Aviva Kadosh, who serves the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) as a specialist in religious schools and Hebrew-language programs, has been an educator for 34 years. But the Moreinu program has introduced her to "the most interesting group of people I have ever taught."
Moreinu, which translates as "our teachers," is the BJE's creative attempt to deal with an acute shortage of religious school instructors. The 18-month program, funded by major grants from the Jewish Community Foundation and the Amado Foundation, gives participants intensive training in both Judaica and pedagogical skills. Once they receive their certificates in 2002, they should be welcome additions to the teaching staffs at local synagogues.
The 12 prospective teachers who responded last fall to the BJE's ads and flyers are a diverse bunch. Their ranks include a realtor, a photographer, an animator and a consultant at UCLA's department of biomathematics, all of whom are willing to make time in their professional lives to teach religious school in the afternoons and on Sundays.
Some -- who have attended day schools or studied in Israel -- are looking to acquire teaching skills to go along with their Judaic learning. For Debbie Tibor, a longtime special education teacher, Moreinu is a good way to explore special education services within Jewish classrooms, while also filling the gaps in her own knowledge.
When Tibor lost her father in 1998, she began attending religious services regularly, but was frustrated by all she didn't know about her tradition. As she wrote in her application essay, "I am very excited about the possibility of going through Moreinu. Not only will I be trained with the tools I need to provide a service within the Jewish community, but I will also have the opportunity to continue my Judaic education."
Moreinu participants meet almost every Sunday during the school year, rotating between the classrooms of five Conservative and Reform congregations. They engage in text study with rabbis, and meet with principals who explain practical teaching strategies, like how to gear lessons to students of different age levels.
Pamela Kong, an office manager, expresses delight in the range of speakers who've addressed the group thus far: "We're learning from their styles almost by osmosis." Kadosh attests that the speakers have all responded warmly to these enthusiastic learners, who "soak up knowledge like sponges."
On a recent Sunday morning at Congregation Tifereth Jacob of Manhattan Beach, the Moreinu group focused on the upcoming holiday of Purim. Rabbi Mark Hyman led a session on Megillat Esther, pinpointing issues of identity that might seem pertinent in today's religious school classrooms.
In discussing Esther and Mordechai's policy of hiding their Jewishness from outsiders, Hyman predicted that some older students might make the connection that "they're just like us." Hyman drew a parallel between Esther's concealment of her Jewish roots at the Persian court and the students' own reluctance to "wear their Jewishness on their sleeve" by displaying a kippah or other Jewish symbol in public.
He then asked the students to briefly consider the kind of moment that prompts an assimilated Jew to stand with his people. The shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, someone suggested, and the rest of the group nodded in agreement.
Next, veteran religious school principal Debi Rowe shifted the focus to teaching methods, using the Purim story as a starting point. Dividing the group into chevruta (or traditional "study buddy" pairs), she asked them to address "holes" in the story by inventing their own midrash. This exercise led to a discussion of the risks involved with teaching children Megillat Esther, which after all seems to endorse both intermarriage and the wholesale slaughter of Haman's kin by the triumphant Jews. Rowe's question -- "Do we skip or gloss over risky stuff?" -- elicited the recognition that it's vital for a new teacher to understand each synagogue's policy on such matters.
The Moreinu schedule contains one more session at Tifereth Jacob, at which Rowe will concentrate intensively on how to draw up lesson plans. She warned the students in advance that a formal plan is rarely followed to the letter. Frequently, at the end of a class session, it serves as "an indicator of where we've deviated." Nonetheless, Rowe insisted, the digression often turns out to be far more useful than the original plan on which the teacher has expended so much labor.
Another facet of the Moreinu program is the pairing of the teachers-to-be with experienced instructors like Tifereth Jacob's Craig Fenter and Jane Golub. These mentor-teachers, who receive modest compensation, attend six sessions. There they analyze effective teaching methods, discovering the theory behind the classroom skills which have come to many of them purely by instinc t. Right now the Moreinu participants are making plans to observe in their mentors' classes. Soon they themselves will be asked to take over a lesson.
Most new religious school instructors are thrust into their jobs without training. Craig Fenter appreciates the fact that, in sponsoring Moreinu, the BJE is taking steps to go beyond this sink-or-swim mentality. As he puts it, "It's very community oriented... very cool." Jane Golub, is a key staff member at Torah Aura Productions, hadn't planned to sign on as a mentor. But "Debi Rowe is my good friend, and I see how difficult it is for her to get good teachers. I see it as my responsibility to help get new teachers out into the world."
The Moreinu participants feel a similar sense of mission. Their screening interviews made clear to Aviva Kadosh that they were not simply looking for new career directions. Instead, "their motivation is they want to give something to the Jewish community. That was very clear to me."
Participant Jeff Gornbein, who holds a doctorate in the field of public health, was inspired to join Moreinu after volunteering in the religious school of his home synagogue, Mishkon Tephilo. Gornbein says with great conviction, "A city is saved by its parents and teachers."