Jewish movements ‘cross-pollinating’ on learning initiatives for its educators

Jewish movements ‘cross-pollinating’ on learning initiatives for its educators

When it comes to educating educators, Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion are finding that collaboration has its benefits.

“The three schools are cross-pollinating,” said Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar for the Agency for Jewish Learning. “They’re saying education should not be siloed.”

Aaron himself is a case in point. Ordained at HUC-JIR, he will be teaching Jewish experiential education courses next year for both the JTS and his alma mater.

Beginning next fall, Aaron will teach a yearlong course for the master’s of arts degree in Jewish education with a focus in Jewish experiential education at JTS’ Davidson School in New York. Aaron is currently teaching a distance-learning course for HUC-JIR’s certificate program in Jewish education for adolescents and emerging adults.

The Jim Joseph Foundation is funding both of these programs, which train rabbis, educators and other youth professionals in Jewish experiential education. The foundation, established in 2006, is devoted exclusively to supporting the education of Jewish youth, and is now two and a half years into the implementation of its education initiative, which has awarded $45 million in grants to HUC-JIR, JTS and YU. Part of the grant money was designated specifically for collaborative efforts between the denominations.

The program coordinators for the various experiential Jewish education programs of YU, HUC-JIR and JTS have been meeting regularly over the last 18 months to “share ideas, and provide feedback and support to each other. We are complementing each other,” said Mark Young, program coordinator for the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education,  JTS.

The program coordinators from all three seminaries also have done joint presentations on experiential learning in Jewish contexts at educational conferences, and hope that the alumni and students of the three programs will be able to network in the future, Young said.

Other areas of study ripe for interdenominational collaboration include early childhood education, Israel study and leadership training — subjects that are mostly nontheological in nature.

For example, the Jewish Early Childhood Leadership Institute, which will be launched this spring, is a joint collaborative between HUC-JIR and JTS. The program, also funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, will provide advanced training for educators working in early childhood education, and its faculty will teach at both HUC-JIR and JTS, as well as online.

“I find it an exciting way for people to get to know each other [coming from different denominations],” said Lyndall Miller, the director of the Jewish Early Childhood Leadership Institute. “I anticipate lively discussions. I look forward to lively discussions. It is good to have, across the board, people with different perspectives.”

Interdenominational educational training began in 2004 in New York City, with the Leadership Institute for Congregational Leaders and Learners, a collaborative between HUC-JIR and JTS, and funded by the UJA Federation of New York.

Helping train religious school directors and congregational educators in the Reform and Conservative movements, the Leadership Institute also has provided training to educators of Reconstructionist congregations, as well as at least one independent Orthodox program.

“We have worked really hard to create a community of learners that respect one another and are willing to learn from one another,” said Dr. Evie Levy Rotstein, project director of the Leadership Institute.

“We share more similarities than differences,” she added. “We are building on the strengths that people bring as individuals to build a community that supports one another.”

Other interdenominational collaborations include a joint Israel program where students from HUC-JIR and JTS study and tour the country together. And, for the last several years, HUC-JIR and JTS have had a joint faculty appointment — the Schusterman Visiting Professor in Israel Studies.

While this “cross-pollination” among the movements is becoming more common, Aaron does not see it as a step toward a future post-denominational Judaism.

 “I don’t think it has anything to do with a merger,” Aaron said. “Instead, it is two schools of education seeing an opportunity to partner.”


(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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