Adam Engle needed only two small things from a graduate program: the highest academic scholarship and the flexibility to accommodate his busy work and family schedule. Thankfully for Adam, the Distance Learning MA Program at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education was just the ticket.
Now, with a new job as director of Member Services at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Adam has the ability to take the next step in his career while concurrently learning from the best minds in Jewish education.
As someone with an established career in synagogue administration, why did you decide to become a student at JTS?
When I first started looking into studying Jewish education, I asked Rabbi Micah Peltz (DS '07 and RS '07) for advice. He recommended The Davidson School, which I had already known as a place where the level of education is incomparable.
At the time, I was doing a leadership training program at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. One of the excursions was to explore the Rare Book Room in The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary and participate in a couple of learning sessions with some of the faculty.
I took the opportunity to meet with Admissions Director Abby Eisenberg to get materials and talk about potential courses of study, but I thought it was too much of a shlep from New Jersey, where I live with my family, to New York City for classes.
So what enabled you to finally enroll?
The Distance Learning MA Program was the deciding factor, and I think it is great. I'm able to get the highest level of education in a convenient way. I didn't even bother applying to other programs.
In talking to other people, I asked what the difference is at JTS versus other schools. I heard: "If you have the opportunity to get your education at JTS, you should do it. It is the gold standard. People who want to hire you will look at your degree from JTS and know what it means."
How has the Distance Learning MA Program enabled you to reach your goals?
I have both work and family responsibilities, and it offers a lot of flexibility. After the kids are asleep, I can go to class—I was posting stuff at 11:00 p.m. the other night.
I also like the way the classes are designed and enjoy learning from some of the best minds in Jewish education and Judaic studies. In a way, [going to school online] creates a more open forum than you would have in a classroom because you can disagree without doing so right in someone's face and you can debate at length without taking up class time.
What classes have had the most impact?
It is so hard to choose—my education classes are giving me greater insights into being a better educator, but my Judaic studies classes are giving me greater insights into being a Jew. This is one of the treats of being a Davidson student: I have to take the pedagogy classes, but I have the opportunity to take non-pedagogy classes about prophets, Torah, history, and philosophy. I get an incredible blend and in one semester, I can learn how to be a better teacher and be equally influenced by the other classes I take.
I took a class with Dr. Ofra Backenroth about introducing art into Jewish education. She made me see art, as well as the use of art in the classroom, in a different way. I also teach tefillot at Temple Beth Sholom for sixth graders, humash to seventh graders, and Contemporary Issues in Jewish Law to ninth graders. I have already taken the lessons from Dr. Backenroth's class and applied them to my own students.
Outside the virtual classroom, is it easy to develop real-world connections with the community at JTS?
The word community is the right descriptor. There is a warmth and camaraderie here that I have never experienced before in my education. There is a willingness and desire to share and assist rather than to compete. I am not here very often for lunch, but I went to the Dining Hall today and sat down at a table with people I've seen online or saw in class in the past. JTS has a very welcoming and open environment.
I really feel strongly about the relationships I am developing and the classes I am taking. I walk down the halls and it is breathtaking—all I see are [photos after photos] of leaders in Jewish thought and scholarship.
What about outside the United States in The Davidson School's Visions and Voices Seminar in Israel?
It was my favorite moment at JTS—the seminar helps you think about Israel in a different way. You don't just see the tourist sites, and if we did go to one, it was intentionally part of the experience. The class was designed to expose us to more of the political and cultural realities, so it was like seeing "behind the curtain."
From a teaching perspective, I saw Israel in a way that many Americans will not see and walked away with a greater understanding of the country. The greatest personal impact was that, since I got back (over a year ago), a day does not go by that I don't think about the situation in Israel, imagine myself being in Israel, or somehow think about Israel. I never did that before.
What are your professional goals?
I would like to develop a means by which Jews of any age who are (1) unaffiliated with a movement or a synagogue, or (2) challenged with other time commitments can receive a Jewish education that is meaningful for them.
And there is little doubt that The Davidson School is the place to help you achieve this?
Absolutely. The Distance Learning MA Program has far exceeded my expectations. I did not know what to expect when I began, but now I feel like: "Bring it on—I'm ready to hear everything you are presenting."