A NewCAJE college fellow from Michigan reflects on the all-online Jewish educator’s conference.
My name is Sam Arnold. I am 19 years old and live in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I am a sophomore at Western Michigan University majoring in early childhood/elementary education and minoring in comparative religions. Ultimately, I would like to pursue the Rabbinate to be ordained a conservative rabbi and receive a masters in jewish education. Currently, I am the 1st and 2nd grade teacher and leader of the Pre K-3 Team within the joint religious school of Congregation Of Moses and Temple B’Nai Israel in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
This year was my first year attending the NewCAJE Conference (B”H I will be attending many more). I had the honor of being one of twelve college students across the United States invited to take part in the first ever NewCAJE College Fellowship Cohort. Led by Sharon Diamondstein and Rabbi Lily Kowalski, our cohort would come together weekly to do formal and informal Jewish learning and social events. We wrestled with the text of Pirkei Avot, got to know each other’s interests through the Game of Things and even got to see through PopTorah how Judaism plays a part in every single aspect of our daily lives. But what I think made this experience even more meaningful were the people I was learning with. All the participants (including myself) are looking at pursuing a career within the field of jewish education. In my eyes, we right now are peers, but one day we also will have the privilege of being colleagues.
I believe that Jewish educators across the United States (including in Michigan) are doing their best to provide learning opportunities for families and children of all ages. For many, in-person learning is vital to build community among students and families. However, I have found that kehillah, community, can be found online as well. When COVID hit it took a week for my colleagues at religious school and I (led by religious school director Nora Chaus) to bring everything that we do normally online. As a result, every week, my students were able to enjoy Hebrew, Judaism, music and stories as they normally would. I even found that when teaching online, I could open my student’s eyes to things that, in person, they would not be able to. For example, thanks to Google, I was able to teach my students about the seven species through art and how they relate to the Jewish holidays. I found a painting of each species and we talked about the significance of each one.
When it comes to the pros and cons of online learning, I found that the number one con was definitely not being able to hear students singing. As a lay-led davener, I know the joy that comes from being able to hear people singing along to the traditional nusach, melodies, of prayers. However, I had the opportunity to lead tefillah for my students while playing my piano for them, which was awesome. They would not have had that experience while in person. Therefore, while it is harder, a connection can still be made.
A pro was that I found more flexibility to incorporate more of my students’ interests into the curriculum. For Shavuot, when teaching about the mitzvah of bringing nature into one’s home, we looked at Minecraft and the role that nature plays in the game. We also talked about just as Jewish people yearn to learn Torah so that we can be Jewish leaders, so too did a character like Harry Potter look to learn the skills needed to become a good wizard. As an educator, I was and continue to be lucky because my students are always looking to learn more than what I was going to teach them. My students encourage me to dig deeper into the curriculum, and because of it, they continue to be engaged both in the classroom and out of it. Yes, it was not ideal to be online teaching. But what is amazing is that something beautiful can still come out of it.
Altogether, through classes with my cohort; scholars such as Shira Epstein, dean of the Davidson School of Education; Tefillot educators Chava Mirel and Eliana Light; and many other Jewish educators, I have been able to explore Jewish education from many different lenses and how it can be meaningful for everyone — from the youngest learner to the oldest. The main idea that I am walking away with is that Jewish education is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would call “radical amazement.” As educators, we get the joy of being able to hand over seeds to our students so that they can grow Jewishly and mah yafeh, how beautiful it is to watch those seeds be planted, and grow into trees! Overall, we as Jewish educators have the power to make Judaism come alive. The NewCAJE conference was the perfect way to help make that happen.
P’Tach Libi B’Toratecha: May we, the Jewish educators, be able to keep opening our own hearts to love teaching Judaism to all who seek it, and may we able to continue to strengthen the Jewish people through inspiring others to pursue words of Torah, daven words of Prayer, and fulfill mitzvot for many generations to come!