For the first time in nearly a decade, Jewish educators gathered at Rodef Shalom Congregation for Yom Limud, or a day of learning.
The nearly 100 in attendance on Oct. 29 spanned the breadth of progressive Jewish Pittsburgh, including Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and even non-affiliated organizations, and featured teachers and madrichim from all geographic points around the city.
“That’s the beauty of this,” said Temple David Rabbi Barbara Symons, the chairperson of the event’s working committee. “It was all of the supplemental religious schools. I take great pride in that.”
The event, Symons said, began at a meeting of PAJE (Pittsburgh Area Jewish Educators), who remembered a similar event the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh used to host that provided professional development opportunities. When the idea of creating a new Yom Limud was raised, Symons said she’d be willing to coordinate the event but only if she had a working group of PAJE member with whom she could collaborate.
“Everyone brought their skills and their interests and their passions and their connections,” Symons said. “We really worked well together.”
The work required wasn’t simply selecting what would be taught or who would be teaching. It also involved a lot of logistics, Symons said, including gathering supplies, hanging signs, creating QR codes and helping to figure out what food would be served. She said much of the work fell to Joint Jewish Education Program Assistant Director Stephanie Wolfe. J-JEP is a collaborative, pluralistic religious school run by Rodef Shalom and Congregation Beth Shalom, open to K-12 students in Greater Pittsburgh.
The day turned out to be “incredibly successful,” Wolfe said.
That accomplishment might be attributed to one of Symons’ main goals: making sure the day made good use of the educators’ time. To that end, the committee tried to streamline the events.
Temple Emanuel of South Hills Torah Center Director Steph McFerron said the goal was important if her teachers and students were going to miss a day of classes.
“I really wanted to ensure that if I was going to send all of our teachers and teens it was worthwhile,” she said. “So, I volunteered to help with the planning.”
The end result, Symons explained, was that people arrived, grabbed folders containing information for the day, got some coffee and went straight to their first session.
Topics were decided earlier in the year through a survey of PAJE members.
“That was important. We wanted to be intentional,” Symons said. “We didn’t want to just find presenters. We wanted to find presenters who are good at presenting what we want to be presented.”
Local and national experts led the presentations including, among others, Rabbi Emily Meyer; BBYO’s Vice President of Enrichment Strategies Liron Lipinsky; Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Security Director Shawn Brokos; Director of Federation’s Community Relations Council Laura Cherner; Director of Jewish Education and Arts at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh Maria Carson; Jewish educator Em Duhamel; and Rabbi Daniel Brenner, named by Newsweek Magazine as one of America’s most influential rabbis.
Faculty sessions included discussions on reaching all learners, classroom management, illuminating Hebrew and Jewish texts and leading tefillah.
Affinity groups — or small cadres of people gathered around a topic — took place during brunch and included bringing Hebrew to life, the best use of madrichim, technology and even discussions about Israel by shinshinim visiting Pittsburgh.
A few of the topics discussed by area madrichim included “Antisemitism: What to Know and How to Stay Vigilant,” “Being a ‘Bridge’ Between Students and Teachers” and “Inclusion: LGBTQ+.”
Symons said that those heading the sessions were leaders in the field.
“They were the top of the top locally, as well as a couple that came in from elsewhere thanks to a Federation grant,” she said.
Symons is leaving Pittsburgh in 2024 and moving to New York, so she won’t be in the city for the next year’s Yom Limud, but she hopes there won’t be another 10-year gap.
The planning committee is working on the next step, McFerron said. It is meeting soon to evaluate the feedback it’s received.
“We’re going to try and figure out what will make the most sense. We’re thinking of doing something either yearly or every other year,” she said. “We have a structure now that seems to have been successful.”
J-JEP Director Rabbi Larry Freedman, who taught at the event, said that the sessions provided an added benefit, occurring in the shadow of Israel’s war with Hamas.
“I suspect that and hope that the teachers are even more proud of what we do because the world still seems to enjoy killing Jews and we revere and keep teaching the Torah,” Freedman said. “We believe that what we do makes the world a better place and makes us better people.” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.