Community Educators: Strengthening Jewish Communities Through Partnership

By Rabbi Dave Siegel

[This is the fourth article in our “effective collaboration” series, written by alumni of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Davidson School recently launched the Leadership Commons, which is a project of The Davidson School dedicated to building educational leadership that works together to create a vibrant Jewish future.]


I have frequently been in private conversations where frustrated Jewish community leaders have shared that it sometimes feels as if their only goal is to be the last Jewish organization standing. Clearly, this is not said out of a desire to see other organizations fail, but reflects a desperate focus on keeping their communities alive.

One solution to this despair is for organizations to work together as responsible agents of change. In other words, create solutions that allow for the success and growth of our own communities, and simultaneously help our neighbors flourish. We can share successful models, limit our recruitment areas, and, most important, combine resources.

Isa Aron, in her article “Congregational Schools” (2011), lists the shortage of qualified teachers as one of the major problems facing supplementary schools today. Although she notes this problem has been documented as early as the 1930s, there has not been a sustainable long-term solution. One reason why it is so difficult to attract qualified professionals is the limited number of employable hours, which makes these positions only attractive for individuals looking for part-time work. In addition, those individuals who are able (and willing) to work in these positions may have limited Judaic knowledge. Further, even individuals who have the Judaic knowledge may lack the appropriate teaching skills or demeanor to run a classroom, group, or event. If we are going to be serious about success, we need to find ways to bring qualified educators to our communities.

Several organizations have found success in creating supplementary school and youth program models that employ full-time educators. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, this is not a practical solution for most communities. With the stakes so high, is there another way to replicate these successes?

In order for many Jewish communities to flourish, we need to have a model of cooperation, effective collaboration and partnership that allows us to share resources and provide our communities with quality Jewish professionals. We can hire Jewish educators comfortable working in pluralistic environments who can serve either several organizations in one community or multiple communities in one geographic area. Their responsibilities may include teaching in a supplementary school, facilitating an adult education series, leading tot Shabbat on Saturdays, or even serving as a rabbinic “patch” when communities experience an unexpected change in leadership.

Each participating organization would contribute finances toward meeting an appropriate salary. It is important to note that since the key to this collaboration is the sharing of resources, all available benefits should be considered. Subsidized or free housing, child care, day school discounts, or certificates through continuing education may be important factors to Jewish educators when considering joining a community.

Although this concept has been utilized in other areas, college campuses, particularly Hillels, are uniquely positioned to help lead the way in creating these partnerships. Hillel provides an exciting professional setting where Jewish educators of all backgrounds have the opportunity to work in pluralistic environments. These community educators, preferably working in a cohort, can divide their time preparing for their various classes and engaging students on campus. Additionally, creating effective collaborations with local universities will provide opportunities for both parties to expand their reach.

Over the last three years Hofstra Hillel has created partnerships with several local organizations, including synagogues, camps, and JCCs. These agreements created opportunities for each of the participating communities to have professional Jewish educators and rabbis teach in their supplementary schools, run youth programs, and serve as Jewish role models in their summer programs. Additionally, Hofstra Hillel has been able to utilize these community educators in other areas. For example, these staff members have also provided classes for organizations and communities that do not have the finances or rabbinic leadership, as well as added additional support for a local funeral home.

Of course, with any partnership, there will be challenges that need to be navigated. Proper time management will be essential to the success of the educator. Although the work being done in the synagogues, camps, and JCCs will be part of one full-time job description, the supervisor needs to insure that enough time is given to each community and that quality work is being accomplished. It will also be essential that the organizations are in compliance with all appropriate laws and employment best practices.

As we look toward the future, it is clear that strong partnerships and effective collaborations must play a key role in whether communities will be successful. I believe this collaborative model can make a difference in hiring committed, professional, pluralistic community educators.

Rabbi Dave Siegel is the Executive Director of Hofstra University Hillel. He received his Masters in Jewish Education from and is currently a doctoral candidate in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). He is also a graduate of the JTS Rabbinical School.

The article is crossposted at eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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