Student Teachers Connect Haifa, Ga. State, Epstein

Student Teachers Connect Haifa, Ga. State, Epstein

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Jewish day schools have a need for teachers who can deliver lessons in Hebrew. The University of Haifa has a desire to establish an international identity and presence. Georgia State University has a high-quality school of education but a low profile in the Jewish community.

A new program is creating a win-win-win situation by addressing all three situations.

Three Israelis from the University of Haifa are spending the first semester of their third and final year of college in metro Atlanta. Three days a week, they’re taking classes at Georgia State’s Honors College, religion department and School of Education; two days a week, they’re working with students at the Epstein School.

Hanan Alexander is a Conservative rabbi as well as an academic administrator.
Hanan Alexander is a Conservative rabbi as well as an academic administrator.

“It’s an exciting, pioneering thing,” said Rabbi Hanan Alexander, who is Haifa’s dean of students and heads the education program and study-abroad efforts.

The student teachers, who ran high school classrooms last year in Israel, are not taking lead roles at Epstein. As interns, their duties include observing teachers, designing and executing lesson plans, working with students in small groups, assessing student progress, and sharing their Israeli experiences and observations, said Tal Grinfas-David, Epstein’s elementary school principal.

Students at Epstein probably won’t remember anything the Israelis teach them, but they’ll remember that the three were here, Rabbi Alexander said. “If there’s one thing that’s really important in the whole thing, it’s to recognize that we’re all still family.”

The student teachers will graduate in the spring with the training to be certified in Israel and the United States. The expectation is that they will return to Epstein to teach for a year or two as shlichim (Israeli emissaries), then will launch careers in Israel, where they will contribute to a respect for religious pluralism, Rabbi Alexander said.

“We’re taking an Israeli university. We’re putting it to the service of American Jewish education, and we’re taking American Jewish day schools and putting them to the service of training Jewish educators for Israel,” he said. “So we’re cutting through a lot of the dichotomies.”

His university is the youngest of Israel’s seven major research universities and its most diverse. Arabs, including Christians from Nazareth and Haifa and Druze from the north, make up about a quarter of the student body.

“Hebrew University is the university of the Jewish people, but we’re the university of Israeli society,” Rabbi Alexander said. “We reflect Israeli society, and we’re very proud of that.”

The university also is in the midst of an aggressive internationalization that includes sending abroad 70 students a year. Inspired by a conversation with former Greenfield Hebrew Academy Head of School Rabbi Lee Buckman about day schools’ need for Hebrew-speaking Jewish studies teachers, Rabbi Alexander decided to include a teacher training program in that initiative.

Atlanta’s big Jewish population, unusually large number and high quality of day schools, and lack of Jewish higher-education resources made it a good choice, as did the presence of Georgia State, Rabbi Alexander said. Georgia State, like Haifa, is a young university with a strong school of education, and the two universities are collaborating in a public health program that sends students to Haifa.

“We went with Georgia State because Georgia State was willing to work with us,” Rabbi Alexander said. He added that through its drive to upgrade academics and its merger with Georgia Perimeter College, “Georgia State is undergoing an unbelievable revival.”

Jewish education veteran Paul Flexner is serving as the trio’s mentor at Georgia State, and Rabbi Alexander said the Atlanta Jewish community has opened its hearts to welcome the student teachers. “Southern hospitality and Jewish warmth, it’s a great thing, and it’s wonderful to see.”

Stan Sunshine is leading Atlanta fundraising efforts for the program, to which Haifa is making a long-term commitment. The university is selecting five or six of its best students each year to participate in the program, Rabbi Alexander said.

Epstein is the first day school participating because Rabbi Alexander knew former Head of School Stan Beiner and because the first three Israelis’ religious history makes them a good match for the Conservative school. Rabbi Alexander said an Orthodox student scheduled to come to Atlanta next fall will be a good fit for Atlanta Jewish Academy, and he hopes to spread the program to other day schools.

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