Alan Silverstein

In memory of Dr. Morton Siegel – elevating professional Jewish educators: The Jewish Educators Assembly

With the conclusion of WWII, Conservative Jewish institutional life began to take stock of its strengths and weaknesses and set plans for moving forward. Under war-time pressures, by 1945 the United Synagogue of America had declined to 190 member synagogues, With the GIs returning home in large numbers, young adults married, had children, and sought to set roots in areas of Second Settlement [outside the immigrant areas in which they had been raised as children]. Subsequently the post-war emergence of new synagogues began in earnest. In 1948 alone, the USA added nearly 100 congregations to its ranks. By 1949 it had grown to 365 member shuls.

Along with growth, institutional challenges abounded. Rabbi Robert Gordis’ leading article in launching the journal Conservative Judaism magazine in 1945 decried “our widespread lack of success in the field of Jewish education.” At that point in time, most children received only one day per week [e.g. Sunday] of Judaic instruction.  Low status and poor salaries create difficulty in maintaining suitable faculty, let alone synagogue Educational Directors. Rabbi Gordis emphasized that even superior teachers could not overcome the limited hours of instruction and the general disregard for insisting upon adequate Jewish education of the young. As a remedy, Robert Gordis and his rabbinic peers sought to launch a 3-day per week Hebrew school as a minimum standard.

In 1946, the Rabbinical Assembly convened a conference with plans for “Reshaping the Structure of Jewish Education in America.” With communities rapidly arising in the suburbs, an opportunity arose to “to make the Hebrew school one of the pillars of the new synagogues.” Accordingly, in 1946 the RA and the United Synagogue produced a Statement on the Objectives and Standards for the Congregational School published by the Movement’s recently formed Joint Commission on Jewish Education.

As part of its response to synagogue expansion not only in numbers but also in expanding congregational functions, the United Synagogue created two professional associations. The goal was to help augment the professional staff of congregations [beyond the rabbi alone]: The Cantors Assembly in 1947 and The National Association of Synagogue Administers in 1948. The United Synagogue also agreed to provide the United Synagogue/Rabbinical Assembly Joint Commission on Jewish Education with a budget adequate to hire a full-time director, Rabbi Abraham Millgram. That Commission quickly became the Movement’s central agency for elementary Jewish education.

The Movement’s post-war efforts at teenage formal and informal Jewish education made parallel strides under the leadership of the JTS Teachers’ Institute’s Sylvia Ettenberg and Rabbi Moshe Davis. In 1946, these two visionaries formulated plans for the first Ramah Summer Camp [“a school and a community at once”] as well as for LTF [Leadership Training Fellowship], a national organization of Jewish high school students whose social and educational activities extended throughout the school year. The goal of both LTF and Ramah was to become a mentored youth leadership movement “to ensure the future of American Judaism.” Additionally, in 1951, the Teachers Institute [Sylvia Ettenberg] instituted a model high school education  program labeled as “Prozdor [corridor],” as a pathway between the Hebrew schools of the city and the Seminary.

As the Director of the Joint Commission on Jewish Education, as a faculty member of the JTS Teachers’ Institute, Rabbi Millgram was well positioned to further professionalize the status of Jewish Educators and Educational Directors in the manner of synagogue rabbis and cantors. Modeled upon the Rabbinical Assembly and the Cantors Assembly, in 1951 Rabbi Millgram organized the Jewish Educators Assembly. Working with leading Jewish educators such as Founding President Henry Goldberg, Harvey Malin, William Lakritz, Al Weisel, and Maritn Goldstein, they shaped an organization whose mission was to improve the training and standards and compensation for Hebrew teachers and administrators. Rabbi Millgram remained in this leadership role at the JEA until 1961, when he was briefly succeeded by Dr Walter Ackerman [1961-1964].

In 1964, Dr Morton Siegel became the new director of the JEA and what had become known as the United Synagogue’s Department of Education and of the Joint Commission on Jewish Education. Under Dr. Siegel’s direction, the Department and the JEA set standards for all the religious schools of the Conservative Movement, including its 725 afternoon schools, Solomon Schechter Day Schools, and congregational nursery and high schools.

The Department and the Joint Commission and the JEA also developed guidelines for family, parent and adult programs. Moreover, they adopted a code of personnel practices for principals and educational directors. Additionally, they published curricular materials, a wide variety of texts, and teachers’ guides. Included among these publications were In Your Hands and Your Child, edited by Morton Siegel.

