Educators as First Responders

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Sarah Tauber and Jonathan Lipnick

Every Jewish educator requires a treasury of ritual competencies in order to serve the religious and spiritual needs of the Jewish communities of which they are an integral part. In Jewish communal life, there has been a general preference to hand over liturgical leadership to rabbis and cantors. But it's important to note that, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 1st century CE, Judaism disavowed the notion of a priestly class as the performers of ritual. Today, it is often Jewish educators who are called upon to be the "first responders." We are expected to lead Shabbat retreats, weekday services, and communal holiday celebrations. As an essential aspect of being Jewish educators, we need to know how to lead and teach these religious experiences in ways that inspire and inform. 

This past fall, we inaugurated The Davidson's School new prayer initiative, the Liturgical Interpreters Project, for the purpose of providing our students with the skills to be interpreters of Jewish prayer. We spent two years collaborating on the design of the course so that Davidson School master's degree students could develop a comprehensive knowledge base and understanding of the complexities of leading and teaching prayer in the diverse communal settings that they will join as professionals.  

The new four-semester model is premised upon a set of interlocking core competencies. During their two years at The Davidson School, MA students explore the meaning of prayer in their own lives, while at the same time discovering how to successfully fulfill their roles as educators in teaching the body of liturgical prayer. They also deepen their understanding of who they are and who they aspire to be as Jewish religious and spiritual leaders. 

The Liturgical Interpreters Project seeks to support and bolster the students' grasp of the meaning of Jewish liturgical prayer. It does this by drawing from theological, experiential, communal, historical, and spiritual perspectives. It encourages students to explore their own beliefs and attitudes even as they improve their performative skills as prayer leaders. They integrate new approaches to teaching prayer for learners who come from a diverse set of backgrounds and ages, and who bring their own personal experiences and memories. 

Capitalizing on the strengths of experiential learning, the course is tightly integrated with other meaningful Davidson School practices: students participate actively in the Big Tent Minyan, which serves as an action lab for the program. The Big Tent Minyan is an egalitarian prayer space that affords students the opportunity to explore the liturgy as daveners (the ones praying). They extend their experiences through frequent contact with dynamic visiting educators and scholars. Participants study individually with us to develop their own personal competencies. These sessions allow students to process and reflect upon their learning, which includes evaluating skills acquisition, discussing spiritual growth, and delving into individual religious beliefs. 

Through the integration of all these components, the Liturgical Interpreters Project creates a cadre of sensitive, skilled, and inspired Jewish educators who can also confidently assume their position in our communities as prayer leaders.

Rabbi Jonathan Lipnick is the rabbi-in-residence of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary, where he works with students to develop their religious skills, personal practice, and personal theology and reflect on their own Jewish journeys and growth as students. He received his ordination at JTS in 1992, and earned an MSEd in Educational Leadership from Bank Street College of Education. 

Dr. Sarah Tauber, assistant professor of Jewish Education at The Davidson School of JTS, graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree magna cum laude in History; University of California at Berkeley with a secondary-school teaching certification in English; and, in 2010, from JTS with an EdD in Jewish Education. Dr. Tauber coordinates The Davidson School's Educational Leadership Practicum and is also a research consultant for The Davidson School's ReFrame: Experiential Education in Congregational Schools initiative. She is the book review editor of the Journal of Jewish Education.