Teaching The Teachers

Each summer, the kids go off happily to camp or somewhat less happily to summer school. But where do the teachers go?

In the case of Jewish educators, the answer for a lucky few is the University of Judaism’s Summer Institute.

This year, about 200 Jewish educators from as far away as Baltimore gathered at the UJ, to recharge their mental batteries and learn at the feet of respected rabbis and experts in the field of education. The courses are tough and the trip can be expensive, but for the many who return every year or so, the Institute is well worth the cost.

Preschool director Bobbie Parris, 35, who came from Colorado five years ago to take part in the Summer Institute, was back again this year for the course “God, Prayer, Observance and the Developmentally Appropriate Classroom.”

“This year’s topic was really a challenge,” Parris said. “It’s hard to tell what a 4-year-old really thinks about God.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, one of the guest lecturers for Parris’s course, encouraged the group of educators, all women, to be as honest and straightforward as possible when answering their pupils.

“When you’re talking with children about God, have some humility. Acknowledge that we ourselves do not have all the answers,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein, who teaches classes for VBS parents on grief-counseling and spiritual matters for children, said preschoolers are often introduced to the concept of God through the death of a loved one. He told teachers that when children come to them and ask, “What happened to Grandma?” to watch their response.

“Don’t tell a child, being dead is like being asleep — not if you ever want them to sleep again,” Feinstein said.

The Institute, which marks its 10th anniversary this summer, consists of multiple tracks, divided into two main categories: The Hertzmann Institute concentrates on classroom techniques with courses such as “The Workings of the Amidah” and “The Future of Memory: Holocaust Education for the 21st Century.” Seminars given through the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life focus on how educators, synagogue directors and Jewish agency administrators can encourage families to participate more fully in study, worship and ritual observance.”

One of the Summer Institute’s most popular speakers, author Joel Lurie Grishaver, brought his brand of eclectic Jewish thought to the Whizin group with lectures such as “Twelve-year-olds Are Supposed to Make You Crazy.” In his mid-conference keynote address on “Finding God in the Family,” Grishaver demonstrated how to get families involved with Jewish texts by having the audience analyze three midrashim for a common thread. Each story centered on the power struggle between a teenager and his or her parents and the importance of family in Jewish tradition and law.

Gruberger said the Whizin Institute’s work, which involves year-round seminars and workshops in addition to the summer program, grew out of a demographic study in the early 1990s showing that many Jewish children enrolled in religious schools were going home to families who knew less about Judaism than they did. The idea of Whizin founders was to find a way to make Jewish education a holistic experience, involving the entire family, an approach which Gruberger said rides the wave of the Jewish Renewal movement.

“It used to be that we taught Jewish families mostly about the holidays and rituals associated with them,” she said. “We still do that, but we also talk a lot about spirituality and God.”

For summer participants, though, the emphasis is on putting the enjoyment back in learning.

“The nice thing about this experience is you get to see how the theoretical, the sociological and the practical intersect,” said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, director of the Jewish Outreach Partnership of Greater Philadelphia. “Most of all, it’s fun.”