Ira Schweitzer, director of education at Temple Sinai, is retiring from full-time synagogue education at the end of this month. He will be honoured at a June 22 Shabbat service.
After 24 years in the field – and four in community education – he has a lot of ideas about how things have changed and how they can be changed further to meet the changing needs of the Jewish community.
Schweitzer – a 60-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., with a social work degree and a doctorate in education – told The CJN he doesn’t believe supplementary schools will exist in their current form in the near future.
“I think we have to find other vehicles for keeping families and youth committed to Jewish growth, and that’s not necessarily going to be inside synagogue walls.”
At Temple Sinai, the congregational school, which has just under 200 students running from junior kindergarten through Grade 10, as well as leadership programs for grades 11 and 12, will continue, but it is “retrenching” and will have a smaller staff, he said.
Charlotte Koven, principal of the temple’s Hebrew and religious school, will be out of a job after 27 years at the school. Her position will no longer exist.
Part of the change, according to Schweitzer, is the result of an increase in children attending Jewish day school, as well as a decreased pool of children from the congregation. “Some have moved northward, and some of them are moving south of St. Clair.”
Schweitzer, who attended rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College for more than a year before changing career direction, believes that Jewish education has to start with “doing Jewish, and then finding out what made it Jewish.”
He said such an approach goes beyond tikkun olam. “I think if we want to teach Bible, we’ve got to go to Israel.”
Over the past few years, Temple Sinai has had eight shinshinim (young Israeli emissaries). Schweitzer said that bringing Israeli youth to the building is the “closest thing” to taking students to Israel.
“My philosophy of education is that less will be done in our synagogues and more will be done in the classroom of the world.”
He believes the job of Jewish educators is “to set up a lifelong Jewish learner.”
Parents have different expectations today, he noted.
“Twenty-four years ago, I had families expecting us to teach kids Hebrew, Bible, culture and history. Today, what we’re being asked to do is get a kid ready for bar mitzvah, give them a sense of belonging when they go into a sanctuary, and make them feel Jewish.”
A lot of the changes can be traced to the advent of technology, he believes. Students can get facts online and question why they have to listen to them in school, he said.
“I want to leave here knowing I’ve done everything I can to set youth and families up for lifelong Jewish learning,” Schweitzer said. After his retirement, he hopes to do some teaching, consulting and contract work.
Schweitzer said his biggest challenge has been “getting the congregant at large to understand why we think being Jewish is so important in the world today. We’re just another activity for a lot of people. It’s important because I believe all of us come from a structure of values and from a background of historic development, and our Jewish roots help us to seed ourselves for the future.”