Helping Jewish Education Reach a New Plateau

by Natalie Jacobs July 27, 2017


rabbi-dorsch_amystanleypreschooldirector_kateylindley_bethklariech_lorikurtzBefore we begin, let me lay out some guidelines. This story focuses on the congregational schools at Tifereth Israel in San Carlos and Temple Emanu-El in Del Cerro. The two synagogues are somewhat around the corner from each other and they’ve been offering a joint Community Jewish High program for years. Now, each is focusing independently on growing its congregational schools for students in kindergarten through 7th grade. The guidelines for the story are this: It is true that San Carlos and Del Cerro are situated east of the 5, 805 and even the 15 freeways. But it is not true that San Carlos and Del Cerro are in East County.

In this way, these communities exist in a directional no-man’s-land similar to Carmel Valley, University City, Mira Mesa. You would never say Congregation Beth Israel is in North County or mid-city, though the population is moving true north at increasing rates. And since West County isn’t a thing, there are no San Diego-isms to help explain where to find that area on a map. So, in this story I won’t be referring to the East County revival of the San Diego Jewish community, or the East County expansion of Jewish education opportunities for formerly disengaged youth. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with East County, it’s just not what we’re talking about here.

“I think there’s a stigma with congregational education,” says Katey Lindley, Tifereth Israel’s newly minted director of education and youth engagement. “[There’s this idea] that it’s not fun, that it’s boring, that it’s something kids have to do in order to maintain Jewish identity and it’s a drag.”

In Katey’s world, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sitting with me in her office about a week before her official start date of July 5, Katey says her vision for the congregational school at Tifereth Israel is to make it engaging, exciting and inspiring.

“It’s camaraderie,” she says. “The support of your community that you don’t have anywhere else. This is your home.”

Learning, for her, can be found in small moments that are filled with joy. To accomplish that, she’s hiring new teachers, bringing in a song leader for the first time and expanding the curriculum to include games.

For instance Twister, she explains. Part of the elective rotation on Wednesdays will include games for learning Hebrew. The kids will play Twister and call out the colors by their Hebrew words. There will also be a theater elective and an art one. The school is on a trimester system, so they’ll mark the end of each block with an assembly where parents will be invited to watch each class perform their elective of choice, including the games.

On Sundays, one new edition will be Hebrew through movement, where 20 minutes of the class is dedicated to kinetic language learning.

“Just like Judaism, Jewish education morphs,” Katey says. “Hebrew is a living language. It’s a modern language, it’s not just our ancient powerful spiritual language from Torah. There’s no reason why all the years [kids] are spending here that they shouldn’t have [a strong grasp on the language] at the end. They may not be fluent but they should walk away being very comfortable hearing the language, being able to read a story in a book, and let that just be part of who they are.”

Katey started as Tifereth’s education director on the same day as the congregation’s new rabbi, Rabbi Joshua Dorsch. He and his wife and their month-old baby moved out from New Rochelle, New York, just about a week before the start-date. Education for Rabbi Dorsch is a major focus of his work.

“I never really thought I would be a pulpit rabbi,” he admits from his new office. “I was always education-minded and focused, mostly informal Jewish education. I grew up going to Jewish summer camps and youth groups and I found that to be the most impactful and moving in my Jewish educational development.”

With that in mind, Rabbi Dorsch pursued a master’s in Jewish education while attending rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

He says now he sees every part of being a head rabbi as based in education.

“I’m always educating, whether it’s from a sermon I give in the pulpit or from running family services on a Saturday morning, teaching classes in the high school, sitting on the floor with the kids in the nursery school, even bouncing around the new swimming pool with the kids in the summer.”

A swimming pool was a requirement for the rabbi’s new house in San Carlos. It also had to be within walking distance of the synagogue.

“That’s really my vision – experiential education, learning Jewish by living Jewish. It’s helping people embrace their Jewish identity and their Jewish commitment through engagement with our community.”

Temple Emanu-El also has a new rabbi in Benj Fried, who takes the number two spot behind Rabbi Devorah Marcus. Rabbi Fried too pursued a master’s in Jewish education while in rabbinical school (he attended Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles after also earning a master’s from Harvard Divinity School). In addition to taking on rabbinical duties, his title is Rabbi Educator and he’s tasked with expanding the breadth and depth of Emanu-El’s congregational school.

“Really what I want to do in this first year is to impress on my teachers and the synagogue that I really care about their teaching, I really want to take seriously their development as people,” Rabbi Fried says a couple weeks into his new position, his first since being ordained this year.

He’s looking to increase professional development opportunities for the teachers – about 20 in total. He says he wants to help them “explore their teaching self and to think about what are my strengths as a teacher and how can I really build on those and really think about my teaching self?”

Like Rabbi Dorsch, Rabbi Fried will teach occasional adult education classes, his first begins this month called “Wake Up!” about spiritual preparation for the High Holidays.

Tifereth’s Katey Lindley also teaches. She taught for several years at Congregation Beth Israel, where her children grew up and continue to be involved. This year, she’s bringing her beloved relationships course to the joint Tifereth, Emanuel-El Community Jewish High.

It wasn’t so long ago that the San Diego Jewish community was centered around the Del Cerro and San Carlos neighborhoods. While the migration has been gradual for years, the leadership at these two synagogues say they’re experiencing a reinvigoration of Jewish life here. The preschool at Tifereth Israel has grown by 300 percent in the last three years under the leadership of its director Amy Stanley. Inspired by those numbers, Katey Lindley hopes to bring the same kind of growth to the k-7 program. She’s hired four new teachers and when we spoke was still actively looking for that song leader. For his part, Rabbi Fried says there are about 130 students in the Temple Emanu-El school, and his position is in itself an expansion for the synagogue.

Katey admits than when she prepared for her interview at Tifereth Israel, she packed for a road trip after everyone she mentioned it to said something to the effect of “You want to work all the way out there?” She says it took 15-20 minutes from where she lives in Carmel Valley and the drive was beautiful.

“This is like heaven,” she says. “This is not ‘way out there,’ this is so close people just don’t realize it. I think you’re going to see a lot of changes in the next five years in terms of growth and involvement of the Jewish community [in this area],” she says. “Not just in education. I think it has to do with the desire of the community that’s already here.” 

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