Three feminists working in Jewish education share some of their insights, accomplishments and ambitions with Susan Weidman Schneider. To submit your own professional and biographical data to LlLlTH’s Talent Bank, please use the form on the inside cover. In upcoming issues, LILITH will profile women experts in other fields.
Sara Rudich – Prager, 42
In addition to her full-time job as Middle School Judaic Studies Head and Director of Admissions for Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore, Sara Rudich Prager is teaching a three-year curriculum for adult Jewish women, and helping Orthodox women learn to read Torah in her own synagogue.
“Education is a passion with me—it’s beyond the career, the job. or even the Jewish feminist part of me. I see Jewish education as organically whole, from family education projects to a 4-week course I’m now teaching on women and Judaism for the parents of kids in my school. Some parents came in the door because the day school offered a full-day kindergarten, for example, and then the whole family is transformed by the experience.
“I always looked for opportunities to work with adults even while I was teaching children and raising my own sons (ages 16, 13, 8). I first got an M.A. in general education, then spent time in Israel. I was able to integrate who I was by going into Jewish education—first early childhood and then teaching young adults at Brandeis Bardin Institute in California, a pivotal experience.
“One of the most fascinating things was teaching adult Bat Mitzvah students in Rockland County, New York. In eight years I had over 100 graduates. During the course their perceptions of themselves as Jewish women and the way they made decisions about Jewish life for their families changed—for instance, deciding to send their kids to Jewish day schools. The two-year course became three years or four. Jewish learning became part of their own lives.”
What in her own life made her involve herself so completely in Jewish education?
“I had a very positive Jewish education. I felt comfortable in my after-school Hebrew school and Hebrew high school. Students from the Jewish Theological Seminary taught us, and I felt that these people were serious.
“But even I was unprepared when I left for college. I said to friends, ‘I can’t man7 someone who isn’t Jewish’— and I couldn’t explain why. I realized I’d better learn more about this. I started to take Judaic studies courses at Tufts in the late ’60’s, and that changed my life. Leaving home, kids need to learn to articulate why it’s important to be Jewish.
What are some of the crystallizing moments for women and for girls?
“Life cycle events offer particular openings—baby namings, for example, where the families ask themselves, ‘What do we want for this child? Where do we want to go?’
“One of my adult students became engaged, and other students in the class created a havdalah ceremony to mark the transition from one phase to another. Teaching about Judaism is like teaching a language, a means of expression, and then people can use it in their own lives.
“In the middle school, at prayers, girls who are given tallitot for Bat Mitzvah are not wearing them. They were first told, if you’re going to lead t’filla you must wear a tallit— then told it was optional. Who chooses to do it? Why? And why not? We are planning some small-group discussions with sixth and seventh graders on this complicated political and ritual issue. Nobody has looked at this before with the young people it affects.
“We’re going to have a t’fillin lab, where everyone will learn how to put on the phylacteries. No matter what their own practice will be, at least the girls will have the opportunity for hands-on experience.”
Audrey Friedman Marcus, 62
A publisher of Jewish educational materials for children and adults that are attractive and hip enough to look like texts and workbooks from the real world, Audrey Friedman Marcus is curriculum consultant for the religious school of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Denver, and executive vice president of Alternatives in Religious Education (A.R.E.) Publishing, which she helped found twenty years ago.
“During the school revolution of the ’60’s nothing was going on in Jewish education! There were no creative materials for religious schools. So we produced them. Rabbi Ray Zwerin and I wrote the materials and mailed the first brochures ourselves. We now have 150 titles and a warehouse full of inventory.
“We worked hard to be non-sexist in language and approach. We reformulated some of the Hebrew so that it wasn’t so sexist. Conscious of the male orientation of most prayers, we’re writing Teaching T’filla, with exercises where males and females try different ritual roles so that students experience each other’s point of view, even if these aren’t regularly available in their own synagogue or denomination.
“I came from a rather non-observant Reform home, but very synagogue-oriented. My most significant role models were men—my father, who was president of our congregation, and my rabbi, who first asked me to teach. My rabbi knew I’d be good at it, although at that point I didn’t even have a college degree. He gave me a reading program of about 200 books! I began reading and learning, and then earned a B.A. and M.A. in education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
“A shaping moment for me was being the only Jew at a Quaker boarding school. The administrators wouldn’t let me miss the Quaker meeting to listen to a radio Rosh Hashanah service so I got up at the meeting and said that Jews all over the world were praying for peace, and we should be doing that too. I just found myself on my feet— the Quakers believe that you are ‘called’ to speak—and that was the moment I announced myself publicly as a Jew.
“We teach the kids intensively for one whole week every summer, modeled on the Christian summer Bible schools. We have their undivided attention, six hours a day for five days. It’s mandatory for grades one through seven in our religious school, and about 80% come. Each grade has a different curriculum, with art, songs, projects, guest lectures; it’s very interactive.
“But even with a wonderful program like this one, if there’s no follow-up at home the best materials are of little value. You have to get families involved, even minimally, in learning with their kids—the life cycle, holiday cycle, Israel, Holocaust. The factors I think turn parents off are a lack of time, their own scanty Jewish knowledge and a certain rebelliousness. Many think Judaism is oppressive, dull, not too meaningful. A lot react against their own bad Jewish education, and they transmit this to the kids, sometimes unconsciously.”
Elaine S. Cohen, 47
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Educational director of the United Talmud Torah Schools, an umbrella for two elementary and two high schools in Montreal’s complex mix of French and English para-public schools, Elaine S. Cohen oversees professional and curriculum development, and formal and informal educational activities, a job which for eighteen years was occupied by an Orthodox rabbi. Before coming to Montreal, she organized retreats for teachers in Jewish schools through the Melton Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“In elementary school, prayer is egalitarian, but with no consciousness. Girls may lead, but it’s just seen as ‘taking turns.’ In the high schools, prayer is optional; there are morning prayers, and the only ones who go are boys. When we moved here, my daughters went to prayers the first day. The teacher asked, ‘Did somebody die?’
“The French-track schools (two of the four) are very multicultural: Ethiopian, Russian, Latin American, European, Israeli— demonstrating how our own community has many faces.
“I myself went to a secular after-school Jewish program as a kid where Yiddish was the language. My formative religious experiences were informal, through the havurah movement, where small groups socialized and davened and learned together. The Jewish Feminist Conference in New York in 1973 was the first time I’d gone to a Shabbat service and heard exclusively women’s voices. Women were asking my questions—about equal participation and women’s experiences in the Bible.
“I wonder about the second generation of havurah Jews. I’m not sure we’ve done our jobs all that well. The sons who are highly identified tend to become Orthodox. The daughters tend to move far away from a Jewish involvement, or they stay highly involved in Jewish feminism.
“As for curriculum, the things that spoke to kids twenty years ago do not today. Money is going into adult ‘mini-schools’ or Israel experiences or informal education, but these programs do little preparation and no follow-up.
“Creative energy has to be put back into day schools. If I had thousands of dollars I’d do team building and faculty enrichment, having teachers in Jewish schools work on the meaning of Judaism in their own lives. We use the language of community, but we don’t know how to build community.”