When I was a student in the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, I was blessed to have clinical faculty members—professionals in the Los Angeles community—serving as my mentors. They provided a strong practical counterpart to the formal learning we did with Sara Lee, Michael Zeldin, Isa Aron, Bill Cutter and the rabbinic faculty. These mentors helped shape me as a temple educator, modeling behaviors, giving me responsibilities within their schools and then helping me to reflect upon those experiences and draw lessons from them. When Evie Rotstein invited me to be a part of the Leadership Institute, I knew that it was my opportunity to pay forward the gift the College-Institute. I would like to share three ways in which my participation as a mentor in the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators has impacted my practice as an educator—as a mentor, as a learner and as a colleague..
As a Mentor
When my wife and I were expecting our first child sixteen years, ago we devised a test for ourselves. We called it the Ethan-test. We used it to examine our own actions. We asked ourselves whether we would do something we were contemplating if our unborn son were ten years old and watching us. Would we want him to emulate us? If the answer was no, we didn’t do it. It was a great way to parent reflectively.
I have found myself being more proactively reflective as an educator because of my involvement as a mentor in the Leadership Institute. As I prepare for and engage in meetings with my mentees, I fond that I use a variation of the Ethan-test—call it the reflection test. This is a little different. In essence, I try to look back to when I was a student at HUC meeting with one of my mentors. They were both gifted and/or well-trained enough to know that I needed their help in developed analytical skills of reflection, not just their accumulated wisdom. So my self-test is to think about what would have been most helpful to me as a mentee.
During my three years as a mentor, I have fought the natural impulse to respond to questions or problems posed by my mentees by either telling them what I would do or merely by telling them about a similar situation I have faced and how I dealt with it. To be sure this is sometimes appropriate, but I have found it to be more beneficial to the mentee in the long run to ask probing questions that help him or her to examine the situation and develop their own strategies. It’s like the Chinese parable about teaching someone to fish so they can feed themselves forever. While it would be flattering to have them hang on my every word and to continue calling for my help for the remainder of our careers, that would not be helping them. And in developing their skills, I further refine my own.
As a Learner
The opportunities to continue my professional learning with the scholars who have shared their work and insight with the LIC has been incredible. Sometimes I feel like I am working on a second masters. It is rare that was professionals get to return to the safety and warmth of the College-Institute for such in-depth study, and that has been an incredible gift.
I remember near graduation in 1991 I promised myself I would find time for study on a regular basis. While I have had varying degrees of success with that, both on my own and with various chavruta partners, the Leadership Institute has given me a renewed discipline. Moreover, most of my chavruta study has been in the classic texts of the Talmud and Midrash. The institute has brought me to the feet of some of the top minds in education today, such as Joseph P. McDonald, Dr. Bonnie Botel-Sheppard, Dr. David Ellenson, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, Dr. Lisa Grant Jo Kaye, Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress and Dr. Steven Brown. Learning from them as well as from all of the Judaic teachers has been a trhill. And more importantly, when I was a student seventeen years ago, my classmates and I were all embarking on new careers. Our conversations had the high certitude of the relatively inexperienced. I knew everything because I had been a teacher and a camp counselor.
Nearly two decades later, I am learning with my fellow mentors and participants in the program as professionals in the field, with a wide range of experiences. The conversation is now among seasoned people who are only too well-aware of how much we don’t know. The learning is much richer and deeper, because we are all capable of digging deeper. We can truly appreciate what our teachers are saying and are more able to make meaning from it. My mentees and I have all had the opportunity to apply methodologies learned at the institute to our practice as educators.
As a Colleague
Joshua ben Perachyah said: “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.” His words in Pirkei Avot 1:6 remind us that Jewish learning is not meant to be the solitary activity of a scholar in a tower or a hermit in a cave. We need partners in learning. My participation in the institute has given me many such partners and enriched the network of colleagues on whom I can count on to tell me the truths I cannot see and imagine possibilities I could not visualize on my own.
This has spurred me to try and create similar mentor/mentee and collegial relationships among the teachers in my school. My congregation and view my participation in the LICSE as an honor. We also view it as some of the most meaningful and essential professional growth for me ever available.
I want to thank the College-Institute, the Seminary and the Federation for the insight and vision to create the institute, and Evie, Dena, Jo Kaye and Steve Brown for making it a reality and for me to participate.
Originally presented to the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, May 4, 2008