Literacy Elective: A Memorable Experience

Each year, Rashi middle school students participate in the Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL) elective, serving as reading buddies and mentors to students at a local public school in Dedham. JCL is a program of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Here are two reflections on the experience, by a student and a teacher.

By Avi G., grade 6

Every Monday I go to the Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC) in Dedham to read with a young boy who attends kindergarten at the school. That young boy is named Carlos. One of the most memorable experiences that I have had this past year with Carlos actually took about six months. He wanted to read the book Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold. I said that would be alright, not knowing that inside this book was a tale of a hopeful African-American girl who would fly above New York City late at night, looking at all the places she loved in her city.

As we began reading, Carlos’ teacher, Mrs. L, stopped us and said that maybe we should wait until later in the year to read this (it was only November at the time). I wasn’t completely sure why, because Carlos and I hadn’t quite reached the heavier parts of the book and I had never read the book before. However, I trusted Mrs. L and began reading a book about turkeys with Carlos.

About six months had passed and now we only had a few more sessions with our friends from ECEC, when suddenly I saw Tar Beach sitting on one of the shelves. I had completely forgotten about it and was excited for us to read it. I touched base with Carlos on how his weekend was and if he was excited for the summer. The latter was extremely unnecessary, I could see that he was ready to enter first grade by now. I asked him if he remembered that, at the beginning of the year, we had begun reading a book but stopped and said that maybe we would read it later. He said no, but Mrs. L told me that she remembered that and handed me Tar Beach.

Carlos and I sat down and began to read. There were some words in that book that we don’t use now and I made sure that Carlos knew that our society had moved beyond that time and its language. When we finished, I asked Carlos if he liked the book. He nodded but I could tell that he didn’t really know what to make of it, so, as we did when he didn’t understand any book, I helped him summarize it and I knew that this book would be long remembered in both of our minds. I’m sure that when I am an adult I will always remember JCL, Carlos, and Tar Beach.


From “freedom from” to “freedom to” – A JCL reflection

By Ari Marcovski, Rashi teacher

It’s Monday. A new week.

I remember – it’s JCL today – pack a lunch I can eat on the bus. In my mind’s eye I see us riding down the side roads of Dedham on our sunny bus…. more magic will happen today…. I am grateful…

When I was first invited to join JCL last year as an observer after expressing an interest in getting more involved in social justice, I must admit part of me questioned if there wasn’t something more important I could be doing. Sure, reading to young kids is a good and nice thing to do, but shouldn’t I be delivering bikes at Cradles to Crayons or collecting food for food pantries and families in need?

The JCL middle school students fill the bus with boisterous chatter and laughter as we eat our lunches and head to the Curran Early Childhood Education Center in Dedham. The Rashi students’ youthful exuberance highlights the contrast between their being kids and the mature assignment they were about to carry out.

We arrive.

Childish giggles fade and as we enter our kindergarten buddies’ classroom a focused calm spreads. As each middle school student pairs up with a kindergarten buddy, it is evident not only that expectations are clear, but that the Rashi students are all personally invested in the connection with their buddies and in the work they came here to do.

I observe.

I am in awe but can’t seem to put my finger on precisely why. Something is happening here that is much more than simply reading books to kids. Slowly I start to get it. Every middle school student LOOKS different to me from how they look at Rashi. The pressure of external evaluation dissipates as they are doing their best because they want to; because the alternative is not an option for them.

On the bus ride back to Rashi we debrief. Students share thoughtful stories of successes and challenges, questions about how to address a difficulty that arose with a particular student, and exchange ideas about possible perspectives to consider and solutions to attempt.

I begin to realize that this is, perhaps, the most important social justice work I could ever hope to be involved with. Educating. Opening doors. Stretching horizons. Changing freedom from to freedom to.

I’m in. I’m sold. I make my commitment and join on a permanent basis.

A year has passed.

