by Shelley A. Sackett
According to veteran educators, teachers and administrators should recharge their batteries by maximizing their summer vacations. Some suggestions include: taking a summer trip; engaging in an activity that is a change of pace from the usual routine; participating in a career enhancement program, and joining a book club.
Janis Knight, Director of the Center for Jewish Education at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, found a way to combine all four (and more) when she attended her first summer Professionals Track at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. “My professional development this summer went way beyond an online course or a stack of background reading,” she said. CSH funded her attendance at the program.
She and fellow students spent three weeks submerged in Jewish learning and Hebrew Ulpan classes. This year’s cohort included students ages 18 – 82 from Mumbai, Sydney, London, Berlin and Argentina. The group bonded over classes, visiting museums and davening (praying) at the Kotel. They hope to keep the connection alive by studying together online. “Figuring out a common time when we are in nine different time zones is a serious challenge, but we are committed to our learning,” Knight said.
The Conservative Yeshiva was not at all what Knight expected. The program attracts Reform Jews, Jews by choice, women wearing tzitzit, rabbis, retirees, college students and the openly gay and transgender. “The words ‘conservative’ and ‘yeshiva’ do not conjure the reality of the open, friendly, intellectually curious and, above all, welcoming atmosphere I experienced,” she said.
Knight found time to make another wish come true. Since 2016, her sixth-grade CJE class has been part of the CJP-sponsored Mifgashim Program, which pairs Boston and Haifa classrooms and teachers. Usually, Knight and her partner teacher, Yael Danielly, work together using email and Skype to plan shared lessons and facilitate relationships among their students. During Knight’s stay, the two were able finally to meet in person, and spent their time together strolling (and chatting) at the Israel Museum.
A special exhibit on the Veiled Women of Jerusalem caught their eyes. Nuns, Muslim women in full hijabs and Orthodox Jewish in coverings even more extensive than hijabs were pictured and interviewed. For Knight, seeing Jewish women covered in yards of cloth was far removed from her experience in America. She and Yael talked about religious tensions in Israel (when secular Jews can feel like a religious minority even though Judaism is the majority religion) and America (where the settled doctrine of separation of Church and state is eroding.) “Our kids don’t know what it’s like to be the majority religion and culture in their home country and Yael’s students know so little about Jewish life outside Israel,” Knight said.
They visited an exhibit on Peter Pan that traced the character’s origins to the Greek god Pan, and his shrine at the northern Israeli nature preserve Banyas. This sparked the idea of having the Haifa and CJE classes read the same children’s book in Hebrew and English and then share illustrations. “Our time together was golden,” Knight said.
The Yeshiva group had several out-of-the box moments. One was listening to an Orthodox “dude” play bass guitar in Jerusalem to “House of the Rising Sun.” Another was when a feral cat jumped up a colleague’s lap while she prayed at the Kotel and promptly fell asleep in the folds of her tallit. “Feral cats are fierce and wild. They are not inclined to be friendly,” Knight said.
On a more serious note, Knight took away two important lessons. First, she realized that Conservative Judaism is far more vibrant and energized around the world than is felt here on the North Shore. Second, she gained empathy for her students who struggle with their Hebrew lessons.
“After so long spent in the administrator’s chair, it was very beneficial to be a classroom as a student, making mistakes and asking questions,” she said from her office. “I am blessed to work at a congregation that supports me as teacher and also as student.”