Nov 062019

Cross-posted here on eJewishPhilanthropy

By: Leah Nadich Meir

Looking back at the 19 years I’ve worked at AVI CHAI, I am thankful beyond measure that so much of my project oversight intersected so perfectly with my values and priorities. One prime example is my work on Hebrew language education. I’d like to share with you how Hebrew language came to mean so much to me and why I believe it can still function as a powerful bond connecting the Jewish people worldwide. Then, I’ll describe a ground-breaking Hebrew language education program, now 20 years old, which I have overseen at AVI CHAI. And finally, I want to acknowledge the entire landscape of Hebrew language learning initiatives that sometimes go under-acknowledged. All of this leaves me feeling more upbeat than I did 19 years ago about the future of Hebrew language in North America. I hope that this overview will contribute to the lively and thoughtful exchange taking place now about the importance of Hebrew language.

Hebrew language is so high on my personal priority list because I received a precious gift from my American-born parents z”l as soon as I was born: they spoke only Hebrew to me and to my two younger sisters. My grandfather was a leader in the revival of the Hebrew language in North America, serving as the editor for 30 years of Hadoar, the only Hebrew weekly in America, and as president of the Histadrut Ivrit, the Council for Hebrew Language. When I was learning to talk, he would follow me around with a notebook and pen, proudly jotting down every new Hebrew word I mastered!

While most American Jews were trying their hardest to master a few phrases in Hebrew, my counter-cultural upbringing included Hebrew-speaking summer camps, day school education, undergraduate study in Hebrew, trips to Israel at a young age and living in Israel for five years.

This gift became part of my identity and my being. My earliest memories return to me in Hebrew; I conversed easily with Israeli cousins and friends in Hebrew; the study of Bible and other Jewish texts was so much easier because many of the words were the same or very similar to modern Hebrew words, and the joys of Hebrew literature were open to me. For me, being at home in Hebrew was an essential part of being at home in Judaism, Jewish texts and Israel.

Knowing that Hebrew fluency contributed tremendously to my identity and sense of Jewish “belonging,” I wondered whether there was a way to grant even a portion of this gift to young Jews growing up outside of Israel. I’m still astonished that my work at AVI CHAI has let me transform that wondering into action!

My professional engagement with the NETA program (now known as Bishvil Ha-Ivrit) began in my first years at AVI CHAI. NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit was initiated in 1999 at the urging of AVI CHAI Trustee Dr. Ruth Wisse, with early implementation by Senior Program Officer Rachel Mohl Abrahams. It created a comprehensive Hebrew language curriculum and offered ongoing professional development for Jewish day school teachers in grades 7-12. Founding Director Hilla Kobliner came with a stellar reputation as a consummate Hebrew language expert and master pedagogue. An expert and dedicated staff was stationed at NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit’s North American home at Hebrew College in Boston. The staff has planted and nurtured the seeds that have made the program flourish and bloom in the years since.

From its very beginnings, NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit was envisioned as both a curriculum and a teacher training program. Before the program’s introduction in Jewish day schools, Hebrew language instruction depended largely on cobbled-together and photocopied materials, and varied widely in content, quality and results, with very little professional development available to teachers. While the vast majority of the Hebrew language teachers in these grades were native Hebrew speakers, many with training and experience in education, few had specialized training in teaching Hebrew as a second language. NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit’s professional development was geared to help these teachers become professionals in teaching Hebrew as a second language.

The program has come a long way since starting off as a pilot in 13 North American schools in 2000. Currently it serves over 150 schools worldwide, where it is used by over 20,000 students. Programs like this need ongoing resources and investment to remain alive and well.

In 2012, AVI CHAI entered into an agreement with the Center for Educational Technology (CET) in Tel Aviv to transfer full responsibility for all aspects of the program to CET by 2019. This agreement was intended to ensure a permanent “home” for Bishvil Ha-Ivrit that would support its high standards, curricular revisions and professional development into a future that would take advantage of new pedagogical opportunities through educational technology. Since then, the curricular and teacher guide materials have been completely revamped, the program is fully digital and interactive (additionally, hard copy books are still printed for every student), and a lively online community of teachers exchanges ideas, materials and support. Currently, the program generates over $1 million in earned revenue annually. We are truly delighted that CET has confirmed its original commitment to continuing to develop and support Bishvil Ha-Ivrit after 2019.

How has Bishvil Ha-Ivrit raised the bar on Hebrew language in the last 20 years?

  • It meets students at their Hebrew language level and groups them accordingly.
  • It provides clear standards and benchmarks for student learning.
  • Professionals in curriculum writing have developed intellectually challenging and engaging materials using authentic texts – all of which are consistent with principles of second language learning.
  • It uses current and accessible technology that benefits both students and teachers.
  • It includes reliable assessment.
  • It offers expert professional development to teachers of all levels, face-to-face and online.
  • It provides ongoing support via mentoring, webinars and online resources.
  • It identifies, trains and supports the “next generation” of Hebrew educators.