Looking back, I can hardly see where we all began as we’ve all come such a long way individually and together. Kindergarteners who were painfully shy or didn’t speak English or didn’t know their letters are proudly speaking out loud. Middle school students who struggle to regulate their focus in class are modeling proper focus to their younger buddies and guiding them thoughtfully and patiently. Kindergarteners who never read books at home are asking their parents to get them books and read with them. Young teens who typically only get excited about unstructured time with friends or the latest Justin Bieber song are excitedly sharing their success stories with the group in sharing time and on the bus. “My buddy read the whole book TO ME!” “My buddy made connections between the book we read and his own life experiences!” My eyes light up with theirs and my heart soars.

This past Monday was our last kindergarten visit of the year. The icing on the cake came in so many little packages, everywhere around the room – middle school students as real educators and real learners making education palpable and lasting. Mrs. L, who teaches the kindergarten class, shared that she recently heard of one of her students years ago who is now entering MIT. Whether they go to an Ivy League school or not, fostering a love of reading paves a very different path than a path without reading. Some, attempting to capture this painfully extreme gap, have referred to these two paths as “jail or Yale.”

To me, this is one of the meanings Hannah Senesh spoke about when she asserted, “blessed is the match” and it fills me with joy to see that instead of being consumed in the kindling flames, our students and our kindergarten friends are fueled and blessed with a bright, bright future.

Reform Day School Externship: The Business of Building JDS Advocates

By Ken Gordon
Re-posted from

At PEJE, we always stress the importance of two goals that align with our long-term vision: (1) community collaboration and (2) advocating strongly for the value of JDS. Turns out, we’re not the only ones who believe in this powerful combination of ideas. We’re excited to tell you about a superb capacity-building project: The Reform Day School Externship. Now in its fourth year, the externship is a model of collaboration of between PARDES: Day Schools of Reform Judaism, host member schools across North America, Hebrew Union College-­­Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and the Union for Reform Judaism (UJR).
The school-based experiential learning component of the externship is bringing 10 specially selected HUC-JIR students to The Rashi School in Dedham, Massachusetts this week, May 21-25.

“This externship fosters a network of emerging rabbis, educators, and cantors who are able to partner with their local day schools across North America because they understand the day school as an educational institution with unique, yet similar properties to a URJ member congregation,” says an enthusiastic Dr. Jane West Walsh, PARDES Executive Director and URJ Day School Specialist.

The externship week is packed with activity. As externs work with faculty in and out of classrooms; meet with board members, parents, faculty, and community leaders; as well as work carpool lines and help with lunch duty, they become participant-observers who bring their academic questions to the reality of Rashi’s Jewish learning and living culture. The externs will even attend the Rashi annual dinner in Boston, which will celebrate the school’s authentic commitment to social justice.

One of the best parts of this program is that when the externs head back to their HUC-JIR campuses in the fall, they will conduct programs for fellow students, faculty, and campus leaders about the contemporary Jewish day school from a Reform perspective. This will go a long way to spreading their insights about day schools to academic communities—and eventually to communities all over North America.

Dr. Matthew King, Rashi’s head of school, says that the externs’ presence at the Rashi dinner on Wednesday night will “enrich their understanding of the school’s values, culture, and history, and the role of fundraising”—an important component if HUC-JIR is going to produce savvy leaders who will likely have to deal with financial sustainability.

Walsh notes that the externship concept was the brainchild of Dr. Michael Zeldin, HUC-JIR Professor of Jewish Education, who was recently named National Director of the HUC-JIR Schools of Education. She adds that, on May 23, a group of Reform movement leaders including new URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs; URJ Senior Vice President, and Rashi parent, Rabbi Jonah Pesner; plus VIPs from of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the National Association of Temple Educators will be observing and engaging the activity at Rashi.

Walsh emphasizes that this a capacity-building project for the movement as a whole that will impact not only Reform day schools, but every day school that seeks to welcome Reform affiliated families. She also explains that PARDES, URJ, and HUC-JIR partners behind the externship believe this project will have a broad impact in the years ahead, especially if the program can continue to find funding.

Chances are that the externs will go on to make a strong case for Reform day school.

“The externs will begin to understand the language of day school life and the attraction day schools have for the families who choose them,” says Walsh. “Externs will become leaders who know how to advocate for day schools with knowledge and insight. They will be prepared to understand the differing assumptions and expectations of day school parents and graduates as they lead their congregations in years ahead.”

