What’s New In Jewish Education

What’s New In Jewish Education

Training Hebrew school leaders … Summer camp that stresses cuisine, fashion? … Hebrew U. researcher gets fishy.

ith modest salaries and a distinct lack of glamour, status and perks, congregational educators — also known as Hebrew school, or religious school, principals — often struggle with feelings of isolation and burnout.

But in New York at least, that is starting to change, thanks in large part to the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators, an intensive professional development program that brings together 40 educators — most from the five boroughs, Westchester and Long Island — for two and a half years of shared learning, training and networking that includes two summer retreats and a trip to Israel.

The only program of its kind in North America, the institute is run jointly by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and is funded by UJA-Federation of New York. It has graduated two cohorts and is currently recruiting a third cohort slated to start this winter.

In addition to seeking to strengthen their Jewish knowledge, keep up with developments in the field and hone leadership skills, participants “come in seeking community — to not feel like they are doing this alone,” says Evie Rotstein, the institute’s project director. One reason the program spans two and a half years is to allow time for relationships to form and “to develop a sense of trust.”

Each participant is given a paid mentor who, in addition to meeting twice a month with each mentee and being available to discuss issues that come up in between, meet and study with each other, making for a more intensive experience than in many mentoring programs.

“There’s no question that I gain as much, if not more, as hopefully [my mentees] learn from me,” says Sheila Adler, a mentor who is the longtime religious school director at Bet Torah, a Conservative congregation in Mount Kisco.

“The longer you are in the field, the more you need ongoing learning and to make sure you’re part of the community’s leading-edge concepts and new curricula,” Adler adds.

The institute’s goal is not just to help the participants, but to empower them to strengthen their schools — in particular to emphasize experiential learning and engage entire families, not just children.

“You can’t just change the life of a 7-year-old,” Rotstein explains. “It’s about the community around the 7-year-old. Drop-off Hebrew schools don’t work.”

Participants’ employer congregations are required to, among other things, establish a “leadership team” of lay leaders, clergy and faculty to “explore vision, goal setting, change strategies and innovation initiatives.”

Gidon Isaacs, the Hebrew school director at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue on the Upper West Side, says the institute, which he graduated from this spring, helped him “clarify a vision and strengthen what kind of leader I wanted to be, how to get there and how to implement that in the community.”

It “created this space for reflection, skill-building, exploration and experimentation,” he says.

Felice Miller Baritz, who directs the religious school at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, says the institute was “hugely beneficial for me personally, as well as for my community. I’m a stronger, more innovative and more secure educator as a result of the experience.”

— Julie Wiener

Incubator Camps Debut At The Y

After spending three weeks honing his culinary skills at the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC program this summer, 15-year-old Daniel Krane has gone from preparing a latke or two on Chanukah to vowing to host full Shabbat meals for his family.

“I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t starve to death in college,” said Krane, who had joined his triplet-sister Rebecca — a much more experienced cook — at the new Upper East Side sleep-away program.

Passport NYC, one of five programs launched this summer through the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Jim Joseph Foundation’s “Jewish Specialty Camp Incubator,” brought in teenagers from across the country to delve into fashion, culinary arts, music or film — and become experts on New York City all the while. Infused with a pluralistic Jewish flavor, programs included Shabbat and kashrut observance. Incoming ninth through 11th graders attended one of two three-week sessions this summer and slept in Y dormitories.

“These fields are all very ‘New York’ — we wanted to give them the most sophisticated, high-quality experience, and use New York as our playground,” said Sharon Goldman, program director of Passport.

The camp’s head director, Molly Hott, added, “The glamorous part of Passport NYC is that it’s a hybrid of everything: it’s the traditional summer camp meets college program, where you have the drive to follow one track. It also has a teen tour flair to it.”

Integral to their New York experience were meetings with experts in their fields of choice — the fashion campers, for example, enjoyed visits to Elle Magazine, Michael Kors, Bloomingdales and JCrew.

“The fashion industry is so competitive right now,” said Julia Baer, 14, from Westchester. “Having an experience like this gives you a step up.”

By working with teachers and with each other, campers say they were able to build confidence and conquer fears.

“I’m not good at finishing things, and here I got to see my idea grow from a little spark to being on the big screen,” said Gabby Gasser, 15, a film camper from Kansas City, Kan.

Similar sentiments emerged inside the kitchen.

“I was so afraid to pick up a knife — I didn’t want to cut myself,” said Shawn Feldman, 15, who now hopes to give some basic cooking lessons to the children she baby-sits.

