Teaching the teachers

In 2007, Michael Zeldin spoke to the Jewish Journal about DeLeT (Day School Leadership Through Teaching; it also means “door” in Hebrew), the education program designed to train prospective Jewish day school teachers at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Zeldin, director of DeLeT and HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education, told the Journal with confidence that he believes DeLeT, with its emphasis on experience-based learning and well-rounded curricula, “will transform the face of Jewish education.” 

Eight years later, DeLeT has become a highly successful Jewish education program. On July 16, faculty, staff, students and alumni gathered at HUC-JIR to recognize the program’s 13th anniversary with a b’nai mitzvah celebration. Zeldin said the 118 DeLeT graduates have lived up to his vision. 

“They are the fulfillment of our dream,” Zeldin said. “That these people who come into this program are willing to dedicate their lives to teaching Jewish children is just incredibly meaningful.”

When it was founded in 2002, DeLeT was the first education program that specifically trained participants to teach general studies courses in Jewish day schools. DeLeT’s curriculum integrates Jewish values and customs into general studies and emphasizes learning through experience. The school has formed partnerships with several Los Angeles day schools to place students as interns in classrooms, where they learn on the job while attending classes. 

In 2008, the 13-month program became licensed by California to confer the multiple-subject teaching credential to its graduating students, making it one of the only religious education programs able to do so. This academic year, DeLeT is launching a new track designed to prepare Hebrew-language teachers for day schools. The L’Ivrit course of study is based on the classic DeLeT curriculum, with modified sections of some courses as well as additional courses, such as Hebrew pedagogy, specifically for L’Ivrit students. 

In a speech at the b’nai mitzvah ceremony, Zeldin noted how state officials referred to DeLeT as “one-of-a-kind.”

Zeldin also said more than 90 percent of all DeLeT graduates are hired as day school teachers immediately after completing the program, which he proudly claims to be an exceptionally high rate of job placement. 

“What we’ve found so far is that even though schools don’t usually hire brand-new teachers out of a credential program, because our teachers are so well-prepared and had a yearlong internship at a Jewish day school, they’ll be hired as teachers right out of this program,” Zeldin said. 

When the program first started, Zeldin and his staff recruited people to join the program’s pilot class and convinced local day schools to partner with them. 

Eileen Horowitz, DeLeT’s education director, said the reputation of the program’s graduates quickly increased DeLeT’s prestige, and now the school gets flooded with applications, which has allowed it to raise standards of admission. 

The program, Horowitz said, has “an array of students. Some are straight out of college; some are looking for second careers. Some are 23, 24, and some are over 50.”

DeLeT looks for ambitious and open-minded “future teacher-leaders,” regardless of their previous work history or background, Horowitz said. “When it became more competitive, we could really look for the brightest and the best,” she said. 

Horowitz admires DeLeT for breeding the type of educator who wants to make as much of a difference as possible. She has worked in education for more than 40 years, including as head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood, one of DeLeT’s partner schools. But, she said, when she first started teaching, she and her peers didn’t think in terms of career advancement or see themselves as leaders.

“When we started out, we thought, ‘OK, I’ll be a classroom teacher, I’ll get summers off,’ ” she said. “We know there are now many in our schools who have aspirations to be the best they can be, which in turn makes students the best they can be, which in turn makes the school the best it can be. So they ascend into different positions.”

DeLeT also has an active and supportive alumni network, which Horowitz believes provides a healthy space for peer relationships, especially when someone needs advice or counsel from a fellow teacher. 

Michelle Barton graduated from DeLeT in 2011 and teaches general studies to third-graders at Pressman Academy. She also is the lead coordinator for DeLeT’s alumni network. She said the network helps reinforce DeLeT’s core values among graduates once they enter the workforce. 

“We really try and support our teachers after they graduate from the program,” she said.

“DeLeT believes that teachers are lifelong learners, and we try to foster that and model that for our students.”

Like many of the program’s graduates, Barton speaks very highly of the curriculum and said her time at DeLeT was, to borrow Zeldin’s language, transformative. 

“For me, it was the most formative experience of my career,” Barton said. “It’s incredible to be in a cohort of learners and to learn from each other. It’s just a beautiful way to give back to the Jewish community and teach Jewish children.”

Day school teacher program seeks to improve quality of instruction

After spending more than a decade working abroad for news outlets, including ABC News and the Jerusalem Post, Jacob Wirtschafter began to ask himself some midlife questions.

“What am I doing to help build community?” he wondered.

As the eldest of four siblings and a former camp counselor, Wirtschafter had always enjoyed mentoring children. So he decided to return to the United States and pursue a career in teaching. But he wanted a program that looked beyond the how-tos of teaching and “engaged with the big ‘why’ questions.”