Meet the Externs

Next week Rashi will be hosting a group of students who are participating in the Reform Day School Externship, a joint program of HUC-JIR, URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) and PARDES: Day Schools of Reform Judaism. See Rashi to Host Reform Jewish Externship blog post.

An important goal for these future rabbis, cantors and educators is to understand the importance of Day Schools in Reform Judaism. Here is a glimpse of what two of the externs hope to learn during the coming week.

Lauren Furman, Cantorial student:

As a student on the brink of the professional world, I understand that there is more than one doorway into Judaism. It is my mission as a cantor to be an open door for those in my synagogue and surrounding community. It is apparent that many Jewish day schools serve as the primary center of Jewish life for families. How can clergy be a presence in those places that exist outside of the traditional synagogue setting? How can we be a meaningful, supporting presence in those surrounding Jewish communities, such as Jewish day schools? How can synagogues and day schools learn from each other and work together diplomatically to build relationships and community at large?

As I explored the Rashi school website, I opened up a kindergarten greeting video and heard a chorus of voices singing modeh ani. I watched a skit discussing becoming bar mitzvah, I read stories of eighth grade students connecting to their elders, maturing and growing as young adults. In each activity I saw or post I read, I saw Jewish engagement, Jewish knowledge, and Jewish values.

This externship will enable me to forge new dialogue, which I can carry back with me, to extend to those schools around my future synagogue, to hopefully work towards building a strong greater Jewish community. It will allow me as a future clergy person to be an open door, not only to those in my immediate community, but to those at large as well.

Ariel Boxman, Rabbinical-Education student:

As a child, I attended a Jewish day school where, for the first time in my lif,e I was surrounded by Jewish peers, exposed to Jewish subjects on a serious level and introduced to various types of Jewish traditions. Through this experience I developed a deep love for Judaism and a passion for Hebrew. Most importantly, I found my personal Jewish identity and I found myself.

As a future rabbi, I envision lifelong learning as a central component of my rabbinate. I yearn to learn more about the theory and application of curriculum within Jewish day schools and how the institutions are able to so successfully create a natural Jewish community within the student population. Further, I am interested in learning how to implement the strengths of the Jewish day school into the supplemental school model of the synagogue. Through this externship, I will have the opportunity to experience the Jewish day school from an adult perspective and gain a better understanding of the workings and intricacies associated with the realm of day school education.

Rashi to Host Reform Jewish Externship

By Rabbi Ellen Pildis, School Rabbi

During the week of May 21-25, The Rashi School will have the privilege of hosting a group of externs from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). This will be the fourth Reform Day School Externship, a joint program of HUC-JIR, URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) and PARDES: Day Schools of Reform Judaism.

As one of 17 Reform Jewish day schools in North America, Rashi is a member of PARDES, whose mission is to strengthen and increase Reform day school education.

This year’s externship will bring to Rashi six rabbinical students, two cantorial students, and two education students. They will participate fully in life at Rashi – observing classes, tefillot and special programs and meeting with professional and community leaders. The externs learn the potential of the day school experience for Reform Jews from the inside out.

An important goal is for these future rabbis cantors and educators is to understand the importance of Day Schools in Reform Judaism. They will return to their HUC-JIR campuses in the fall to create a learning program for the campus-wide community about Reform day schools, share what they learned, and interest the larger Reform student community who will become leaders of the Reform movement in caring about schools such as Rashi in deeper ways. The externs will also collaborate in a positive way with day schools in their future work with congregations across the country.

We will also be welcoming to Rashi that week a delegation of leaders of the Reform movement, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, and Rashi parent Rabbi Jonah Pesner, URJ Senior Vice President, as well as leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the National Association of Temple Educators. The delegation will be at the school on Wednesday, May 23, to visit classes, meet with the externs and Rashi parents and administrators, and attend the school’s Memorial Day program. In the evening, they will join the Rashi community at the school’s Annual Dinner at the Moakley Courthouse in Boston.

We look forward to welcoming the externs and URJ leaders. It is really an exciting opportunity for Rashi to have the opportunity to showcase teaching and learning at our school.