The Jewish Experience

Mentoring Undergraduate Jewish Educators

Riley Miner

Miner with her students at the Boston-Area Jewish Education Program.

Photo Credit: Gaelen Morse

March 23, 2023

By Penny Schwartz, P'13

On a recent Sunday morning, Riley Miner '25 was setting up cups of different brands of grape juice for her 4th-grade Sunday school class in Waltham.

After comparing tasting notes about each juice variety, the students practiced reciting the Hebrew blessing over the wine. It was a kid-friendly, hands-on activity that made learning the blessing fun.

Miner is one of seven students participating in this year's Undergraduate Teaching Fellows Program at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education. The initiative offers mentorship and training to students working in what's known as supplemental Jewish education — schools and programs other than full-time day schools.

Supplemental programs often rely on college students inspired by their Jewish education or summer camp experiences. They can be eager to pass their enthusiasm for Judaism on to younger kids, but they also often have little preparation for classroom teaching.

Miner, vice president of Brandeis Hillel, works at the Boston-Area Jewish Education Program (BJEP), an independent Sunday school program on the Brandeis campus taught by Brandeis undergraduates. Other fellows work at supplemental education programs based at Boston-area synagogues.

"The fellowship is an investment in the future of these young educators, who develop skills to create stronger classrooms and deeper learning," Jon A. Levisohn, the Mandel Center's director, said.

"Brandeis seeks to be a good partner to local Jewish institutions and the Boston Jewish community," he added. "Just like in other areas of Jewish life, there's a real pipeline problem — a shortage of personnel at all levels. This program doesn't solve the problem, but it's a constructive way to work on it."

Robin Kahn '96, MA'97, the director of the 8-year-old program, meets with the fellows six times per semester, leading them in conversations and lessons about pedagogy and designing lesson plans. In addition to covering professional subjects such as classroom management and teaching students with special needs, fellows keep a journal to reflect on their experiences.

Kahn, who also works as the director of education and teen engagement at Temple Israel of Natick, said all the fellows possess a passion for Judaism that they want to share with younger kids.

"The program is designed to improve their teaching practice, increase their confidence, provide mentoring, expose them to trends in education, and connect them with a community of peers," she said.

Under Kahn's mentorship, the fellows start their meetings by socializing over dinner. "We schmooze and check in" about the challenges and the successes in their classrooms, Kahn said.

In one recent seminar with the fellows, Kahn introduced the fellows to a rubric that professional educators use to select teaching materials and decide whether they are appropriate for particular educational settings.

"Are your students reflected in this book?" she asked the group, as one example of the kinds of questions that educators ought to ask. It's an important and timely question as Jewish families are increasingly diverse.

Ben Breslow '25, who teaches third graders at Temple Beth David in Westwood, said the Teaching Fellows Program strengthens his teaching skills and provides strategies and insights beyond the training he gets at the synagogue.

"Having the ability to talk about our lessons and break down strategy that will make the classes better for our kids is really something I can't get anywhere else," he said.

Breslow, who grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts, credits his teen years at a Jewish summer camp with inspiring his love for Judaism. He said the Teaching Fellows Program has given him tips for classroom activities.

He's also grateful to Kahn for helping him and fellow Noah Glassberg '25 obtain a $500 grant to enhance their teaching. He and Glassberg, who also teaches 3rd grade at Temple Beth David, used the grants to purchase materials so their students could make Seder plates for Passover.

Miner, who is from El Paso, Texas, spent this fall teaching her BJEP students about Shabbat. They made their own ritual objects, including a Kiddush cup.

"I could have brought in a Kiddush cup and explained its significance, but ultimately what they'd see is a silver wine cup and not think much of it," she said. "More than anything, I want my students to have fun while learning about Judaism."