The content includes Biblical and Rabbinic texts in addition to Modern Hebrew, so that the students can become “fluent” in these different forms of Hebrew language. The materials are graphically beautiful and creative, and are arranged thematically. For example, the newly revamped Book 3 for intermediate level students includes eight units, including one on color and form, one on symbols in Judaism and one on friendship. The texts, which can be both read and listened to, run the gamut from modern poetry to Bible and Midrash to film and song. All have been carefully selected to align with the students’ Hebrew language development while engaging them intellectually – not an easy task! Students can work on their own or in small groups with the online materials, and teachers can track student progress with the online class management tools.

Professional development for teachers has always been a hallmark of the program. Teachers who are new to Bishvil Ha-Ivrit attend a five-day in-person introductory seminar; additional in-person seminars for more experienced teachers are conducted every summer on topics such as project-based learning and students with special learning needs. Teachers also benefit from mentoring, customized to the needs of their schools. Webinars throughout the year add to the learning opportunities.

If this sounds like a lot … it is! Teachers appreciate the recognition of, and support for, their practice of the profession of Hebrew language pedagogy, and students have the benefit of more personalized learning through interactive games and activities.

In light of these accomplishments, AVI CHAI is very optimistic about the future of Bishvil Ha-Ivrit as a tremendous boost to Hebrew language learning. We also recognize that no single program or curriculum is the “magic bullet” to Hebrew language mastery. The programs, professional development and curricula that have developed in recent years, such as iTaLAM (grades 1-5), Delet L’Ivrit at Hebrew Union College/JIR, Hebrew at the Center and the Middlebury College graduate-level Hebrew Language program for teachers have all contributed to professionalizing Hebrew language learning in North America and around the world. The establishment of the Council for Hebrew Language and Culture and its affiliate, the National Association of Hebrew Teachers, under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization, is another welcome addition to the Hebrew language scene.

So I am upbeat about the reinvigoration of Hebrew learning and fluency outside of Israel. Even if oral and written Hebrew fluency is limited to the relatively small number of students in Jewish day schools, our history has taught us that even a small number can function as an energizing and inspirational force. After all, the entire movement leading to the creation of Modern Hebrew was begun by a very small number of passionate leaders who were “meshuga’im ladavar” – dedicated visionaries to the cause. We need more dedicated visionaries and their students who feel like Hebrew is “home.”

With the approach of AVI CHAI’s sunset at the end of 2019, I am personally grateful for the Foundation’s unwavering commitment to the Hebrew language, for its generous support for NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit and for the opportunity for me to be so closely involved in its development. Enabling thousands of students to experience connection with their identity and people through Hebrew has been a fulfillment not only of my dreams, but those of my parents and grandparents as well.

Leah Nadich Meir is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Addressing the Yitro Graduates

 Posted by on October 25, 2019 at 1:04 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Oct 252019

By: Leah Nadich Meir

The Yitro Graduates

I’m honored and happy to have the chance to wish you – the graduates of Yitro’s 4th cohort – a “Yasher Koach” and send you on to the next step in your learning – because, as you know, Jewish learning is never-ending!

AVI CHAI has enthusiastically supported four cohorts of Yitro Fellows because it reflects so well our commitment to Jewish living, learning and peoplehood. AVI CHAI’s aspirations state: “Our best hope for attaining this vision of the future is through a focused investment in educational experiences for Jewish youth which are Jewishly meaningful, engaging and full of joy.” Having spent 12 years in Jewish camps, sent my own children to Jewish camps and visited many camps on behalf of AVI CHAI, I can’t think of a better definition of Jewish summer camp than “Jewishly meaningful, engaging and full of joy.”

You, your directors and staff members as well as your campers as part of what we call the “energizing nucleus” of Jewishly committed and educated young people who will lead the North American Jewish community into a bright future. And you, the associate and assistant directors, are entrusted with infusing those camps with Jewish values, content and tradition. It’s an “awesome” (in the original meaning of the word) responsibility. Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law (for whom this program is aptly named), wisely counseled him that one leader, even Moses, can’t build a vibrant Jewish community alone; a leader needs a “leadership team” who can work with him or her and then eventually, become the leaders themselves.

You’ve involved yourself in all the learning offered by your very special faculty members and mentors. You’ve benefitted from the exchanges with other Yitro Fellows whose camps are similar, and at the same time, very different from yours. You’ve embarked on what I hope will be many years of dialogue, exchange of ideas and sharing of practice.

