Local educator assumes national role in Reform
Ann Berman-Waldorf’s ascendancy to a national leadership position started small, with preschoolers in fact. She was the first director of lifelong education at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, hired 18 years ago by Rabbi Eric Wisnia.
“The congregation, in shaping my position, had the vision that education begins at birth — or preschool for us — and doesn’t end,” she said. “He hired me to implement that vision.”
Berman-Waldorf of Yardley, Penn., was recently elected president of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE), an organization she was required to join after being hired by Congregation Beth Chaim. “It was in my contract — it was a way of saying, ‘Our educator needs professional development, needs to cultivate colleagues, and needs to learn the best of in the field of Jewish education,’” she told NJJN.
With 800 members across the United States and Canada, ARJE has a trifold mission, Berman-Waldorf said: to be a voice for Reform Jewish education; to advance the profession; and to inspire excellence in the field. She’ll assume her role in July while continuing her full-time position at Congregation Beth Chaim.
Looking to her goals as president, Berman-Waldorf said she’d like to cultivate “allies.” In particular she wants to find “other groups out there who share our vision of how to use the values that Jewish education teaches to make the world a better place.” She suggested that Keshet, which creates safe spaces for LGBTQ Jewish teens, would be a good candidate.
Another goal, she said, is “to bring Jewish educators together to support each other and to collaborate.” Although she said she’s fortunate at Congregation Beth Chaim to be treated as a partner by rabbis and cantors, she said that “the work we do can feel really lonely.”
Berman-Waldorf sees ARJE as able to bring a unique voice to its congregations. For example, in response to the Orlando nightclub shootings, she said, “Families were struggling with how to speak to their children, and children from gay and lesbian families were asking, ‘How do we feel safe?’” So ARJE convened a panel of experts from across the country and created webinars for its members that offered spiritual guidance, including a prayer written specifically to respond to this violent act.
Berman-Waldorf grew up in South Windsor, Conn. Her family attended Temple Beth Hillel, a small congregation where her father served as president and her mother taught in the religious school. “My parents developed a love of Judaism in me,” she said. “Judaism was a major player in our family life; my parents just approached it with such a love, so it became part of our family.”
She and her younger sister attended the Union for Reform Judaism’s Eisner Camp in the Berkshires. Berman-Waldorf also participated in her synagogue’s youth group and served as first vice president of NEFTY (Northeastern Federation of Temple Youth). “I think from all of that I found out that Judaism is important and meaningful to me,” she said. “It gives meaning and a framework to my life.”
As a young person, her Jewish role model was her synagogue’s rabbi, Neil Kominsky. “He showed me that Judaism was just so relevant to our world,” she said. “It wasn’t his knowledge of history and text — and he was brilliant — but the way he used it to frame his thinking about life in the modern world.”
She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania which she chose, in part, for its large and vibrant Jewish life, an important factor in that she came from a place where there were only four students in her b’nai mitzvah class. While at Penn, she got very involved with Reform Jewish life on campus and taught at two religious schools.
In college her connection to the Jewish world took a more political turn. “I saw how Judaism created a vision of how the world should be, and I thought about my responsibility to make the world look that way — this prophetic vision,” she said.
Next she earned a master’s in social work from the Maryland School of Social Work and one in Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew University. She began her career in social work, first with battered women and then doing community organizing for the Baltimore Jewish Council, but she continued to teach religious school.
At some point, she said, “I realized that as much as I liked impacting change on a macro level, it was one-on-one contact that I really liked, so I went back into the Jewish education world.”
She got a job teaching at Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Md., and ran the alternative family education track at Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, which, she said, “was conceived as a way of families doing Jewishly together.”
Her road to Princeton Junction began at Camp Harlam where she met Wisnia and was hired to direct the congregation’s education program. Conveniently her husband’s work running the Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration had just ended so they moved north.
Regarding her achievements at Congregation Beth Chaim, she mentioned the preschool, Tot Shabbat, family holiday programming, and talking with teens about “the meaning and relevance of prayer for their lives.”
“What we’ve done here is created an environment where education is important, and we have created and are still creating lots of ways to connect.”