When the Jewish Educators Association meets Feb. 4 at the Marriott Hotel at Glenpointe in Teaneck, it will try something new: a Jewish family festival.
This will open the 55th annual conference of the Conservative movement’s professional educators’ group. The event, from 1 to 4 p.m., will be modeled after a street fair with vendors, displays, and activities appropriate for people of all ages.
"We’re trying to interact with the community to give them a treat and a chance to learn who we are and what we do," said Edward Edelstein, executive director of the JEA. "It’s a great opportunity to host a nice Jewish cultural happening."
Participants will find children’s crafts, a yo-yo performer, music, storytelling, face-painting, a giant map of Israel, a tefillin workshop, and displays of Judaic art and books. There will also be an opportunity for scholarly study with Deborah Miller, a member of the faculty of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
The four-day professional conference offers academic presentations by JTS faculty; panel discussions; a concert by Jewish vocalist Neshama Carlebach; a tour of the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York City; and a convocation at JTS for an award presentation and conferring of honorary doctorates in education for extraordinary longtime service to the field. About 150 Jewish educators and administrators are expected to attend the conference, whose theme is "Ha Gesher," said Edelstein, "bridging the academy and the field, by examining the latest research in Jewish education and exploring its application."
One conference highlight will be a discussion with award-winning journalists and authors Ari L. Goldman and Samuel G. Freedman. The two will talk about the sometimes-adversarial relationship between the press and the Jewish community: How fairly are Jews covered by the media? What happens when Jewish values and the pursuit of a story collide? On the intersection of journalism and education, Goldman and Freedman, colleagues at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, will discuss how educators can use different media, including the Internet, to teach about Judaism.
Teaneck resident Rabbi Robert Abramson, who directs the Department of Education at United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, which provides programs and services to the 850 Conservative synagogues in North America, has organized another panel to consider the recent historic approval by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of gay and lesbian ordination and sanctioning of same-sex unions. (The CJLS simultaneously upheld the movement’s ban on ceremonies celebrating same-sex couples and gay ordination.) Rabbis Joel Roth of Englewood and Avram Reisner, formerly of New Milford, will present their opposing CJLS positions, while Abramson will explore how schools will be affected by the change.
"Principals are going to have to work with teachers about how to teach this material. Is it age-appropriate?" said Abramson of the varied implications he said the law committee’s rulings raise for educators. The pedagogic issue, he continued, is, "when do you talk about sex with youngsters, specifically what is prohibited by Torah and what is prohibited by rabbinic tradition." Abramson said one goal at the forum will be to air concerns about how the teshuvah may be taught in different educational settings.
Keynote speaker Dr. Steven M. Brown, dean of JTS’s Davidson School, will address the gathering on Sunday with a talk called "Bridging the Field and the Academy: What Can Jewish Educational Practitioners Learn from Research?"
Among the lessons to have emerged from recent research, which he will share, said Brown, is that "one-shot [or episodic] professional growth experiences are almost wasted money. Real professional growth occurs from sustained intervention over time." Thus, he will recommend that schools build time and money for professional development into faculty job descriptions and the budget. This may mean providing funds for an outside expert to hold ongoing sessions on curricular change or best instructional practices, for example. Every school has to determine how and where it needs to improve, he said.
Another issue Brown said research has uncovered is the importance of creating a team approach within a school culture, such that faculty and administrative leadership work together to solve problems. "It’s not just the principal’s job," he said, adding, "a school climate where adults and children can learn in a positive, non-threatening environment" requires collaboration on all levels.
Admission to the Jewish family festival is $5 per person, with a maximum of $18 per family. For information, call the JEA at (516) 569-‘537.