Since earliest times, the Jewish people have had the mandate to teach their children well. Fulfilling this commandment is particularly challenging in the contemporary American setting. Initiatives by local communities and national agencies have had limited success in figuring out new and better ways to attract and serve Jewish youth. The post-bar/t mitzvah dropout remains high and rates of engagement in Jewish life on campus remain low. Secular interests compete for time and attention and, unlike previous eras, parents can no longer be counted on to stand up for Jewish interests. The learning styles and lifestyles of young people have changed, driven in large measure by advances in media and technology, but Jewish programs and organizations have been slow to catch on to these new tools and their potentialities. At the same time, opportunity abounds. Regardless of societal changes, youth still have developmental needs and tasks that they must accomplish–intellectual, social, physical, and spiritual–and all of these could be addressed through Jewish venues and approaches.
In this landscape of challenges and opportunities, professional development is a focal concern. There is no question that the quality of Jewish educational institutions and the education they deliver depends heavily on the excellence of the professional staff. Yet there are reports of staffing shortages and difficulties finding competent educators and administrators in day schools, congregational schools, summer camps, and other sectors of the education field. Many of those working in congregational schools and informal education are part-time or temporary workers. They may not see this work as a career, they do not necessarily identify as professionals. Counselors at camp, advisors in youth groups, and Hillel JCSC fellows on campus eventually age out of their positions, creating a need for recruitment efforts, induction programs, and career development. There are structural issues, found in pockets across the field, that undermine professional strength–ineffective or “old school” leadership, under-resourcing of creative talent, inability or unwillingness of organizations to support professional development, and the silos that separate those working different positions or sectors. Professional development cannot fix all of these problems but it can do much to cultivate talent in the field.
Outline of the Report
This report describes professional development efforts in Jewish education. It begins with a list of desirable and necessary features for effective professional development in education. The list comes from the literature on professional development in public school education, which is informed by extensive field experience and research. The report next presents current professional development opportunities in Jewish education, describing them by sub-sector (i.e., camp, year-round informal education, Hillel, day school, congregational school, and Israel). In the final section, current offerings in the Jewish sector are viewed in light of the desiderata for professional development in order to find possibilities for future expansion and improvement.
Three caveats must be kept in mind in reading this report. First, most of the information on opportunities in the Jewish sector comes from the database we are building on Jewish education. The database currently houses information on every relevant national organization and program that we could locate. It also contains information on organizations and programs in the eight communities included in our study: Boston, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas Cit, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. These communities were selected as instructive local models. They were also selected to represent communities of different sizes and in different regions of the country. The report is thus based on professional development activities that are sponsored by national entities or are homegrown in one of the eight local communities. Professional development activity in other locales is not included in this report.
Second, Jewish education is a fluid field in which organizations and programs emerge, morph, and sunset. Our report describes what existed at the time of writing and cannot capture important changes that have undoubtedly occurred with time. Third, our study is descriptive and not evaluative. The report describes existing approaches and opportunities for professional development but contains no data on their outcomes and makes no judgment on their comparative value.
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