The Reform Day School Externship: The Business of Building JDS Advocates



by Ken Gordon

At the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), we always stress the importance of two goals that align with our long-term vision: (1) community collaboration and (2) advocating strongly for the value of JDS. Turns out, we’re not the only ones who believe in this powerful combination of ideas. We’re excited to tell you about a superb capacity-building project: The Reform Day School Externship. Now in its fourth year, the externship is a model of collaboration of between PARDES: Day Schools of Reform Judaism, host member schools across North America, Hebrew Union College-­­Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and the Union for Reform Judaism (UJR).

The school-based experiential learning component of the externship is bringing 10 specially selected HUC-JIR students to The Rashi School in Dedham, Massachusetts this week, May 21-25.

“This externship fosters a network of emerging rabbis, educators, and cantors who are able to partner with their local day schools across North America because they understand the day school as an educational institution with unique, yet similar properties to a URJ member congregation,” says an enthusiastic Dr. Jane West Walsh, PARDES Executive Director and URJ Day School Specialist.

The externship week is packed with activity. As externs work with faculty in and out of classrooms; meet with board members, parents, faculty, and community leaders; as well as work carpool lines and help with lunch duty, they become participant-observers who bring their academic questions to the reality of Rashi’s Jewish learning and living culture. The externs will even attend the Rashi annual dinner in Boston, which will celebrate the school’s authentic commitment to social justice.

One of the best parts of this program is that when the externs head back to their HUC-JIR campuses in the fall, they will conduct programs for fellow students, faculty, and campus leaders about the contemporary Jewish day school from a Reform perspective. This will go a long way to spreading their insights about day schools to academic communities—and eventually to communities all over North America.

Dr. Matthew King, Rashi’s head of school, says that the externs’ presence at the Rashi dinner on Wednesday night will “enrich their understanding of the school’s values, culture, and history, and the role of fundraising”—an important component if HUC-JIR is going to produce savvy leaders who will likely have to deal with financial sustainability.

Walsh notes that the externship concept was the brainchild of Dr. Michael Zeldin, HUC-JIR Professor of Jewish Education, who was recently named National Director of the HUC-JIR Schools of Education. She adds that, on May 23, a group of Reform movement leaders including new URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs; URJ Senior Vice President, and Rashi parent, Rabbi Jonah Pesner; plus VIPs from of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the National Association of Temple Educators will be observing and engaging the activity at Rashi.

Walsh emphasizes that this a capacity-building project for the movement as a whole that will impact not only Reform day schools, but every day school that seeks to welcome Reform affiliated families. She also explains that PARDES, URJ, and HUC-JIR partners behind the externship believe this project will have a broad impact in the years ahead, especially if the program can continue to find funding.

Chances are that the externs will go on to make a strong case for Reform day school.

“The externs will begin to understand the language of day school life and the attraction day schools have for the families who choose them,” says Walsh. “Externs will become leaders who know how to advocate for day schools with knowledge and insight. They will be prepared to understand the differing assumptions and expectations of day school parents and graduates as they lead their congregations in years ahead.”

Ken Gordon is the social media manager at Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).  This post originally appeared on the PEJE blog.

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