh Ha-Shanah and all of the customs, rituals, and prayers of the holiday.
The class ended at noon, and the children filed out of the room to the waiting parents. Ellen grasped the hand of her child as she turned off the lights. Her daughter talked to her as they headed to their car. “Mom, I didn’t know it was going to be fun. Can we have Rosh Ha-Shanah when we get home?” Ellen smiled.
David loves teaching religious school. None of his friends can understand how a high powered scientist at the local military base´s lab could enjoy being with seventh and eighth graders. It is clear that nobody in his right mind would ever give up a Sunday morning- especially to spend time with adolescents.
David finds the class a very positive challenge and a good change from his week at the lab. He loves being Jewish and loves the chance to share that with young people. He likes the quickness of their minds and the way they seem to need to fight authority. Each class session is a chance for David to prove how important being a Jew is to him, and to show that he can make the difference in the life of a teenager.
Talking to the students in the class, it becomes clear that they care for and respect David, even though they sometimes give him a hard time. They know that he cares. He comes to class prepared to teach and to listen. He demonstrates that religious school does not have to be boring. In his classroom, every Sunday morning is an event.
This particular Sunday morning David has his class examining the role of the prophets in Jewish history. The class has been divided into small groups with each group taking one Hebrew prophet as their own. The task of each group is to develop a political campaign for the prophet as if that prophet were running for president.
The Isaiah group is standing before the class. One of the group’s members is playing the role of Isaiah and is telling the class that he is running on a platform that includes a strong plank about helping the poor and feeding the hungry.
David is sitting in the back of the room listening. Smiling, he relearns how special it is to teach these young people.
Jack is feeling very pleased. He is sitting in his living room with Adam, the Torah blessings. Adam will become a bar mitzvah in several months. Jack is ‘the bar and bat mitzvah tutor for Temple Chesed.
Adam, that was the best you’ve done yet. It is clear that you’ve been working,” Jack said.
“Yeah, thanks, Mr. Schwartz,” replies Adam. Getting ready for his bar mitzvah was not something about which he is overjoyed He would much rather be on the ball field or watching TV. But Adam has to admit that Jack Schwartz is a special teacher. Jack seems to know just how much material to give. Jack also knows exactly how far and how hard to push. The two of them have built a wonderful relationship.
Jack Schwartz took an early retirement from his work in the men’s store. After a few months he was climbing the walls looking for something to do. One Friday’ night after services the rabbi asked how him how retirement was going. Jack admitted that he was somewhat bored.
“Listen, Jack,” said Rabbi Cohn, “I know that your Hebrew is excellent. We could really use your help! Before any child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah they meet with a private tutor for about four to six months to learn all the berakhot and their Torah and Haftorah portions. I think you would be a super tutor. What do you think?”
Jack was not sure what to think. While he would love to help the congregation, he had not planned on spending his retirement tutoring bar mitzvah boys. He considered the rabbi’s proposal for an entire week and
discussed it with his wife. She told Jack that it was a great idea and that he should do it. Finally, Jack told the rabbi he would accept. Rabbi Cohn was very pleased.
The rest of the story is a local legend. Jack has held the hand of more than one frightened thirteen-year-old. On the day of their bar or bat mitzvah, when they stand on the bimah and look out into the congregation, there is Jack Schwartz, sitting in the fourth row, smiling, with his twinkling eyes encouraging them to do their best.
Becoming a Jewish Teacher
I know that a very difficult choice is before you. Some outside force—the rabbi, an educator, a teacher, a friend or neighbor—is suggesting that you can make a contribution to the Jewish community by teaching. This external force is meeting with an inside force, your heart and head, and giving you a headache.
You’re not sure that teaching in a Jewish school is what you want to or can do. In fact, if you really think about the idea, you can come ‘up with many reasons for rejecting it. At the same time, all the people who think you would be a successful teacher must believe it for a good reason. Do they know something about you that you do not know? You feel like a piece of warm taffy with all this pulling one way and the other.
You have many reasons for being sure that you could not successfully teach in a Jewish school, while at the same time you know there are deep associations urging you to teach. Let us take a look at the feelings that are both compelling and restraining you.
Excuses That Will Not Work
I really do not know how to teach. The school expects me to go into a classroom of students and impart knowledge. But I do not know how to get started. I have never taken an education course, I have never faced a class before. I have never studied educational psychology. How can I be a teacher when I do not know how?
I do not know enough about Judaism. I love being Jewish, but I am no expert—I am not a rabbi. If I am going to teach, I have to know more than my students. I have only studied Judaism in Sunday school myself. I have taken a few adult education courses at the temple, but nothing else in a formal way. How can I be a teacher in a Jewish school when I do not know enough about Judaism?
I am not a good enough Jew. I am proud to be a Jew, but I do not go to services every Shabbat, and I miss some of the festivals too. My home is not strictly kosher. I try to live a Jewish life, but I am not that good a Jew.