For Ben Krasnow, learning how to operate a chef’s knife was also a challenge.

“I never used one of those before I came to camp,” said the 14-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif. “I want to go out a get a real chef’s knife.”

Despite growing up in a largely secular Jewish environment, Krasnow said he was undaunted by the weekly Shabbat experience, a relaxation period that allowed campers the freedom to “be religious in [their] own way.”

“For five days a week it was ‘go, go, go,’ waking up at 7 and going to the kitchen by 9,” Krasnow said.

Next year Goldman and Hott plan to expand the program, hopefully opening enrollment to 12th graders, adding a musical theater track and creating multiple levels so that campers can return for three or four years.

Beyond jumpstarting their careers and enjoying Jewish New York, the Passport campers said they valued the unique friendships they quickly formed with other teens that they wouldn’t normally even think to befriend.

“I’m this little punk kid who likes music — and this is Julia ‘from the Upper East Side’ and we get along great,” said Lexi Zotov, 14, of Boston.

She added, “What I love about this is how versatile everyone is and how much we could learn from each other.”

— Sharon Udasin

A Fish Story

The overfishing of the oceans and the near annihilation of some species, such as the Atlantic bluefin tuna, are a hot topic these days. A number of books have plied these sad waters of late, from Dean Bavington’s “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse” (University of British Columbia) to Paul Greenberg’s salmon-centered tale, “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” (Penguin Press).

But a Hebrew University aquaculture researcher has a potential way out of the problem of the world’s shrinking fish supply. He has developed a way to grow fresh or seawater fish in inland ponds, and he is now watching his work become commercially viable in upstate New York.

Jaap van Rijn, a member of the school’s faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality Sciences, drove last month to Hudson in Columbia County to see the 800 cubic meters — 800,000 liters — of fish tanks set up in a converted warehouse. Using his method, the fish hatchery is able to increase fish output to a density that is 50 to 100 times greater than conventional ponds.

In an interview during a visit here, van Rijn said the need for more fish to help combat world hunger and meet the world’s growing appetite for fish comes at a time when various countries have imposed bans on saltwater fish hatcheries in the ocean because of environmental concerns. They have also imposed quotas on catching various species of fish because their stocks have fallen below the level at which they can naturally reproduce.

As a result, the aquaculture industry has become of increasing importance to satisfy market needs. Studies show, for instance, that whereas farmed salmon represented less than 10 percent of the global catch 20 years ago, it now represents 60 percent of the salmon market. During this period, the wild salmon catch has stagnated and growth has come only through farmed salmon, which reached a volume of about 1.5 million tons. A similar situation has occurred with sea bass and sea bream.

But a 2006 study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said that by 2030 an additional 40 million tons of fish would be needed just to maintain current levels of fish consumption.

That would not have been possible without a change in the way fish are grown because fisheries in the last 30 years have been stable, van Rijn said, growing 90 million metric tons of fish even as more and more species of fish are becoming extinct, such as blue fin tuna.

He explained that the reason is because fish are grown in regular earthen bottom fishponds, which limit the number of fish that can be grown per volume of water. Increasing the volume of fish was impossible because of fish excretions that polluted the water.

To overcome that problem, van Rijn began his experiments in 1986 by cleaning the tank water through chemical and biological means before re-circulating it in fishponds with plastic or concrete-lined basins. He said he found he could thereby increase fish density by 50 to 100 times conventional ponds.

But because 10 to 20 percent of the polluted fishpond water was lost during this process, it ended up “polluting the environment because it was often not treated.” To rectify the problem, van Rijn said he adapted the idea of a wastewater treatment plant — adding mechanical and bacterial filtration that “converted all of the pollutant from fish excretions into harmless gases.”

The fish being grown in upstate New York are sea bream, also known as orata fish. That venture began after Hebrew University in 2006 sublicensed van Rijn’s technology to a company called Grow Fish Anywhere. Based on the results of a one-year test in Israel, a group of investors in New York set up the commercial plant in Hudson a year ago to produce close to 100 tons of sea bream.

Although it normally takes nine to 12 months to grow sea bream, van Rijn said but the first sea bream were ready after only seven months and were sold at restaurants in Albany and the Hudson area.

They may be sold in neighborhood supermarkets in the next year or two because the owners of the Hudson facility are planning to expand to Florida and California.

“By the end of the year, they will have invested $50 million in these three sites,” he said.

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