You have grown as Jewish educators. I know that you’ve chosen to continue that growth, and to lead your staff members in viewing themselves as Jewish educators. You also have valuable bonds that you’ve developed with one another that have given you a unique community of colleagues for many years into the future.

We look forward to hearing about your continued Jewish learning as you hone your leadership skills. We read in the coming week’s Parasha of Nitzavim,

וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶת־הָאָלָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃

כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.

And who are those who are “not with us here this day”? Those are the future generations, the children, your campers as well as your staff members. YOU are the leaders who will transmit the covenant, the learning and the joy of Judaism to them.

עלו והצליחו   Go out there and succeed!

Nov 292018

By: Leah Nadich Meir

What are your Hanukkah lighting preferences?  Beeswax candles? Blue and white? Multicolor? Or do you go with olive oil in glass containers? Regardless of your aesthetic preference, you always start off with one candle, lit by one Shamash. Then you add a candle (or olive oil container) each night, again lit with that single Shamash, with your Hanukkiah burning a bit more brightly every night. Then there’s that eighth night, when the flames illuminate the winter darkness and maybe even warm up the room a bit.

Let’s look into these Hanukkah flames to illuminate some valuable lessons we’ve learned at The AVI CHAI Foundation about  how Jewish educators (or any educators, for that matter) are like Hanukkah candles – how they learn best, how they continue to enhance their leadership and, in turn, the learning of their students:

  • Every candle needs a flame to light it: Every educator, no matter how learned, needs that additional “spark” that comes from another person. What’s even better is a spark ignited by multiple people with exciting ideas, new perspectives and valuable knowledge. In other words: professional development. Top leaders, who are responsible for the success of an entire school, often feel very lonely. The same can be true of teachers, who can feel isolated within their classrooms, wondering how their colleagues in other schools, or even in the classroom next door, are handling the same challenges that they’re facing.  Bishvil Ha-Ivrit, a content-rich interactive Hebrew language program, brings Hebrew language teachers in grades 6-12 together for intensive training at Hebrew College in Boston, provided by experts from the Center for Educational Technology. Learning together opens their eyes to new developments in language learning and ignites collegial relationships that continue long after their time together has ended.
  • You don’t need to light all the candles at once: Our tradition tells us to light them one at a time, even as we look forward to the next night when another one will be added. It’s fine to be ambitious and want to bring change to an entire school, whether in bringing outcomes-based learning and standards to every subject or in having all Judaic subjects taught in Hebrew. But first start small: learn, think, tweak…and then take the next step. The Legacy Heritage Institute (formerly the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project) at the Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary developed standards and benchmarks for the study of only one subject: Tanakh (Bible). It provided intensive professional training for Judaic studies heads and faculty members for about ten years before doing the same for the study of Rabbinics. Now that the 14th cohort of schools is immersed in the program, the outcomes-based approach has become central to the discourse about text learning in Jewish day schools.
  • The light and warmth of the flames increase over time: We need those eight days to reach the full brilliant light that fills our homes when the entire Hanukkiah is lit. We barely notice the difference when another light is kindled each evening, but when all eight are finally shining, we realize how much has changed since that first day! Don’t expect the change to happen on the first day, in the first week or even the first year. Real learning and real change need time to take hold. Keep pushing forward, but be patient. The Judaic studies teachers in the four week Hebrew language Ivriyon program at the Jewish Theological Seminary start off unsteady and hesitant, but finish up speaking Hebrew a lot more confidently and fluently!
  • The flames in the Hanukkiah glow close to one another, but they remain separate: Each educator, each class, each school is unique, and rightly so. Effective leadership training and professional development introduce the big ideas and then allow them to be adapted to the goals and needs of each educator and school. That’s how individuals and schools representing such diversity – in religious orientation, student population and educational approach – have been able to learn together and continue learning afterward through the benefits of technology. The Jewish Educators’ Institute at the Hadar Institute gathers teachers from a variety of schools for a five-day Beit Midrash experience and introduction to the Pedagogy of Partnership Participants are then coached through the year as they adapt the approach to their own classrooms. Each light shines in its own special way, but more brightly together.

As you light that one candle on the first night of Hanukkah, keep in mind what Beit Hillel (the school of Hillel) instructed: starting with one candle and increasing the light each night – ma’alin bakodesh – increases the holiness from day to day. And the same can be said of how our Jewish educational professionals add to their flames of knowledge, skill and professional enrichment. From a small glow to a bright collective light.

Ma’alin Bakodesh – their task and their students’ learning become ever more sacred.

