Please join me in welcoming our new CEO, Michael Feinstein.
As you can imagine, the need for quality online education, teacher training, and innovative curriculum design in Jewish education has been unprecedented in 2020. Enrollment in ShalomLearning’s programs has doubled since last year and now exceeds 12,000 students. But as Rabbi Tarfon famously said in the Mishnah, “the day is short and the work is great.” Thanks to a generous grant we have brought in a new CEO to lead us through our next phase of growth.
Michael brings to ShalomLearning over 30 years of experience as a leader of entrepreneurial businesses and nonprofit organizations. Most recently, he served the Bender JCC of Greater Washington as Chief Executive Officer for 12 years. (Michael’s bio can be found here.)
Our founders, Devin Schain and Andrew Rosen had a vision to transform supplementary Jewish education for elementary school children to keep up with the advancements in education technology. When I joined ShalomLearning in 2014, our enrollment was 307 students and 15 teachers at 15 Congregational School partner sites in six states. Today our enrollment has grown to 12,696 students and 1,728 teachers, 236 partners in 37 states and 8 countries! None of this would have been possible without the transformational grants from The William Davidson Foundation, The William and Audrey Farber Family Foundation and the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Family; our amazing staff and board and partnerships and supporters like you. There are thousands of people involved in keeping ShalomLearning going these days, and I am eternally grateful for all of you!
It has been an honor and a privilege to lead ShalomLearning through this tremendous growth. I am excited to hand the CEO baton over to Michael to help us grow our capacity. I look forward to spending more time on teacher training, programming, writing and publishing and overall advocacy for our continued growth. We are in great hands with Michael as our new leader and I look forward to another fantastic year of growth and spreading the light of living meaningful lives steeped in Jewish values.
It is always darkest before dawn. As you can imagine, we’ve been busier than ever and the ShalomLearning family has grown tremendously since our last newsletter. We are now helping our 200+ school partners get ready for a new year with 1500 teachers and 10,000 students. However, with the start of a new school season upon us, we’re hearing from many or our partners at religious schools about the challenges they are facing. The most common worry from education directors is this: enrollment is down because so many families are overwhelmed, and kids have too much Zoom fatigue already for yet another online lesson as Hebrew School appears as something “extra” in their schedules.
The other day, I woke at 5:30 am and went for a walk to reflect on this issue. The sun was rising over the lake and the water reflected the pink clouds lighting up the sky. “There’s God, showing off again,” I thought. It made me stop and just take in what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.”
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the
morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.
Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life
casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
In full disclosure, this is not my typical morning. Raising children and facing life’s endless challenges during a pandemic does not fill me with radical amazement at every waking moment. In fact, I have never known a time of such sorrow, stress, and suffering for the world in my lifetime, as the moment that we are in right now.
Our children miss camps, sports competitions, live theater and in person clubs and yes, being in school with their friends. We are all braced for another wave of COVID-19 with the cold and flu season coming. When will the vaccine come? Some say it could be another 2 years! To which I say “Oy! Come on!”
Many of my peers involved in Jewish communal engagement are deeply cynical about the future of synagogue life. And they have every reason to feel pessimistic. But reason itself has its own limitations. Our mind can only do what our mind can do. What about the heart? What about faith?
Now faith is a different story. Faith in Hebrew is “Emunah.”
We, as Jews, are part of a global community with a close connection to the Jewish people all over the world. And yet, a lot of Jewish religious life is based around home and family activities. If we do not at least try our best to bring some aspect of spirituality into our homes this upcoming Jewish new year, we will continue to feel lost. I know this all too well.
Surely we can find one or two hours a week to make Jewish life relevant for our children. This thrust into remote learning is an opportunity to use education technology in a more meaningful way. It’s ironically, even an opportunity to learn about ways to take advantage of the times you are unplugged. Each of our lessons includes a summary teachers can send to parents that include “Table Talk.” These are questions to be discussed at the next meal. Ideally over Shabbat dinner, but it can really be anywhere. We want to meet families where they are and help them connect to Judaism on whichever level they are most comfortable.
I believe that ShalomLearning is the best option to help synagogues and home schools right now. We train our teachers how to use Edtech seamlessly and we provide the turn-key lessons and support to make Hebrew School into a fun and engaging and relevant educational experience. We also provide “Hands On Activities” that can be used for safe, outdoor, socially distanced learning – including family education for all ages.
