Afew times on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 13, Dr. Jen Glaser made things really frustrating for her audience. First, she had them stand in pairs, back to back, and try to talk without turning around to look at one another. Then she had one person at each table try to speak while everyone else frantically waved their hands, like kids clamoring to be heard.
It was a taste of just how frustrating classroom interaction can be, and a quick way to highlight the importance of her topic: how to help students — or members of their broader Jewish community — feel heard, empowered, and committed.
Glaser, the codirector of the Israel Center for Philosophy in Education, was the featured speaker at the annual Learning Conference of the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the educational outreach arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Around 175 Jewish education directors, principals, teachers, and youth advisers took part in the event at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. For the first time since the merger of the former MetroWest and Central NJ federations, the attendees were drawn from synagogues across the region.
The conference was also an opportunity to honor Rachel Elson Rothman, the head teacher and seventh-grade team leader at the Linda and Rudy Slucker Religious School at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. Rothman is the 2012 recipient of the Partnership’s Adele and Gene Hoffman Award for Educator Excellence and the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education for the MetroWest area. The second award is given through the Partnership and the Jewish Education Service of North America; in the Greater MetroWest community, the winner of the former is automatically awarded the latter.
Glaser, an Australian who has lived in Israel for the past 16 years, runs a philosophy-in-schools project that reaches across different sectors of Israeli society. She also serves as director of a program at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland combining philosophical inquiry with the weekly Torah portion.
Addressing the Whippany audience, Glaser stressed that to make both learning and community-building possible, educators need to create an environment that is “critical, caring, and collaborative.”
“We need to project our own voices into the world and to know that what we say is taken into account in an important way,” she said.
That calls for listening, body language, etiquette, and classroom organization that foster mutual respect and confidence.
To demonstrate, Glaser had the participants read to their groups from the opening of Genesis, starting with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Participants then posed questions, with one member carefully transcribing them word for word. As familiar as the text was to these Jewish educators, that process elicited a flurry of reactions.
“If God rested, and everything was finished, why do we pray to Him to change things?” one person asked.
“What’s the difference between creating and making?” another inquired.
People who had sat silently till then were suddenly vocal, earnest, and eager, but Glaser — as she had forewarned them— halted the discussions. Her mission was accomplished: She had illustrated how listening and being heard are vital for students of all ages.
In honoring Rothman, TSTI school principal Mindy Schreff, who nominated her on the unanimous recommendation of the synagogue’s religious school staff, described her as “passionate about every aspect of her teaching and Judaism,” and “genuinely caring and sensitive to all of her students.”
Receiving the honors, Rothman said, “It’s the doing that makes the difference.” In the six years since she moved to New Jersey, she said, she has become “keenly aware that I work with a team of teachers who inspire me to be better every week.”
With the awards, she receives a $1,000 cash grant to use as she pleases, and $1,000 from the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Foundation for professional development.