Hag Urim Sameah

Leah Nadich Meir is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation

Go Forward and Succeed

 Posted by on June 5, 2018 at 10:15 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jun 052018

AVI CHAI has enthusiastically supported overnight Jewish summer camps because they reflect so well our commitment to Jewish living, learning and peoplehood. As our aspirations state: “Our best hope for attaining this vision of the future is through a focused investment in educational experiences for Jewish youth which are Jewishly meaningful, engaging and full of joy.” After spending 12 years in Jewish camps, sending my own children to Jewish camps and visiting many of your camps, I can’t think of a much better definition of Jewish summer camp than “Jewishly meaningful, engaging and full of joy.”

AVI CHAI see the leaders, staff members and campers as the Jewishly committed and educated young people who will lead the North American Jewish community into a bright future. And the professional leadership of those camps are the ones entrusted with infusing those camps with Jewish values, content and tradition. It’s an “awesome” (in the original meaning of the word) responsibility. Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, wisely counseled him that one leader, even Moses can’t build a vibrant Jewish community on his own; a leader needs a “leadership team” who will eventually themselves become the leaders.

As we read in the book of Bereishit, when Jacob is traveling and still unsure of his place and where he’s headed, he dreams of a ladder with angels going up and down between heaven and earth. When he wakes, he exclaims:

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃  “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I didn’t know it!”

“Achen Yesh HaShem BaMakom Hazeh…” – the Lord is present in these summer camps full of children and young adults. These are sacred places because of what is happening within them

As the summer of 2018 quickly approaches, take a moment from the frenetic preparations in which you are all immersed to accept our thanks in advance for inspiring a generation of young Jews. Alu Ve’hatzlichu – go forward and succeed!


Camp Ramah Darom participants at FJC’s Cornerstone program in May.


May 022018

By: Leah Nadich Meir

Now that May is upon us, the countdown to summer – and camp – has begun!  Camp leaders know that memorable and meaningful camp experiences don’t just happen; they’re like the vegetables that grow in so many camp gardens. Tending the seedlings with loving care results in those sweet-tasting tomatoes and peppers campers enjoy at summer’s end.

So how are you planning your camp’s celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday? Camp life, with its multi-sensory experiences, is the perfect venue for celebrating Israel and appreciating its uniqueness. And it goes way beyond the one day of “Yom Yisrael” (“Israel day”) that’s become a tradition in many camps.

Do you want some help? New ideas? Out-of-the-box suggestions? You might get some from the 12 camps in the intensive two-summer component of the “Israel @ Camp” initiative, which are developing a holistic vision and implementation plan for Israel education.  The iCenter, in collaboration with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Agency for Israel, works closely with each camp over 18 months.  As part of the thought and planning for the coming summer, North American camp leaders and staff members take part in the Jewish Agency’s seminar in Israel for the Israeli shelichim who will spend this summer in camps all over North America.  And Israeli shelichim will participate in the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Cornerstone seminar in the US for experienced counselors. The key word is: relationships. These relationships between North Americans and Israelis get a head start at the seminars and are strengthened during the summer.  The impact of these personal relationships on campers is powerful, and they develop strong ties to the Israeli shelichim as well.

1Israeli and North American participants in Israel @ Camp joint training in Israel.

If your camp has Israeli staff members, take special care to encourage and nurture those person-to-person relationships and take advantage of every chance to have the shelichim share their stories with staff and campers.  I still have powerful memories of the stories I heard from the Israeli shelichim at Camp Ramah in New England in the summer of 1967, when they arrived at camp two weeks after the Six-Day War, exhausted, exhilarated, grieving for lost friends and realizing that they were part of a turning point in Israel’s history.

Would you welcome some creative and ready-made program resources for Israel-focused activities? How about a box of resource materials and guidelines from the iCenter? Last summer, 54 camps received the boxes and beginning next week, you can apply to receive a box for the cost of shipping! What will you find in the box? Activities like these:  “Golda’s Kitchen Cabinet” (based on reports of cabinet meetings that took place in Golda Meir’s kitchen!), containing recipes, Israeli spices and special aprons – all designed to surround the campers with the stories, tastes and smells of Israel. Or inspire campers to create their own portraits of well-known Israeli leaders based on the whimsical portraits of Hanoch Piven.

2Campers making pita on their outdoor oven with recipes received through their Israel @ Camp Resource Box. 

3Campers showing off their Hanoch Piven-inspired portraits in front of their Israel @ Camp Banner.

Do you have ideas for celebrating Israel’s 70th that you want to share? Email them to us and we’ll send them around! Don’t worry if you end up inspired by too many program ideas – you can always save some for next summer’s celebration of Israel’s 71st!

A Look Back at Nadiv – What Have We Learned for the Future?