Math, reading and science are important. But so is our soul. We need to answer “the spiritual curriculum” (as Mussar puts it) that we face every day. Our children’s secular schools are trying to catch up with Edtech, and everyone is fried with screen time. I get it. But what are we doing as families in respect to educating and nurturing the soul?
Let ShalomLearning help. Open yourself to bring more spiritual Light into your home. Judaism provides so many beautiful and meaningful ways to navigate through the world. If we do not provide these opportunities for our families, we further the risk of the Light going out on our watch. And that would be the saddest day of them all.
The good news is that Shalomlearning can help your families and community learn how to live life in a Jewish way that will help you get through these dark days and help your synagogue get through this crisis.
At some point in the next 3-24 months, this pandemic will end its grip on everything, and we will be free to meet once again in person, go to concerts and restaurants and hug our friends and family. And I believe that people will want to return to synagogues and gather as a Jewish community, perhaps more than ever before.
Our souls need SOMETHING to bring a light into the darkness in the interim. So let us help you get through this period. Our lessons are designed that they can be taught in person, online, at home, or a hybrid. When synagogue life does return, you will not need to miss a beat in the education of your children. It will simply be, “Last week was Gevurah (Unit 3) lesson three at home. Today, welcome back to our building! Let us continue with lesson four.”
I thank God we have the ability to help religious schools. It is my sincere hope that we can all give Emunah (faith) a better try, as I know that ShalomLearning can help educators and families alike. In the end, we all have the same job in this dark period of history, and that is to do what the Jewish people do best: bring in more light.
In New England, the beauty of the changing leaves around are as breathtaking as the spiritual wake up call which buzzes inside us. Can you feel the changes all around you? Can you turn your negative behaviors, relationships, and your mis-steps around to becoming a better you? In Judaism, it is imperative that we participate in making the world a better place and make a stand for our fellow human beings (yes….the doing) while not forgetting it is ultimately nurtured by who we are becoming (ahh…the being).
Thank God we’ve lived another year, and Rosh Hashanah brings a fresh start with a celebration of the birthday of the world. Perhaps it’s because it’s all I’ve ever known, but It always feels fitting in the autumn. What’s that gliding down heading my way? What’s that in the shofar I hear? Oh yeah…Its Teshuvah time!
Now of course, the act of repentance shouldn’t merely be seasonal. In truth, it is a lifelong process that touches every season of the human experience if you’re doing the spiritual work of repentance. There is no reason to wait until Yom Kippur to admit your wrong-doings, apologize to those you’ve wronged, ask forgiveness, and promise never to do it again. (Note: the previous sentence contains the four main steps of teshuvah).
There is something extra special about this time of year, when we come together as a community for collective prayer, delving into where we’ve gone astray, and individually, we work on arduous self-reflection in order to “turn things around” and to be our best selves moving forward.
Jewish tradition refers to archery when searching for the perfect word for our unintentional sins as cheit, which literally means to “miss the mark.” Haven’t we all missed the mark at some point? The good news is that we can try again to get closer to our best destiny. Preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur helps us draw a line in the sand and begin again. We can reset our intention and re-focus our attention.
Teshuvah is also great for looking at your organizational targets. Each of the past 5 years, The ShalomLearning team has set measurable goals and scaled up our programs nationally. From 300 students and 15 teachers at 15 synagogues in 2015 we’ve now grown partnerships with 110 synagogues, working closely with over 800 educators and 6000 students enrolled in 5780 (2019-2020)!
Getting back to your spiritual path, It is not easy to get things “right,” and hit our targets with the things that truly matter – deeds of loving kindness, studying Torah, connecting with our Creator, and performing tzedakah, to name a few essential mitzvot.
So… how do you know when you’ve truly completed teshuvah? You will know when you come across the same situation in life where you made the previous mistake for which you’ve already atoned, but this time, choose the right thing to do. Our beloved 12th century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (aka Rambam) called this epilog fifth stage “Teshuvah Gemurah,” Complete Teshuvah.
His students would ask, “But Rabbi what if you are not faced with that same situation again?”