Under Dr Siegel’s guidance, supervision was provided for the Conservative movement’s regional education commissions, along with consultations to affiliated schools. Furthermore, Dr Siegel’s structure maintained “The Eternal Light” library of films produced by the Seminary, organized new day schools, plus sponsored educational conferences and teacher training courses in the US and Israel.

During the ensuing decades, Jewish Education Departments were established for additional professional training institutions spawned by the Movement – the University of Judaism in LA, the Seminario in Buenos Aires and the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Each of these new institutions served to broaden the options for those who wanted to pursue careers as Jewish professionals. Each institution brought its own local culture, style, and understanding to the table and provided for greater cross-cultural understanding among students and sometimes among schools as well

During the 1960s, JTS Teachers’ Institute established the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education as well as the Melton Faculty Seminar – focusing upon “character education.” Like LTF, Ramah, Prozdor, and the Joint Program of JTS and Columbia, the Melton Center was integrated into the life of JTS through the offices of the Teachers’ Institute, under the supervision of Sylvia Ettenberg.

In 1994, a major gift from philanthropist William Davidson enabled the creation at JTS of “The William Davidson School of Education.” Opening in 1996, under the direction of Dr. Aryeh Davidson, The Davidson School moved beyond the Conservative Movement alone. It sought to serve all Jewish religious movements as well as the Jewish communal world.

In the era following the retirement of Dr Siegel, the JEA has continued to serve its members, the Conservative Movement, and the general world of Jewish Education. Dr Siegel was succeeded by Dr. Dov Troy and Dr Human Campeas. Since 2001 under Executive Director Dr. Edward Edelstein, the JEA continues to serve Jewish Educators who strive to “keep current in the field and be able to network with other like-minded professionals.” The Jewish Educators Assembly views itself as “a group of dedicated, knowledgeable, professional Jewish educators who take great pride in being warm and welcoming to both long-time and new members. As an organization, the JEA is supportive of colleagues and thoughtful about how to most effectively meet the needs of Jewish education in the 21st (secular) century.  By affiliating with the JEA, an educator “becomes part of our network of warm, cooperative colleagues available for advice and support! “

The JEA provides training and certification for the title of CJE [Conservative Jewish Educator], as “a mark of honor and distinction. Earning the CJE is based on educational experience, academic study, and a demonstration of commitment to the goals of the JEA.” The CJE provides recognition for educators who “have achieved the highest professional standards ….[and thereby] “encourage ongoing learning, growth, and development. Certificates are presented at the annual JEA Conference.”

The JEA offers its members Webinars held approximately once a month throughout the academic year, as well as its annual conference, usually held at the end of January. Each conference focuses on a particular theme in Jewish education, and offers networking, best practices, and so much more. In addition to national programming, the JEA has six active regions throughout North America and Israel

The JEA gives members the opportunity to serve as either a mentor or a mentee recognizing that each educator has “expertise in certain areas and could use support in others.” The JEA is deeply involved in issues of educator welfare including salary guidelines, benefits and standards. The JEA works with its educators on career guidance, interview skills and the full placement process, contract negotiations and relations with synagogue staff members and lay leadership. The JEA listserv and Facebook Group each provide safe spaces for educators to communicate with one another, ask questions and share experiences. A JEA wiki also provides broad resources and documents for those working in the field.

Continuing its tradition of collaborating with the Movement’s academic institutions, JEA sponsors the Etgar Yesodi [third to fifth grade] curriculum and project Etgar [sixth to eighth grade]. Project Etgar was originally developed jointly by a project of the United Synagogue and the Davidson School of JTS. The Etgar Yesodi materials were developed out of JTS. Both Etgar Yesodi and Project Etgar materials are utilized in a diverse range of congregational and day schools settings. One of the unique aspects of the Etgar program is its design to address different types of learners and learning styles and to engage students in a thoughtful and reflective manner that helps to challenge their learning and understanding of Judaism. Each program is supplemented by ongoing support for teachers.

In our current age, Jewish education programs are rapidly changing, new models and structures are being developed, and each individual community is setting its own standards. The JEA is working hard to equip its educators to become agents of change, leading their institutions and Jewish education-at-large into the future.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”