 Posted by on June 15, 2016 at 3:34 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jun 152016

This post is cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy


Photo courtesy of The AVI CHAI Foundation

By Ramie Arian, Leah Nadich Meir, and Steven Green

Five years ago, the Nadiv program was launched as an innovative pilot program involving six camp-school partnerships whose primary objective was enhancing and deepening the quality of Jewish education at the camps and enriching experiential education at the schools while building a mutually beneficial and sustainable camp-school model. The Nadiv model created six new full-time positions for experiential Jewish educators, each shared by a camp and a school in geographic proximity to each other. The educators, whose responsibilities were defined by each camp and school based on its needs, toggled their responsibilities between them. In most cases, this meant spending four days in the school during the academic year with one day devoted to planning the camp program for the coming summer, with the entire camp season being spent in camp. The hope was to create a career path for select, talented educators. The program began with a preparatory year in 2011 and is concluding its active four-year phase this month.

You could say that the theme song of this pilot was “partnership,” since it involved not only camp-school partnerships but also a $3.3 million funding partnership of the Jim Joseph and AVI CHAI Foundations, which remained actively involved throughout the five years. In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which operates three of the six participating camps and with which three of the schools are associated, was represented in the inception of the project. The entire project was directed by Ramie Arian under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, with intensive involvement of two veteran experiential educators in the role of mentors. From the outset, Nadiv was an enterprise with “many moving parts.”

Each camp-school partnership was unique in character, structure, expectations and possibilities. Four of the schools were Jewish day schools and two were Reform congregational schools. In addition to the three URJ partnerships (Camp Coleman and Davis Academy in Georgia; Crane Lake Camp in Massachusetts and Temple Shaarey Tefila in New York; Camp Kalsman and Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Washington), there were two independent camp-school partnerships (Herzl Camp in Wisconsin and Heilicher Minneapolis Day School; Camp Mountain Chai and San Diego Jewish Academy in California) and a Young Judaea-Solomon Schechter partnership (Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake in New York and Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, New Jersey).

Each Nadiv educator was mentored by a veteran experiential educator. In addition, the group had periodic conference calls with the Nadiv director and the two mentors, and a yearly two-day seminar.

The Nadiv model was compelling in its potential for:

  • Improving the quality and consistency of experiential Jewish education in the camps and schools
  • Nurturing collaboration between two major approaches to Jewish education in North America: the formal and the experiential
  • Being an innovative experiment on behalf of engaging Jewish children through the intellect, the senses and the emotions.

On the other hand, it faced some daunting challenges such as:

  • Creating camp/school partnerships built on shared goals and visions rather than only on the relationship with the shared educator
  • Retaining Nadiv educators in the face of the heavy time demands of working in both school and camp settings
  • Juggling the sometimes conflicting expectations of two sets of supervisors
  • Handling the upheavals imposed by leadership changes in the schools and camps.

Nadiv was closely followed and its progress evaluated through its mid-point in December 2014 by the strategic consulting firm Informing Change. The executive summary of its report found gradual progress in improving Jewish education at the camps. A positive relationship of the Nadiv educator with camp staff influenced the extent to which change occurred in the camp’s Jewish program.

In the schools, the report found variance in the nature and scope of improvements in Jewish experiential education due to the differences in the roles of the Nadiv educators and in the schools’ priorities. In terms of the Nadiv camp-school partnerships, Informing Change reported communication between each partner camp and school, but little evidence of the kind of shared vision and mutual need that are characteristic of genuine collaborations. This last observation isn’t surprising, given that the original Nadiv vision was of a shared employee, not necessarily of a full collaboration.

In the final year of the Nadiv grant ending in June 2016, the three URJ partnerships remain intact. Of the three other partnerships, one of the schools appointed its Nadiv fellow as Judaic Studies Department Chair and Director of Jewish Life, and his new responsibilities made it impossible to continue in his camp position. The two other Nadiv fellows were dissatisfied with their school positions and took positions at other schools, which made continuation of the original camp-school partnership impossible.

What lessons can we share from Nadiv now that it’s approaching the end of its four-year active phase?

The Nadiv program resulted in positive results for the camps. Having a master’s level Jewish educator with camp experience (rather than an undergraduate or graduate student) overseeing and devoting time during the year to Jewish programming and education in camp raised the level and professionalism of Jewish programming in all six camps. It resulted in more creative and innovative educational programs and contributed to improving the preparation of teaching faculty in the camps. In addition, the Nadiv educator’s presence in the camp for a number of consecutive summers provided much needed continuity to the Jewish program that had often suffered from a high turnover of seasonal staff.

Depending on the educator’s role, Nadiv also resulted in enhanced experiential education in the schools, to an extent. The educators with responsibilities beyond the classroom, such as tefillah or “Jewish life,” were better positioned to introduce experiential elements into the life of the school than those who were primarily in the classroom.

