Ten area synagogue religious schools are getting a nudge into the 21st century.
The Covenant Foundation has awarded $20,000 to the schools to train teachers in using technology in their religious school classrooms.
“We’re creating this network to learn from each other and support each other,” Rabbi Paula Feldstein said. Rabbi Feldstein heads the religious school at Temple Avodath Shalom in River Edge and is the author of the grant proposal, along with Rabbi Shelley Kniaz of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.
“This grant is exciting because of what it’s going to accomplish, but what’s really exciting is that we managed to pull ten Reform and Conservative synagogues together to do something we all need,” Rabbi Feldstein said.
For the purpose of the grant, the schools formed a new umbrella body: Kulanu NNJ. Kulanu is Hebrew for “all of us.”
The core of the program is a ten-week course in educational technology, taught by Jerusalem EdTech Solutions, an Israeli provider of Jewish educational and professional development online courses.
Rabbi Feldstein had taken the course when the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey provided IT to religious school principals. That experience made her realize that it was the teachers, not the administrators, who needed the training.
Under the grant, ten religious school teachers — one from each school — will take the course over the summer, and they will be paid for their time.
“When the fall comes, they will be implementing what they learned in their classrooms,” Rabbi Feldstein said.
The grant also will cover the services of a consultant for the teachers as well as for interns from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s education school.
“It’s one thing to learn how to do something; another thing to really implement it in the classroom,” Rabbi Feldstein said. “There will be a couple more workshops along the way toward the spring. Then the plan is for all those teachers who have been trained to start to work with other teachers and have them learn those skills as well.”
The grant grew out of the religious school principals council, convened by the federation. “It had really been jelling as a group,” she added.
Rabbi Feldstein said that some of her religious school teachers “are not so technology savvy. I have teachers who have just been teaching a certain way for a long time. Making any change is challenging, but if you can empower someone within your staff and get them excited and comfortable, that will move things along.
“The bottom line is that kids all use the technology. They love it. It’s part of their lives. Then they come to religious school and it’s like they’ve entered the dark ages. We need to use some of these great creative tools to enhance what we’re doing, to make learning more enticing, more fun, more engaging.”
Rabbi Feldstein experienced the value that technology can add to a lesson when she prepared her final project for the online education course.
“I took a lesson on teaching Torah and asking questions of the texts that I had done a million times, and then tried to use some different technology tools to make it more fun,” she said. “It really added a lot. I saw how fun and creative it could be for both the students and teachers.”
Stephanie Hausner has worked with the religious school principals as head of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The federation has given grants to individual schools for their technology training and to upgrade the classroom technology.
“The thing I’m most excited about is how closely the synagogues are working together on this,” she said. “This is something you wouldn’t find in other communities.”
She said that the grant is an outgrowth of the federation’s 2012 reassessment of its services for Jewish education. “We realized professional development around technology was a core part of what we wanted to do,” she said. “It has had a tremendous result for our schools.
“It’s amazing how far some of these principals and teachers have come in terms of their comfort with technology. Things they didn’t have any knowledge of, like using Google Docs, have now become such a normal part of how they operate,” she said. “Now this grant makes teaching others a more focal part of what we’re doing.”
If Rabbi Feldstein has her way, the new grant will be just the beginning of a new era of cooperation among local religious schools.
“We hope this is just the first of many projects that Kulanu NNJ will tackle together,” she said.