Dr. Michelle Lynn-Sachs, assistant professor of Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary, has embarked on some new and exciting professional paths during her very first year at JTS. In addition to teaching Skills for Teaching, Staff Development and Supervision, and the synagogue school practicum, she is also coordinating the synagogue school track and supervising student fieldwork. Dr. Lynn-Sachs is also expanding her original dissertation—“Inside Sunday School: Cultural and Religious Logics at Work at the Intersection of Religion and Education,” a comparative ethnographic study of the aspirations for religious education programs in a Catholic church, Protestant church, and synagogue—and launching a new research project that will ultimately serve students and educators in Jewish and other communities.
How does your research fit into the work you’re doing at JTS?
Here at JTS, my teaching centers around those skills and areas of content learning that are important for people who are going into leadership positions in Jewish education, but it is also related to my research interests, in that I’m training my students to become practitioners in the fields that I study in my research life.
What type of research will you be doing?
I’m working on two projects. One is continuing to work on the manuscript that I prepared for my dissertation, which was an ethnography of religious education programs in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish settings. Next, I will flip my focus from the perspective of the educational leadership, which is what that research was on, to the perspective of the children. In broad brush strokes, I will be looking at after-school religious education, which is my area of interest and expertise, in the context of the after-school lives of children.
In the past, when people studied Hebrew school or other after-school religious education programs, they would look at how effective they are or at best teaching practices or best leadership practices. What hasn’t yet been done is looking at after-school religious education programs in the context of the world of the child. So while people will say, yes, we know that children are coming from a long day at school and it’s very difficult for them to sit for two more hours, what I want to do is actually go with those children from the end of their school day, over the course of the week, to all of the things they do after school. I will attempt to see through the children’s eyes what it is like to go from the school day to whatever else it is that they do. And many of the things they do after school are educational, whether they’re more informal things like sports or music lessons, or more formal things.
What I will be doing, I imagine, is something similar to what I did for my last project, which is a comparative study. For example, taking a fifth-grade class from a neighborhood or private school—where the children are likely to have a lot of things that they’re doing after school—and follow, say, ten of them over the course of a year. Jewish children live in a world that has influences beyond what they do in their Jewish lives. It’s almost a sociology of childhood, putting Hebrew school in the context of the lives of children.
So how groups of people behave in a synagogue or in a classroom has meaning to you. Where does that come from?
I noticed the interest when I was a practitioner. Before I did a PhD and came to JTS, I was a synagogue educator and these were the issues that were important to me. I was always very interested in trying to step out of the situation I was in and analyze how the dance was happening around me. I was a director of education at a synagogue in Toronto, where I oversaw all the educational programs, from preschool through adult. In New York, I was a consultant/researcher to synagogues in The RE-IMAGINE Project, a project that helps synagogues innovate and experiment with their educational programs. The idea that I wanted to know more and contribute more knowledge about the world of the synagogue came out of my experience there. So that was what led me back to school and ultimately to JTS. I chose to come here so I can teach practitioners and have the opportunity to do research.
It seems like a really important path to you, not just an area of research, and it seems important to you that other people do it as well. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s important that people go into the synagogues because that’s where Jews are in the United States. It is the most widely encountered institution for Jews. If we say that Jewish education and Jewish learning is key to living a Jewish life, then that’s where the education needs to be. And there’s a shortage, a recruitment and retention problem.
You come to JTS at a time of change under the leadership of JTS’s new chancellor, Arnold Eisen. He is also concerned about Jewish identity . . .
It’s an interesting position to be in. The discipline that I come from doesn’t try to solve every problem. Sociology is concerned with social issues and doesn’t try to solve all of them. It helps me to think about my teaching and my research, to not segregate and draw a strong line, but to know that I can do my research as a sociologist and raise questions and change the discourse and bring things to the surface that had been hidden, but it’s not my responsibility in that research to raise every issue or solve every dilemma. I can work on that as well in my teaching, so that, for me, makes what I’m doing here rewarding. I didn’t want to be in a place where my teaching wouldn’t address those issues.
So what’s ahead for you at JTS?
We have a new dean at The Davidson School that we’re all excited about. I’m making my way in a new place. This semester was really focused on my courses and getting to know my students and the culture here; next will be my foray into my new research.