Despite the heavy demands of switching between school and camp responsibilities, most of the Nadiv educators reported high job satisfaction and professional growth during their years in the program. The supervision provided by the partner organizations together with the intense mentoring and professional seminars provided by Nadiv added up to high-level, concentrated in-service training in both formal and experiential education.

There were nonetheless substantial challenges and obstacles to the goal of continued camp-school partnerships after the end of the philanthropic funding. None of the original partnerships will continue employing the same model after June 2016. The key challenges include:

  1. The difficulty in building true camp-school partnerships and establishing an overarching common goal and vision, along with the lack of conviction on the part of some of the schools that an experiential educator adds real value that would otherwise be absent. In the case of Nadiv, the camps were the primary drivers, searching for a school with which to partner. True collaborations call for each partner to see a compelling need for the partnership, and to spend time and energy on exploring areas of mutual interest. In addition, partnership goals have to be reviewed with an open mind over time and revised or even discarded.
  2. The high cost of the shared salary and of the ongoing mentoring and professional development. The budget limitations of camps and schools pose a serious challenge to an unsubsidized shared educator model accompanied by mentoring and professional development.
  3. This year-round employment model places heavy demands on the educator, especially in the high intensity planning times of late spring (for camps) and late summer (for schools). This raises the question of the price exacted from an educator in terms of having sufficient time to devote to camp and school responsibilities as well as to personal and family life.
  4. Leadership changes in the partnership organizations can, and usually do, have an impact on the work of a shared educator. The transition can disrupt lines of authority, and the new camp or school leader may not have the same buy-in to the model as the previous leader. Half the Nadiv partnerships experienced transitions in a camp or school leader.

Even when the camp-school partnership model does not continue, however, a positive ripple effect can be seen. The Nadiv partner camps value the professional planning and expertise that have raised the bar over the past four years for their Jewish educational programming. They are looking for different ways to maintain that level of professionalism. One camp hired its Nadiv educator as its associate director with the intent of keeping Jewish education high on its leaders’ priority list; another camp arranged for its Nadiv educator to continue during the summer and on a part-time basis during the academic year even after she left the partner school.

Inspired by Nadiv and by the model of the Ramah-URJ Service Corps, URJ is now supporting the creation of employment partnerships between selected congregations and URJ camps. Each congregation-camp partnership hires a full-time staff member, who usually serves as youth director in the congregation and unit head (or other senior staff role) in the camp. The staff members are generally early-career professionals with a bachelor’s degree and extensive camp experience. URJ contributes significantly to their salaries, and it provides a one-year training program that includes a professional development retreat in the fall, and webinars every six weeks throughout the school year. URJ anticipates that 20 such joint positions will be in operation for 2016/17.

A second example is a program supported by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. “Springboard Teen Engagement Specialists” has engaged one professional this year in a year-round position to work with Jewish teens and will add one per year over the next four years. During the academic year, they work in the Chicago community providing teen programming for an array of Jewish youth groups, synagogues, and school clubs. During the summer, they will engage in outreach as part of the programming staff at a Jewish summer camp. The summer relationships they forge will help guide the subsequent year’s programming.

We owe thanks to all those whose dedicated efforts made the Nadiv pilot happen and to the talented Nadiv Fellows who pioneered this initiative, bringing their passion for experiential education into Jewish camps and schools. This pilot program enhanced Jewish educational programming in all six camps, brought camps and schools into working partnerships, and led others to consider what else can be accomplished by building bridges of collaboration between our educational organizations. We see Nadiv’s story as unfinished, and will wait and watch patiently to see what new collaborations it will inspire.

Rabbi Ramie Arian is a consultant working with Jewish camps and other programs of experiential education in the Jewish community. He serves as project manager for Nadiv.

Leah Nadich Meir is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Steven Green is Director of Grants Management/Program Officer for the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Nov 192015

In an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement, a group of Jewish day school educators, scholars of Rabbinics and education and experienced Jewish educators has begun to collaborate on a compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for the study of Rabbinics in Jewish day schools. The initiative is under the auspices of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The compendium will guide Jewish day schools in planning and implementing goals for rabbinic studies for their students. It is especially heartening that the group working so collaboratively represents a cross-denominational selection of schools: modern Orthodox, Conservative and Community.

This effort officially kicked off with a three-day conference at the end of October, to be followed by a series of writing institutes. 16 schools are participating as “partner schools”, and will be committing time, resources and faculty expertise to the writing process over the coming year. Their educational leaders and faculty members will work first within their schools on developing standards and benchmarks; the schools’ educational leaders will then come together for two intensive writing workshops in the coming months. They will be joined at the writing workshops by scholars from across the denominations to determine the most important goals for learning rabbinic texts and make those goals accessible through specific benchmarks and performance assessments.

