June 18, 2019

JEDLAB’s Facebook Reaches 10,000 Jewish Educators

JEDLAB's Facebook Page.

Since 2013, Jewish educators have been finding online support through JEDLAB, a Facebook group that allows them to ask questions, suggest solutions, brainstorm ideas and fine-tune educational initiatives. 

JEDLAB began with just 10 educators but rapidly grew to 500 members within five months. By the end of 2018, JEDLAB’s participants numbered 10,000 worldwide.

The idea for JEDLAB took root at the 2013 North American Jewish Day Schools conference, when Los Angeles-based educator Yechiel Hoffman, then immediate past executive director of LimmudLA, and Ken Gordon, then senior social media and content strategist for the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), realized meeting educators at conferences every year or every other year couldn’t create the ongoing collaborative community they craved. 

Initial conversations began on Twitter using the #JEDchat hashtag, but Hoffman and Gordon soon moved to Facebook, where they started tagging their friends in the conversation and the group began to take shape.

“There is an urgency in the field to break down hierarchies and get people talking to each other and feeling community,” said Hoffman, now director of youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am. “The burgeoning tech-enabled people to gather in exciting ways. Twitter and Facebook had been around but we had to educate [people] that they could do more with these platforms.” 

Hoffman said that initially most JEDLAB users were working in congregational and day school settings, in Jewish summer camps and at JCCs and other informal environments. Others were “freelancers” — educators who worked in various settings and were not defined by their environments. Initially, the group was geographically weighted toward the Northeast corridor, but after it hit 500 members, Midwest and West Coast representation grew. Conversations in the group run the gamut from integrating current events into lesson plans to the role of technology in today’s educational environments.

Rabbi Marc Blatt, who trained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University and now teaches Jewish texts at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., said he uses JEDLAB mostly as a collaborative tool, where he can read up on best practices and hone his educator skills. The advice conversations “remind me of seminar class where we would all offer our ideas on how best to approach a challenge and think through the different issues at play,” he said. 

“The benefit of JEDLAB is the collaboration. We do better as Jewish educators when we can collaborate with our colleagues to refine our practice and our product.” — Rabbi Marc Blatt

He also has used JEDLAB as a place “where I support those who need a space to vent or complain and to brainstorm solutions.” In approaching a class on Jewish music, his initial playlist of about 10 songs expanded by hundreds, including more than 50 different types of “Jewish” music, after he posted the idea on JEDLAB. 

“My students had a fuller experience of Jewish music than just Israeli pop and klezmer,” Blatt said. “The benefit of JEDLAB is the collaboration. We do better as Jewish educators when we can collaborate with our colleagues to refine our practice and our product.” 

“JEDLAB does foster a sense of belonging and purpose,” said Yael Mashbaum, a teacher at Alice and Nahum Lainer School at Sinai Temple. Mashbaum, also a member of the Senior Educators Cohort of M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, said she prefers JEDLAB’s practical questions and conversations, when people ask for help with lesson plans or suggest resource materials for use in classrooms. 

“I think of it as a community of practice that makes me feel that I am not alone on an island, but that educators all over the country are working on similar ideas and trying to engage learners in similar ways,” she said. 

Temple Beth Am Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny called JEDLAB “a great archive of brainstormed curricula and programmatic concepts.” She said she consults the group after “deep-impact events like political shifts and major tragedies. Usually, there are educators gently prodding one another to invent ways to safely and wisely respond to these events in kids’ spaces.”

Rabbi Noam Raucher of Pasadena recalled asking for suggestions on JEDLAB about “what I might do to get some kids focused on larger questions about God. One of the most common responses was, ‘What are your larger goals?’ [That question] reminded me what I’m trying to do.”

Raucher and Mashbaum both spoke to the value of a space where Jewish educators could review lesson plans. “I have wanted [JEDLAB] to be a place where other teachers who teach similar subjects could work together so that we aren’t all creating programs and lessons from scratch,” Mashbaum said.

“The average Sunday school [educator] may not even have lesson plans,” said Raucher. “You don’t have to necessarily invent the wheel every time.” 

Raucher hopes that future JEDLAB conversations include face-to-face and voice-to-voice components, even virtually. “We need to be able to hear the tenor and pitch of someone’s voice and look them in the eye, instead of posting and walking away,” he said.

Gordon and Hoffman have retained moderator status but don’t post that often. For the last three years, New York-based Sara Shapiro-Plevan, founder and principal at Rimonim Consulting, has been the primary network weaver and moderator for the group. But the future of JEDLAB mostly will depend on the new educators who are joining the group and beginning to shape tomorrow’s conversations.

“As long as people want and need [JEDLAB], I hope they’ll sustain it,” Hoffman said. “Communities like JEDLAB help you feel like there’s something bigger, a higher purpose than just the job you’re doing, which can be overwhelming and underappreciated. It’s a legitimization that Jewish educators are one community.”

Correction Jan. 4, 2019: In an earlier version of this story it was said that Alice and Nahum Lainer school was at Pressman Academy. It has been corrected to Sinai Temple.