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Professor says it takes a kehilla to raise a mensch
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Professor says it takes a kehilla to raise a mensch

Fostering Jewish values in children through a variety of communal influences was the focus of a first-of-its-kind local conference for Conservative movement teachers held June 13 at B’nai Shalom in West Orange.

Turning children into mensches, said keynote speaker Maurice J. Elias, is not a matter of rote classroom learning, but the collective responsibility of a community and its web of relationships.

Such relationships help define a Jewish educational kehilla, or community, which includes influences from teachers, parents, peers, and a range of experiences, rituals, and environments.

“Ultimately what we do is rooted in relationships,” said Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and cofounder of the Consortium on the School-Based Promotion of Social Competence.

Kehilla is not just a collection of people. A kehilla is not a classroom,” said Elias. “A classroom has to become a kehilla. A congregation is not a kehilla…. Unless there is something that brings people together, that helps them to build relationships, it’s not a kehilla.”

The event, offered by three sponsors affiliated with the Conservative movement — the New Jersey Jewish Educators Assembly, Golda Och Academy, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — drew 60 participants, which included synagogue and day school educators.

USCJ formerly held a similar gathering, Conference on Synagogue Education, which was discontinued. NJ JEA has now taken on the responsibility for the gathering of Conservative educators, according to NJ JEA president Stacey David, religious school director at the Summit Jewish Community Center.

“For me the goal was to revise and refresh all of the Jewish educators at the end of the year and to go into the summer thinking about something different that they wanted to bring to their religious schools, to their children, and to the classroom in September,” said David.

Following the keynote, the educators split into four breakout sessions addressing various forms of education, including Israel, social action, Jewish art, and Torah.

Adam Shapiro, dean of students at Golda Och Academy, led a breakout session about building community through social action. He said the conference helped him interact with congregational educators.

“It was great to see so many educators from all over New Jersey coming together to learn with one another. Sharing ‘best-practices’ is something that is helpful for everyone — learning from one another is the best way to improve one’s own skill-set,” wrote Shapiro in an e-mail to NJJN.

Elias illustrated his keynote talk with passages from Ethics of the Fathers to underscore what researchers now call “emotional intelligence.” Such learning, said Elias, springs from applying classroom lessons and theory to real-life meaningful acts and deeds.

“We sometimes overemphasize wisdom, and the wisdom does not endure, because the wisdom that does endure springs forth from kehilla,” said Elias, paraphrasing Ethics of the Fathers. “This is consistent not only with Yochanan ben Zakai…but also contemporary research in emotional intelligence,” he said.

“It means that kehilla is pedagogy, that the bringing together of students in meaningful ways is essential…. What do we have to offer? We have to offer authenticity. That is what we have. And authenticity means working together to do real things,” he said.

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