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The history of Rabbinic standards really began in 2003 with the development of standards and benchmarks for the study of Tanakh in Jewish day schools, also under the auspices of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since then, close to 80 schools have worked with skilled Tanakh Educator Consultants on establishing outcome-based Tanakh learning in their schools based on the standards and benchmarks document developed in 2004. The project provides participating schools with a yearlong professional development program for teachers and Judaic studies leaders (and a follow-up year) to address questions such as: What are the essential questions our students should be grappling with when they study the texts? What do we want our students to know when they finish each grade level and when they graduate high school? Instructional leadership institutes for Judaic studies heads provide them with the knowledge and skills that they need to effectively lead their faculty members through this (and future) educational journeys.

Building upon what they’ve learned in their years of experience with the TaNaKH standards project, Charlotte Abramson (Director) and Rabbi Sheryl Katzman (Rabbinics Initiative Leader) have designed the Rabbinic standards initiative to include school leaders and faculty members more actively from the very beginning in formulating and writing overarching standards and detailed benchmarks for different grade levels. The interchange between the schools that will adapt these guidelines for their own student learning and the scholars whose lives are devoted to study of the texts will lead to standards that reflect the complexity of rabbinic texts while guiding each school in adapting the standards to its own mission and unique learning environment.

The participants in the opening conference addressed questions like: What does literacy in rabbinic texts mean? How does the study of text differ when looked at from different perspectives, such as historic, literary or halakhic (based on Dr. Jon Levisohn’s “A Menu of Orientations to the Teaching of Rabbinic Literature”)? How can students learn the skills necessary for learning texts as well as experience the meaning of the texts in their own lives?

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A Standards and benchmarks document for the study of Rabbinics in Jewish day schools is by no means a recipe for standardized learning or conformity to a single approach. It is, rather, a road map for schools by which to chart a thoughtful path toward goals in Rabbinic studies that will reflect their own unique visions and direct their students toward an understanding and appreciation of the rich world of rabbinic text. AVI CHAI is supporting this ambitious effort in the belief that it will bring the level of Judaic studies to an even higher level of excellence within Jewish day schools across the spectrum.

Dec 162013

By: Leah N. Meir

The AVI CHAI Foundation is committed to Jewish day schools as a vehicle to foster vibrant Jewish engagement in the next generation. To achieve this vision, it is not enough for day schools to simply exist: they need to be excellent, providing a first-rate education in both general and Judaic studies. We believe a three-pronged approach is necessary to create strong ties to Judaism and Jewish life. First, students must be inculcated in Jewish literacy so that they know how to engage with Jewish texts – not just in school, but for the rest of their lives. Second, students must be instilled with a deep feeling of connection to Jewish living and values. Finally, a strong, ongoing connection to Israel is necessary for students to feel a sense of Jewish peoplehood.

What can help achieve these aspirations for our students? AVI CHAI’s work in Day School Teaching & Learning endeavors to answer this very question. The programs we fund fall into three strategies: 1) Providing resources to teachers, including curricula and professional development; 2) Developing standards and benchmarks for Judaic studies (currently focused in Tanakh); and 3) Enhancing learning through introducing new teaching models. Here are some lessons we have learned through this work:

  • Professional development is key: While we began with work on the content and curricula of Jewish education, and continue to believe that that is important, we realized that the success of the learning is also dependent on the teaching of it. Therefore, we have also invested in the professional development of teachers, both to teach specific curricula as well as overall. For instance, the Foundation believes that Hebrew language skills are essential to becoming a fully literate Jew able to read and appreciate our texts in their original form. Two AVI CHAI-supported Hebrew language programs – TaL AM and NETA-CET – provide students with carefully developed, sequential Hebrew language curricula, and educators with the professional development necessary to build and hone their skills in teaching Hebrew. Additionally, we support Ivriyon, a summer Hebrew immersion program for Judaic studies teachers. Another area we find critical in teacher professional development is the recruiting and training of educators interested in becoming Jewish day school teachers (addressed by the Pardes Educators Program) as well as increasing the effectiveness and retention of new teachers through intensive mentoring (in the Jewish New Teacher Project, JNTP).
  • Both professional development and content need to be constantly renewed: In order to produce the desired effect of lifelong Jewish engagement, we have found that the content itself as well as teacher knowledge and skills need to be current to address the needs of today’s students. Our programs have sought out and incorporated opportunities to improve upon existing teaching and learning in several ways. For instance, two of our programs, TaL AM and NETA-CET, are undergoing a transformation to become digital and interactive, capitalizing on new technology as well as trends toward project-based learning. In another example, we have partnered with Mechon Hadar to bring their model of chevruta partner learning into the day school classroom. This partnership not only enhances learning through the application of a tried and true Jewish learning model, but also introduces students to Mechon Hadar Fellows, Yeshiva students and potential role models for students.
  • Successfully upgrading school teaching and learning requires all parts of the school to be behind it: The AVI CHAI teaching and learning programs ostensibly deal with one particular area of the school, such as Hebrew language instruction or the teaching of Tanakh. Yet the reality is that this kind of disruption in the classroom requires strong support and reinforcement throughout the school. When the Judaic studies head and school leadership give the sense that it is a collaborative effort, the change in teaching is much more likely to succeed. In essence, projects such as Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project (for Tanakh) or JNTP become mechanisms for effecting school change, which pervades multiple aspects of the school staff and environment.

