Teachers Are the Key to Transmitting a Love of Judaism
An Interview With: Joanne Stein, JNTP Leadership Council
Jewish New Teacher Project is blessed to have an advisory Leadership Council to help us set our organization’s course for maximum impact and reach our ambitious goals, and also to serve as ambassadors on behalf of JNTP. Joanne Stein has played an important role on the Leadership Council for the past four years, bringing with her a passion for excellence in Jewish education and an insider’s view into the needs of Jewish day schools.
What follows is an interview with Joanne.
What are the various ways you’ve been involved in Jewish day schools?
When my children were young, we lived in Norfolk, Virginia, and they went to a small Jewish day school there. Jewish education was very important to me, so I became involved in the school. I served on numerous committees, eventually becoming school president (as was my husband). I also was involved in the Jewish education division of the local Federation.
When my kids got older, we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, to be part of a larger Jewish community. I also served on many committees at their school there, and even started some programs, including ones for grandparents and Purim.
I have been a Jewish day school parent and grandparent for over 40 years. And, now, of course, I am working with JNTP to help it continue to grow and bring professionalism and excellence in teaching to Jewish days schools, for the ultimate good of our children and our communities.
What do you see as strengths or positive developments in Jewish day school education?
I think the most important value of Jewish day schools is that they set Jewish children on the path of living Jewish lives. They imbue our children with a sense of knowing why they are Jewish and what it means to be Jewish; they foster friendships and community; and they actualize the goal of perpetuity.
What are some of the challenges?
I see one of the big challenges of Jewish day school education as being able to transmit the emotional component of Judaism as well as the technical parts. And I think the emotional piece is so important — it’s what makes people truly embrace and love their Jewish identity; it’s what makes people dedicated and sustains that dedication throughout life. I’m not talking about practice, necessarily. I mean having a love for being Jewish, feeling it in the bones, no matter what kind of Judaism you practice. The more you know and the more positive feelings you have, the deeper the sense of your Jewish identity will be.
Of course, I think that the home does and should play a vital role in the transmission of that emotion. But schools also play a role, and that’s where teachers come in. Teachers are key. A teacher with a joy and love for Judaism can have such an amazing, life-long influence on a child — and that’s true whether they are teaching Torah or math.
How do you see JNTP addressing these challenges or amplifying the strengths?
When I volunteered at my kids’ schools, I would go to the yearly Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) conference. And I noticed that the teachers were so happy to be there, to be in a community of educators who were sharing and supporting each other. And I felt sad that they didn’t seem to have that all the time.
What JNTP does is give teachers a community and the assurance of an organization having their back. JNTP works to give them the support they need, the mentoring and coaching they need, the cheerleading they need especially at the beginnings of their careers, to be the very best. JNTP makes teachers better, so that kids learn better, and the cycle of “better” feeds on itself.
I can’t think of a better example of this than how JNTP changed course so quickly when COVID hit and schools closed. In a matter of days, they had moved their program online and had organized ways for teachers and administrators to receive support from each other as a community as they shared challenges and best practices. JNTP also offered virtual drop-in hours to support teachers and administrators in whatever ways they needed, practical and emotional. Watching all this happen really underscored for me how much JNTP cares for and takes care of its participants and the Jewish day school community. It’s everything I had ever hoped for from an organization back in my days of volunteering in my kids’ schools.
What compelled you to volunteer your time to serve on JNTP’s Leadership Council?
I have a real commitment to excellence in Jewish education. There should be pride about the outcome of Jewish education — and by that I don’t mean students getting into Harvard, I mean students living a Jewish life. I keep coming back to it, but I believe teachers have a vital role to play in instilling that Jewish pride, no matter what subject they teach.
To me, JNTP embodies this idea. It’s not just an intellectual organization, it’s a DOING organization that has a ripple effect. The concept became a program that influences teachers who impact students…and their entire futures and legacies.
What is something you’d like to see happen in Jewish day schools/Jewish day school education moving forward?
This may sound a bit contrary to what I’ve been saying about the importance of schools helping to nurture a love of Jewish identity and community, but I would really love to see Jewish day schools teaching less isolation and more empathy for and interaction with “ the other” — other types of Jews, people of different races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, and so on.
Being Jewish doesn’t mean we aren’t part of the larger human race, and I think our schools tend to focus very narrowly on our own community. There is great value in interacting with different types of people and learning to respect them and accept the differences between us.There is great value — even great Jewish value — in doing chesed and tzedaka outside the Jewish community, too, making the whole of our world better. These are lessons I’d love to see incorporated broadly into Jewish day school education.