Two veteran Jewish educators from New Jersey were among 13 people awarded honorary doctorates of pedagogy Nov. 12 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Susan Werk, education director at Congregation Agudath Israel in her hometown of Caldwell, and Hedda Morton, director of congregational learning at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, were presented their certificates by JTS chancellor Arnold Eisen at the Yom Iyun and Academic Convocation of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Educators Assembly.
They and 11 other teachers and administrators in the Conservative movement who work in day schools, synagogues, and summer camps were recognized for “their years for service and significant contributions to the field of Jewish education,” said Edward Edelstein, the JEA’s executive director, in a Nov. 6 phone interview.
“Every four or five years we hold an academic convocation with JTS at which time we recognize truly outstanding Jewish educators who have made contributions to the field beyond the four walls of their classrooms,” he told NJ Jewish News.
The other honorees were from states across the country and from Jerusalem; one, Dr. Elaine Shizgal Cohen, who retired as director of education at Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, NY, served for many years as head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, now Golda Och Academy, in West Orange. Honoree Charlotte Abramson, director of Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the JTS, is a resident of New Jersey and a former GOA administrator.
“These are people who have innovated new programs,” said Edelstein. “These are people who have led the way in helping to train and guide and inspire other educators, and these are people who have taken on leadership roles in the Jewish education community.”
Werk received her master’s degree in Jewish education from JTS in 1990, and assumed her role as director at Agudath Israel that same year. She has been a faculty member since 1997 at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, serves on the advisory board of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and has served on the boards of Golda Och Academy in West Orange and other professional organizations.
Edelstein called Werk “an extraordinarily gifted and creative educator. She is deeply passionate about the work she does and has been a mentor for other educators. She has been involved in in-service training for mid-career educators to help sharpen their skills.”
Numerous awards have been conferred on Werk, among them the Covenant Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, the Leo Brody Jewish Communal Service Award, and the Ramah Award. She was honored in 2003 by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Women’s Department.
At Agudath Israel, she oversees the Early Childhood Center and Religious School and programs for day school students, adults, and teens.
“I am so thrilled by this honor,” Werk told NJJN a day after the ceremony. “It is so gratifying that my colleagues in Jewish education, as represented by the JEA, and my fellow JTS alumnae came together to say, ‘You deserve this.’ I am so appreciative of their recognition and validation.
“I have been blessed by working at Congregation Agudath Israel and the many opportunities for growth and development I’ve been given at this wonderful faith community during my 25 years here,” she said.
Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Werk added, has been “a consistent and valuable guide and mentor through the years. What I’ve learned from him — and the support I receive from lay leaders, educators, and congregants — has made it possible for me to enrich and embrace my role as educational director. I am overwhelmed with an ‘attitude of gratitude’ for this recognition.”
When Morton was notified that she was going to be an honoree, she was, she told NJJN in a phone interview, “literally speechless. I was stunned. When I was told who was being honored I asked, ‘Are you sure they didn’t make a mistake?’”
But Edelstein wholeheartedly disagreed. “Hedda is a past president of the Jewish Educators Assembly, she has chaired several of our professional committees, she has traveled around the country and met with educators from as far away as California, and she has modeled creative and innovative thinking.”
Before serving as its president, Morton was a JEA board member and chaired some of its conferences. “That gave me the ability to impact Jewish education across the country,” she told NJJN.
“I’ve been in Jewish education my whole life, it seems. I and the other people honored have dedicated our lives to our passion, which is Jewish education, and we have made a significant contribution above and beyond the synagogue or the day school where we have worked.”
Morton enrolled in the master’s degree program in Jewish education at Gratz College in the Philadelphia suburb of Melrose Park, and graduated as valedictorian in 1992. For 12 years she taught in Philadelphia before moving to Cherry Hill and her job at Adath Israel Congregation.
Morton has been active as a member and teacher at Congregation Beth El in her hometown of Cherry Hill, involved with its adult education program, study groups, and religious school. “My personal and professional lives are very integrated. I absolutely take my work home from the office,” she said.