“Don’t worry,” Rambam smiled, “You will.” He also knew a thing or two about Karma.
May you all take the lessons of life and turn things around to be your best selves as I wish you a sweet and happy New Year with blessings of strong and vibrant learning communities deeply rooted in Jewish values.
L’Shana Tova U’Metukah!
Summer is just around the corner! As the rhythmic clock of the Hebrew School academic year winds down, ShalomLearning students are concluding with our seventh unit, Shalom. As many people know, the three most popular translations of Shalom are “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace.” In the ShalomLearning Jewish values lessons, we take a deeper dive into the etymology via the word’s shoresh (root) which is shalem meaning “completeness.”
Our curriculum designers intentionally and brilliantly saved Shalom to be the final value of the year because there is a sense of peace in being complete. And of course, in Judaism we look towards the next question, “are we ever truly complete?” Part of our nature is to continue to grow and learn and strive to become the best authentic selves we can be. What we do in life, our actions (hopefully mitzvot) are of paramount importance, to strive for social justice and contribute to a better world (tikkun olam) but even higher, the zenith, the ultimate destiny is who we become. We grow in order to be. Where are we growing? What are we becoming? As I look back on the years with ShalomLearning, I am constantly amazed by our growth.
In 2011, founders Devin Schain and Andrew Rosenberg created our first cohort of seven students with one teacher (Rabbi Yakov Majeski) at one partner site in Bethesda, MD. We grew our team and resources to include a curriculum for grades 4-6. Incrementally we added on additional features and levels, expanding our Jewish communities of practice and commitment to pluralism and inclusiveness. The 2018-2019 enrollment consisted of 5128 students and 643 teachers at 98 partner schools. Collectively, if we look at our community as one and complete, this is the largest Hebrew School in the world!
This fall, you will notice we’ve expanded our offerings to include:
- Lessons (28 per grade) for eight different grades (K-7),
- More hands on training and mentorship for teachers with seven in person workshops this summer and additional webinars,
- A new iteration of learning prayer through gamification (ShalomLearning Escape Room 2.0), and
- Meaningful partnerships with over 120 synagogues across North America – both large and small of various affiliations.
We are committed to be more than just a provider. Rather we are partners with each congregation, helping every community make their educational independent visions a reality. I am so proud of what our learning community has accomplished. May you all continue to grow to be your best selves and enjoy the journey in striving for Shalom. “Summer lease hath all too short a date,” (Thank you Shakespeare!) and I look forward to starting anew in the fall as we continue to grow together.
Shana Tova! I hope everyone had a wonderful summer. The school year is well underway for many and just getting started for others. We had a very busy summer here at ShalomLearning: training teachers (with now over 600 registered in our growing community of practice) and checking in with all of our partner sites (at almost 100 synagogues reaching 5000 students) to ensure everyone has the tools, resources, and support needed to be successful in and beyond the classroom.
We’re still glowing from the impact of our training sessions at NewCAJE in Hartford, and from our training days in Chicago, Davie, Rockville, and Los Angeles. We’ve heard wonderful feedback from these sessions as well from the webinars. We’re constantly impressed by the ideas and visions for the future of Jewish education shared in these workshops and are very proud of the growing supportive culture within the ShalomLearning community.
But don’t just follow my opinion. (I love the work that we do!) The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, has just released the first study of its kind, evaluating the past two years of our program. It has been an incredibly exciting journey to innovate in Jewish Supplementary School Education (its what we do) – something long forgotten by much of the Jewish philanthropic world. Once upon a time, and not long ago, too many Jewish families dismissed Hebrew School as mediocre at best and inaccessible and irrelevant in their busy lives. We work tirelessly to ensure 21st century Jewish education doesn’t make the same mistakes of the last 50 years. But, you can access the full report online here.
I hope our curriculum’s value of “Teshuvah” is a growing term of relevance in yours lives as we are in the Ten “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This is the time to reflect on how you can “return” to our best selves, your loved ones, and your Creator.
At ShalomLearning, we take this time to not only enter our own introspection, but also on how we can improve as an organization.
One of our team’s greatest strengths comes from listening to feedback and channeling that information to find ways to improve.
I look forward to another year of working together with all of you in the ShalomLearning community to continue to make Jewish education more accessible and engaging for everyone.