Beth El Congregation of the South Hills has been chosen as the pilot site for a new program that will train high school students to teach religious school in the Conservative movement, while providing them with credits from Gratz College.
While the Reform movement has had a similar program for over 30 years — the Isaac Mayer Wise Reform Teaching Certificate Program is currently offered in Pittsburgh at Rodef Shalom Congregation — this will be the Conservative movement’s first foray into formally preparing teenagers to teach Judaics and Hebrew once they finish their high school education.
High school juniors and seniors enrolled in the two-year program will attend two hours of instruction each week at Beth El, and also will serve as classroom aids (madrichim) once a week at Beth El’s Spiegel Religious School, according to Beth Goldstein, director of J-Site, which is running the program in partnership with the Agency for Jewish Learning and Gratz.
Gratz is the first trans-denominational Jewish college in the United States, and has been teaching Jewish studies and training Jewish professionals for more than a century, according to its website. Based near Philadelphia, Gratz offers both on campus and online programs.
After conversations last year with members of Beth El about the possibility of establishing a program for Conservative teens akin to the Wise program, Goldstein raised the issue with Gratz.
“They said, ‘We’ve been waiting for a city to ask us that question,’” Goldstein said.
As Beth El will be the pilot site of the program, Goldstein expects that the majority of teenagers enrolled will be members of that congregation, although any teen affiliated with the Conservative movement is welcome, she said.
Participants will take a Bible class, as well as a class in pedagogy, during the first year of the program — essentially the same curriculum required of the Wise students.
“The only difference [between the Reform and Conservative programs] will be the way they look at the Bible class. Gratz is not changing the curriculum dramatically,” Goldstein said. “But there is a slight difference in the way the Reform movement and the Conservative movement look at the Bible.”
The second year of the program will differ for the Conservative students, focusing on how to teach Hebrew, and examining the reasons why certain prayers are included or excluded from Sim Shalom, the Conservative prayer book. Participants in the program will also learn the history of the Conservative movement.
At the conclusion of the two-year program, each participant will receive a religious school teaching certificate, as well as college credit for two of the four courses.
Juniors enrolling this year will be committing to the full two-year program. For this year only, the program will be open to seniors committing to only one year, but who additionally will engage in independent study courses with Beth El’s Rabbi Alex Greenbaum and Fern Reinbeck, director of the Spiegel Religious School.
The teens will do their classroom aide work under Reinbeck’s supervision.
“So far, we have seven to 11 students committed to participate this year,” Reinbeck said. “I’m very excited about this.”
Having a teaching certificate has made Reform college students more marketable when they seek part-time teaching jobs, Goldstein said, and she believes the same will hold true for Conservative students.
“When a teen leaves high school, and goes to college, in his freshman year, it is not always easy to get a job teaching. But once [religious school principals] see the certificate, they are more likely to hire. They see the teen has had experience in the classroom, but also has had the classes to back it up,” Goldstein said.
“For these teens, they’re really well-prepared to teach moving forward,” she added.
The program will begin in September, after Yom Kippur, Goldstein said, but teens can register now through J-Site.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)