Training Teachers for Pluralistic Day Schools

Zvi Hirschfield and Susan Wall

A book on biblical criticism can sit next to one espousing Orthodox theology—and the teacher must have access to every shelf.

The AVI CHAI Foundation turned to The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, already experienced in teaching learners from a wide variety of backgrounds, and created the Pardes Educators Program. Nine years and 90 graduates later, the program has evolved greatly, yet it continues to struggle with this very question of how best to train teachers, the majority of whom will go out to teach in community day schools. What follows is based on our personal insights gleaned from training teachers in the program and from visits to our graduates in scores of community day schools across North America. We believe that this article will be useful not only to those training teachers for such schools, but for lay leaders and administrators as well, who set standards for hiring new teachers and provide professional development opportunities for those already on staff.

Training Teachers for Community Day Schools

What preparation will allow our teachers to intellectually challenge, relate to and support students who come from a wide variety of backgrounds? How can we best prepare these teachers to help all their students find meaning in and a passion for some aspect of Jewish life and Jewish living, even when those choices may differ from that of the teacher’s own beliefs or practices? Just as excellent schools have a vision of the kind of student they hope to produce and structure their curriculum and school culture accordingly, so too must we have a vision of a community day school teacher. In order to prepare teachers to meet the challenges of the community day school, serious thought must be given to what is taught and how: the content of the preparatory courses, the culture of dialogue, the methodologies modeled, and the understanding/formation of community.

The Content

What should a Judaic studies teacher entering the field know? Mastery of both classical sources and modern approaches is essential. The Jewish bookcase in pluralistic institutions looks different. Fluency in traditional texts and language must be combined with knowledge of liberal Jewish thought and practice. A book on biblical criticism can sit next to one espousing Orthodox theology—and the teacher must have access to every shelf.

Jewish history should be taught in a preparatory program to achieve three primary goals. First, while the Jewish people are quite divided about the present, the awareness that we come from similar places creates connection and shared appreciation, the essence of peoplehood. Second, a sophisticated and nuanced view of the past provides the platform for building a Jewish identity that includes room for difference. Our history is rich with data that illustrates that unity is not sameness, and that diversity has been a consistent part of our culture. Third, awareness of the past can be inspiring, through examples of how Jews successfully overcame difficulties that parallel the challenges of modernity.

Teachers need to feel their own connection to the people of Israel and the State if they are to teach the value of Israel. While Israel is a central project of the Jewish people, some would argue that Israel today creates more divisiveness among Jews than shared purpose. Israel education must foster a sense of the State as a living laboratory of Jewish history, values, and expression, without ignoring the complexity and challenge posed by creating a Jewish State. This includes exposing teachers to a wide range of voices from within Israeli society, and learning how to combine criticism and connectedness. An Israel based program can give participants the experiences and memories that will foster a personal connection with Israel and Israelis. For the reasons stated above, training programs situated in North America must incorporate Israel education and an Israel experience into their formal program.

Most critically, Judaics teachers must be trained to engage Judaism as a resource for spiritual growth, investing the time to make it relevant and inspiring for themselves, if they are to inspire their students. Training teachers to lead prayer or ritual are critical tools, as are methodologies and approaches that foster a spiritual dimension to Jewish life through text study, character education and community service. Without a unifying theology, the teacher in a pluralistic setting must be prepared to engage and explore issues of Jewish spirituality from the widest possible angle. This means training the teachers to provide experiential learning opportunities that are open to diverse views and theologies.

In sum, the curriculum must include intensive text study, Hebrew, Jewish thought and Jewish history (with an emphasis on Israel and Jewish peoplehood) and opportunities for spiritual growth. However, even emphasizing diversity within what is taught is not enough. How the material is presented to these teachers-in-training is critical.

The Culture

While future teachers bring their own personal views and commitments to their learning, the training institution must foster an environment that appreciates the richness and invaluable growth opportunities that arises from diverse thinkers and approaches. The goal is not to harmonize or minimize the differences between Reform and Orthodox or mystical and rational; the challenge is to see debate and difference as an opportunity for every individual to ask hard questions and develop or discover their own approach.

Teachers must be trained to appreciate Judaism from a variety of perspectives and engage a range of assumptions. For example, while the teacher can insist the entire class take text seriously, relevance cannot be assumed.

We cannot take for granted that all future teachers bring an openness to discussion and dialogue. Our training institutions need to model safe space and teach our students how to create it in a classroom. They need to be encouraged to question and challenge, but learn how to do it in a respectful and caring manner. We need to help them develop listening skills, particularly for those things that are hard to hear or that one strongly disagrees with. To develop those skills they need opportunities to take stands and to hear others present theirs in an environment that will encourage honest and open dialogue. They need to hear from experienced teachers and administrators working in community schools as to the issues that arise. Case studies can provide them with the opportunity to hear a variety of ways to deal with real challenges.

A hevruta-based model of study is an ideal way for program participants to experience the enormous benefit to studying in a diverse setting. By learning with a partner who holds different views or assumptions, the participant appreciates how difference can generate new insights, prompt interesting questions, and develop new ways of relating to the material. In short, hevruta becomes an ongoing example of how diversity is a strength. Going beyond tolerance, hevruta study can generate a culture of respectful debate that values every participant for the strengths and uniqueness that they bring to the learning process. Hevruta becomes a microcosm of the whole training model.

Finally, our teacher-training institutions should model our commitment to Jewish community by reinforcing those behaviors which strengthen group unity and addressing those actions which destroy community. We need our future teachers to experience respect for individual differences while finding communal vehicles to express solidarity, achieve common purpose and celebrate together.

In summary, what we teach and how we teach is complex and crucial. Our graduates need a rich background of text, Hebrew, Jewish thought and history. They need to explore what spirituality means to them, their connections to the Jewish people and to the land of Israel. They need to master the tools that will allow them to create an open, respectful and caring community which celebrates diversity. Only then will our graduates go out equipped to fulfill and contribute to the mission of our community day schools. ♦

Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield, who teaches Talmud and Jewish thought at Pardes, has directed the Educators’ Beit Midrash program since its inception. He can be reached at

Dr. Susan Wall directed the Educators Program from 2002-2007, and currently teaches pedagogy to the educators and directs the Alumni Support Project. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009