A grassroots effort by Monmouth County synagogue educators that began with a meeting some eight years ago has evolved into a full-fledged commission that is making an impact on Jewish education throughout the region.
The Commission on Jewish Education, under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County and cochaired by Dina Maiben of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan and Ann Gabel of Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, has provided teachers with professional growth opportunities and children with the chance to meet their peers from around the county and in Israel.
The effort is a completely volunteer undertaking. “We are not paid staff; this is all the local principals who get together and create projects,” Maiben said. “When we share our resources, we’re able to do a lot more than if we’re just operating in a vacuum, one synagogue at a time or one school at a time.”
Maiben explained that the group started as a gathering of educators under the federation’s auspices in 2001. “We identified common areas of concern, something that…was an oppressing need for everybody.”
Citing, for example, a shortage of supplementary school teachers, the educators wrote a grant proposal to the federation to create a recruitment and training program known as LIMUD (“study” in Hebrew), or “Learning Institute of Monmouth United Denominations,” Maiben said.
The program brought in speakers, local rabbis, and the educators of the participating congregations; the course ran three times with over 40 teachers taking part. “Everybody then was able to tap new graduates to teach,” Maiben said.
From that and from a strategic plan undertaken by the Monmouth federation in 2005 came the CJE, Maiben said.
The CJE has offered in-service training for day and supplementary school teachers as well as ongoing education programs for principals dealing with such topics as peanut allergies, legal issues, and security.
“We work well together,” said Gabel, explaining that she is able to represent the concerns of Conservative synagogues; Maiben’s congregation is Reform. “It’s really nice to branch out and get to know the rest of the community,” Gabel said.
The CJE has also reached across the ocean — to the Arad/Tamar region of Israel, the federation’s Partnership 2000 community. After teenage trips to Israel “came to a screeching halt” after the second Intifada in 2000, Maiben said, “since we couldn’t get them to go to Israel, we would do something to bring Israel to them.”
“Over the years we have had literally hundreds of our kids meet teenagers from Israel,” Maiben said. The Arad teens visit the county during Hanukka with the support of federation, synagogues, and host families; they speak at area synagogues and public and day schools.
The CJE also runs informal programs bringing together children from different synagogues. “They see that there’s a bigger community out there,” Gabel said.
Looking ahead, the CJE has sent out a survey to its members and is awaiting the results.
“We’re also looking at possibly doing some larger community-wide programming,” such as a joint holiday program, said Maiben, and the group is working with the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold as an event venue.
The CJE is also working to expand its Arad exchange program to arrange joint programming among the NJ and Israeli schools, such as having students communicate with pen-pals electronically through e-mail, Skype, or video conferencing.
“When they meet for the first time they will be meeting old friends,” Maiben said. “We want to build a strong, strong connection to Israel for our kids.”