Wirtschafter found what he was seeking in DeLeT, the Day School Leadership Through Teaching program. DeLeT, which means “door” in Hebrew, is a 13-month fellowship designed to recruit and train high-caliber Jewish day school teachers. The program is offered in Los Angeles and San Francisco through the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

“DeLeT prepares you to teach with your mind and with your heart,” said Wirtschafter, who is now beginning his fourth year as a history and Judaic studies teacher at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge.

DeLeT was launched five years ago not only to foster strong, committed day school teachers but to meet the profession’s growing need. On the one hand, day school enrollment is increasing. An Avi Chai Foundation census projected 25 percent growth in Jewish day school enrollment from 1998 to 2008. On the other hand, fewer teachers are available.

National data indicate that as many as 50 percent of all new teachers — not just those in day schools — leave the profession by their fifth year.

“This is the first time the Jewish community has taken responsibility for teaching teachers,” said Dr. Michael Zeldin, director of HUC-JIR’s School of Education and of the West Coast DeLeT program. He noted that DeLeT focuses not just on recruiting teachers, but on preparing them to teach, helping them find positions and creating career opportunities to keep them involved in day school education.

California DeLeT participants spend two consecutive summers studying education and Judaica at HUC-JIR. During the academic year they continue their studies while interning in a day school classroom under the guidance of two mentor teachers. Participants receive a $25,000 stipend, paid by HUC-JIR and the school at which they intern, and the school also provides health care coverage.

Program graduates are awarded a certificate in day school teaching from HUC-JIR and receive credits toward their teaching credential, although they must complete additional courses elsewhere to earn a state credential.

“The goal is not only for fellows to learn the intricacies of teaching but equally importantly, how to think about teaching so they can continue developing their practice throughout their careers,” Zeldin said.

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school for the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, said that DeLeT provides participants with valuable field experience.

“HUC-JIR has built the on-site teaching component into the academic work,” he said. “Even in the best graduate programs, the number of hours a graduate student spends teaching is not close to the number of hours they receive in” DeLeT.

Participants learn to “make connections between [students’] Jewish lives and their general studies lives,” said Leah Ticker, a DeLeT graduate in her second year of teaching at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Brawerman Elementary School.

She said DeLeT challenged her to integrate Jewish and secular curricula in meaningful and creative ways beyond “counting the number of candles you’d use by the end of Chanukah.”

For example, while she was interning in a second-grade classroom, the curriculum called for a unit about Japan. Ticker took the concept of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, and used it to compare the Passover seder to the Japanese tea ceremony.

The program itself has integrated Jewish ideas into courses required for state teaching credentials. A class on health incorporates Jewish texts and ethics and is taught by a rabbi-therapist, while one on multicultural education looks at diverse groups both outside and within the Los Angeles Jewish community.

To date, 78 participants have been trained, and almost all have taken day school teaching positions. DeLeT graduates can be found not only in California and Massachusetts, but in New York, Illinois and five other states. Most are recent college graduates, but some, like Wirtschafter, are embarking on second careers. While the majority of participants are Reform and Conservative, about 15 percent are Orthodox, and Orthodox institutions have also hired program graduates.

Six Los Angeles area day schools have served as training venues for DeLeT interns: Adat Ari El’s Trana & Ronald Trana Labowe Family Day School, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, Heschel West Day School, Pressman Academy, Brawerman Elementary School and Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School. Each of them, as well as Harkam Hillel Hebrew Academy, Milken Community High School and Sinai Akiba Academy, have hired DeLeT graduates as teachers.

“I applaud HUC-JIR for being involved and for acknowledging the need we all have to find high-caliber future educators,” said Eileen Horowitz, Temple Israel’s head of school.

DeLeT program director Zeldin said the program’s impact reaches beyond the program fellows. Mentor teachers, who meet weekly as a group, also enhance their skills by “having new conversations about teaching and learning.” They, in turn, share their knowledge and enthusiasm with colleagues.

Until this year, DeLeT was supported by a group of private funders recruited by Bay Area philanthropist Laura Lauder, who founded the program. As of this July, it was transferred to HUC-JIR and Brandeis, which will need to obtain funding to train more future educators. Program costs for HUC-JIR amount to about $500,000 per year, some of which has already been raised.

As for the participants who have already been trained, “whether they’ll be teaching first-graders reading or fourth-graders social studies or sixth-graders science, they’re all committed to being Jewish educators,” Zeldin said. “And that, we think, will transform the face of Jewish education over time.”

For more information visit http://www.delet.org/ or http://www.huc.edu/.