Day school teaching and learning is a complex and rich area of work. At times the challenges loom high, for instance: How can we increase teacher retention rates? How can we find and inspire new and qualified educators to embark on day school careers? How can we have the maximum impact on what and how students learn? Yet the potential payoff – a new generation inspired by and committed to Jewish life, learning, and engagement – is priceless.

Leah N. Meir is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Jul 312013

By: Leah Nadich Meir

We’ve all heard it before (and maybe have said it to ourselves): “Teachers have it great. They work until 3 PM for ten months a year and then get to hang out on the beach all summer!” That may be true of some teachers, but I saw a very different picture last week when I spent a day at the Davidson Graduate School of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. Davidson is known for its pre-service training of educators who go on to careers in Jewish education, both formal and experiential. With all the MA and PhD students off for the summer, you’d think that July would be a VERY quiet month at Davidson. It isn’t. The classrooms, hallways and outdoor spaces are alive with Jewish educators of all stripes: teachers (early childhood through high school), Judaic studies department heads, Jewish day school heads and aspiring heads. They are novice teachers and experienced administrators based in cities across North America and working in schools across the denominations.

Why are all these educators sitting in classrooms in the heat and humidity of a New York summer (especially this one!)? They’re doing this to become better teachers and educational leaders so they can create better schools and educational experiences for our kids. While they may not trumpet their own dedication to the cause when they return home, let me tell you a bit about what they’ve been up to:

  • Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI): For three weeks in the summer, heads and aspiring heads of school gather at JTS to develop their leadership skills through DSLTI. The institute, which extends over 15 months, provides a cutting-edge curriculum, dynamic experiences in authentic contexts, collaborative cohort groupings, and ongoing mentoring and support. The school leaders are guided by a group of experienced, skilled mentors who are themselves Jewish day school leaders, and develop a powerful bond with one another that continues to support them throughout their years as leaders.
  • Ivriyon: A four-week Hebrew immersion experience for Judaic studies teachers in Jewish day schools enables them to create a Hebrew environment in their classrooms, lead classroom discussions in Hebrew and help students improve their written and spoken Hebrew. Participating teachers take Ivriyon very seriously: I’ve heard them speaking Hebrew with one another walking down Broadway after a long day of classes! This summer’s Ivriyon graduates will work with a mentor throughout the year to help them effectively integrate Hebrew into their classes.
  • Jewish Early Childhood Educational Leadership Institute (JECELI): JECELI engages a select group of new and aspiring early childhood directors in intensive Jewish learning, reflective practice, leadership development, and community building. Jewish learning provides the foundation for all of the areas that are studied. JECELI is a collaboration between JTS and HUC (Hebrew Union College), in consultation with the Bank Street College of Education.
  • Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project: Since 2003, The Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project has been helping schools transform their teaching of TaNaKH (Bible) through an outcomes-based approach. A year-long professional development program guided by TaNaKH Educator Consultants (TEC) provides Judaic Studies leaders with the skills to lead their faculty members in adopting a Standards-based orientation and performance assessments for the study of TaNaKH in all grade levels. This past week, Judaic studies leaders from seven Conservative and Community day schools met for the first of three intensive instructional leadership institutes to be held this year. The TaNaKH faculty of each school will meet bi-weekly throughout the year to adapt the Standards to its students, and the Judaic studies heads will work closely with their TECs. Read what Dr. Barbara Neufeld, a prominent educational evaluator, had to say about the impact of this program.

What do these programs have in common, in addition to their thoughtful and reflective approaches to education? They all demand considerable time and work from their participants; they all include mentoring, which has been proven immensely valuable in sustaining school change; they all depend on the infusion of philanthropic funds in addition to fees for service (AVI CHAI supports the DSLTI, Ivriyon and Jewish Day School Standards programs, The Alan B. Slifka Foundation supports DSLTI and the Jim Joseph Foundation supports JECELI); and most importantly, they all raise the quality of Jewish early childhood and day school education.

You may be pleasantly surprised at the answer you’d get if you asked your child’s teacher, Judaic studies leader or head of school: “So what did you do during your summer vacation?”