What I Appreciate Most About MTEI Gatherings
January 26, 2023
What I appreciate most about MTEI gatherings is that they provide the gift of getting me off the dance floor and into the balcony. What do I mean? I spend (too) much time dealing with the urgent and seemingly important: designing yet another flyer, reminding teachers to submit lesson plans and lesson summaries, and organizing supplies. However, when I am with my MTEI colleagues, I am not thinking about that; rather, I’m focused on mentoring teachers, designing educational experiences, and collaborative workspaces.
The recent Graduate Gathering helped me reframe some of the work that I put in the category of “urgent and seemingly important” into the category of “urgent and important” as we unpacked principle #8: There is moral meaning in the work we do.” In other words, there will always be urgent and important work, and framing it through the lens of moral meaning has given me a new perspective on my administrative to-do list.
First, some context. Months ago, our Education Vice President asked me for a copy of our parent handbook. We don’t have a handbook. Prior experience has shown handbooks can be long, generic documents filled with policies no one reads. It was clear that our Education Vice President thought it was time to produce a handbook so that when parents ask important policy questions about curriculum, inclusion, behavior, and kashrut, we would have one place to direct them to, and our responses would always be consistent.
I began by asking colleagues to share copies of their handbooks. As I suspected, the ones I received sounded generic, and many educators responded with, “What’s the point of a handbook? No one reads it anyway.” I rephrased my question: Who has a parent handbook they are proud of? I received nothing.
Back to the Graduate Gathering: In our opening session, MTEI faculty member Kathy Simon presented a framework for our work: first, asking us to consider where moral questions show up in our lives, then where they show up in our curriculum, and finally, thinking about where these questions show up in everything else we do at work. The last part grabbed my attention. How do moral questions show up in everything else I do at work (i.e., my administrative responsibilities): emails, sending reminders about programs and progress letters, purchasing snacks, and the like?
In one of our closing sessions, Kathy gifted us the time to focus on an area of our work where we could insert moral meaning. At some point after the opening sessions with Kathy and her closing session, it occurred to me that I would be proud of a handbook that was more than a list of administrative stuff and important policy. I would be proud of a Religious School Parent Handbook that was framed in Jewish values and Jewish texts. During our workshop time, my tablemates, Debbie Neiderman and Laura Novak Winer, helped me create a table of contents for a religious school handbook that connected each item with a Jewish value, idea, or text. Our religious school handbook could and would serve as an educational tool about Jewish values and demonstrate that our Temple Israel’s decisions and policies are framed in Jewish values and thought. My next step was to carve out the time to write – the important and not urgent tasks are the hardest ones to get done. However,
December 21. It’s winter vacation, and I test positive for COVID. I have plenty of time to write! A draft is complete within a few days.
I’m now working with our clergy to insert more text and lay leaders to frame each section to follow the value or text we’ve connected it with. For example, our “Attendance and Community” section begins:
“Here I am — Hineini,” is the response Abraham and Moses give when G!d calls to them. Hineini appears 178 times in the Torah. The rabbis teach us that the response Hineni indicates that you are fully present: in the physical, mental, and spiritual sense.
Thank you for enrolling your children in our religious school community and partnering with us on your family’s Jewish journey. Community is the keyword in the previous sentence. So much of Judaism is about community. Showing up to religious school (and other Temple events) is the most important thing for your children (and your family) to feel connected to their classmates, friends, teachers, professionals, clergy, and the synagogue. Each of you contributes to our community beautifully and uniquely, and we want to celebrate and learn with you! Classmates miss each other when they are absent, and the teachers miss your kids too!
We live in a secular world and make choices daily about how we live out our Judaism. We hope that you will choose to make it a priority for your children to fully attend religious school and give them every opportunity to connect to their community.
We hope when you are at Temple Israel, you will be fully present and be able to say, “Hinenei!”
There is plenty more work to be done on the handbook. The clergy and I are enjoying the challenge of finding texts to support our policies. The education committee and I are now discussing policy and guidelines through a Jewish lens, with morals and values at the center of the conversation. That’s huge!
Ultimately, it may be that few people read our handbook when it’s distributed. However, when questions arise, and we refer them to it, it will serve as an educational tool, and it will relay the message that at Temple Israel of Natick, our work is framed in Jewish values. MTEI has again reminded me that our work is best when it is collaborative and rooted in Jewish values, middot, and texts. There is moral meaning in the work we do! When I look at my to-do list, this is my new mantra. Maybe I’ll even write it at the top of every list.