Jerusalem – While their students savored every minute of summer vacation, an international group of senior educators spent part of their holiday break in an Israeli classroom. A varied mix of Hebrew day school professionals attended the Principal’s Seminar on Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University’s Lookstein Center, which ran from July 10-24. Held partially on campus, partially in Jerusalem, the seminar afforded principals the ordinarily rare opportunity to share ideas with their peers, learn new strategies and assess their schools’ strengths and weaknesses.
Joel Wolowelsky, who serves on the Lookstein Center’s advisory board, said that the annual seminar helps the participants master advanced educational and leadership skills.
Noting that many principals "grow into their jobs" after many years as teachers, Wolowelsky said that "there are few educators, particularly administrators, who have significant formal training." Although they of course have degrees in education, he added, "most haven’t had time for serious professional enrichment."
Wolowelsky, who chairs the department of Advanced Placement Studies at Brooklyn’s Yeshivah of Flatbush, said that the principals learned "how to develop rubricks, how to assess students in a non-conventional way and how to actualize a vision. We also had two days on leadership."
This year’s group included educators from Chabad schools in Australia and South Africa; a Reform school in Florida; and a Yiddish day school in Canada. The common denominator: "They all have a commitment to Jewish education," Wolowelsky said. "They enjoyed the chance to bounce programs and ideas off each other."
"The seminar’s strength is its people," agreed Sandy Stark, who is about to assume the role of general studies head at the Ramaz Lower School on the Upper East Side. "Good teaching involves people who are passionate, and these people are passionate. I hope we can continue to exchange ideas via e-mail," she said.
Rabbi Moshe Kamensky, principal of the Hillel School in Rochester, N.Y., said that "just rubbing elbows with peers, sharing problems and finding solutions has been valuable. We’ve had a chance to eat and live together, to grind the problems down."
One problem facing many principals is teacher burnout. "In one session," Rabbi Kamensky said, "we heard how one school is committed to putting aside one hour a week for teachers to sit together. Generally, teachers don’t have the opportunity to share what’s going on in their respective classrooms. It’s a problem we all share."
Another challenge is finding teachers.
"I’m networking with the Israeli school system, the Jewish Agency and the Lookstein Center to recruit teachers while I’m here," Rabbi Kamensky said. "People aren’t entering the field in a serious way."
Rabbi Harold Sutton, principal of the Magen David Yeshiva High School in Brooklyn, was one of several participants who had returned for a second summer of study at the Lookstein Center.
"Last year, I felt myself learning and exposing myself to really cutting-edge theories of education and I wanted to learn more," he said.
Rabbi Sutton, whose school serves the Syrian community, said he had learned about new methods of "alternative assessment."
Noting that many students do not perform well in a conventional setting or on standardized tests, Sutton said he had been looking for a better way to evaluate kids.
"There are new ways of testing a student. Instead of asking whether he knows A, B, or C, ask how he processes information; ask how he learns; how can he learn more? Instead of giving a traditional multiple-choice test, allow students to translate what they’ve learned through a composition. By figuring out how students learn, we can better expand our world to include a wider variety of students."
Sutton said he also enjoyed the diversity the seminar provided.
"I’d never had exposure to Reform and Conservative educators on an interactive basis," he explained. "Of course we disagree on some major issues, but the ability to pick up on each other’s strengths was very valuable for me. I learned that many of them are fine educators and that in an educational setting I can learn from them. It’s then up to me to translate and transpose the information to the needs of my school."
Stark, from Ramaz, said she had especially benefited from a discussion on how to teach the Holocaust to children.
"There is sometimes a tendency to protect children from the Shoah," she said while touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial during a seminar field trip. "We teach kids about memories, about shtetl life. But in our efforts to protect children, we can lose sight of what they can sometimes handle. Even the smallest Israeli schoolchildren learn about the Holocaust."
That there is more than one way to teach the Holocaust was underscored by Rachel Korazim, the Jewish Agency educator who led the principals during a Yad Vashem field trip.
At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Korazim told the participants, "you literally have to walk through a box car to get to the next exhibit. There’s a sense of trying to re-create the experience, to give an ‘as it was’ feeling."
Pointing to a similar box car at Yad Vashem – which is elevated several feet and perched atop a cliff – Korazim said, "here, there is no way for us to touch it. This boxcar is symbolically frozen on the edge of the tracks, on an abyss. Children sometimes say that it’s poised to go straight up to heaven."
Wiping tears from her eyes, Stark expressed quiet amazement that Yad Vashem, which she had visited before, could still move her.
"There’s always more to learn," she said.