Another Jewish Educational Organization Fades Quietly Away

American Jewish education has never been able to put enough qualified educators into its schools and classrooms. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the problem was often Jewishly knowledgeable individuals who didn’t know the first thing about pedagogy. Today, it is just as often teachers who know how to teach but lack content knowledge.

In the 1940’s an attempt was begun to “license” Judaic teachers and principals. As was often the case in the 20th century, the leaders of Jewish education looked to public education for models of successful educational practice. Of course in the pre-World War II generation, teachers of Judaics were, in fact, teaching. At a time in which belonging to a Jewish family and a Jewish community was a given, and often Jewish practice and culture permeated both, the school was really a school.
This effort towards licensure and credentials was largely carried out by rabbinical seminaries such as Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Yeshiva University, each of which established programs for the training of professional teaches of Hebrew and Judaic studies. That era was also the heyday of Hebrew teacher training programs offered at institutions that included Gratz College, Chicago’s College of Jewish Studies, Hebrew Teachers’ College of Boston, and Herzliah Hebrew Teachers Institute, among others.
Along the way, these many institutions banded together to form an association and, at the same time the National Board of License was founded to try to add some order to the chaos around educational credentials. The Board worked along two dimensions: serving as a hechsher for the teacher training institutions, and licensing those individuals (myself included) whose credentials were obtained in a number of places, some of them outside of the particular teacher training institutions.

The Board — by which I was licensed as both a teacher and principal, and on which I served as a member — is the latest fatality of the reorganization (or de-organization) of American Jewish Education taking place these days. For over sixty years, the NBL tried to impose order on a disorderly playing field. From where I sit, it had some modest achievements in its day.

Ultimately, its demise might be traced to three realities:
  1. It was never successful in convincing national organizations, or most synagogues and day schools that licensure was so important that funds should be budgeted to support teachers seeking licenses, or to provide salary differentials for those who had achieved it.
  2. No research was ever conducted to show that students learned better if they were taught by those with teaching licenses.
  3. The Jewish community changed, and Jewish education changed with it. No longer was the principal or teacher the conveyor of Jewish knowledge. S/he was now also charged with being its salesperson. Further, the target of Jewish education moved from being the student in the school to the entire family. Licensure based solely on classroom pedagogic practice simply wasn’t up for that challenge.

So, we move into the 2010 year looking back on a year of casualties, from CAJE to a number of central agencies for Jewish education, and now, National Board of License.

“To everything there is a season” indeed is true. And some new initiatives have come into play as first steps towards an emerging picture of what Jewish learning might look like in this century. The Jewish camp movement is seeing a resurgence of interest, Jim Joseph Foundation has pumped funds and potentially new life into some of the institutions trying to develop new teachers, and the new generation of teachers and principals entering the field seem to be better trained for the varied roles that their jobs will entail in the years ahead.

So, it’s out with the old and in with the new. Let’s salute the decades of work and achievements of National Board of License, and put our heads together to figure out what the needs of the field are today and how we will go about meeting them.

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