Jewish teacher education goes virtual


Above, left to right: Eileen Silver, Shoel Silver, Julia Koschitsky and Martin Lockshin, director of York’s Centre for Jewish Studies

Carrie Brodi, communications officer with the York University Foundation, sent the following article to YFile.

A Jewish day-school teacher in Australia submits a course assignment through an Internet portal in Toronto and receives a grade from a professor in Jerusalem. Such is the nature of a new and innovative online distance-learning program offered through York’s Centre for Jewish Studies, Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Education and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto Board of Jewish Education.

Still in the third year of its pilot phase, the highly successful program, called Merkaz i.t. L’Morim: Online Professional Development for Jewish Teachers, has already benefited more than 50 teachers from across Canada, the United States, England and Australia, many of whom don’t have real-time access to courses on Jewish education.

Program manager Joel Kurtz and director Alex Pomson recently demonstrated the interactive elements of the Mirkaz i.t. L’Morim Web site to Shoel and Eileen Silver, in a classroom at the Technology Enhanced Learning Building.

Right: Joel Kurtz

The Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto, through its Nathan and Lily Silver Family Education Fund, has made a gift to the York University Foundation in support of this new program. This gift reflects a desire on behalf of the Silvers and the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto to advance Jewish education both at home and abroad. Eileen and Shoel Silver are active workers in the Jewish community and Eileen was formerly president of the board of a Jewish day school.

“As volunteers, we are involved with educational institutions and the well-being of the Jewish community in general,” said Shoel Silver, “and as parents we are concerned with our own children’s education.”

Though expensive to produce and labour-intensive to maintain, online courses have tremendous global reach, Kurtz said.

“As the only University in the world to offer these courses,” said Paul Axelrod, dean of the Faculty of Education, “York is helping to connect an international network of Jewish teachers while providing other universities with a model of online Jewish education.”

Right: Paul Axelrod

Through the use of technology, teachers who do not have access to courses on Jewish education can improve their teaching skills, expand their knowledge base and keep abreast of developments in a wide range of fields within the Jewish education system. Among other interactive elements, the site allows students to discuss issues specific to Jewish education through a widely used discussion board. Courses currently offered include Methods of Teaching Bible and Early Childhood Education in a Jewish Context.

“The important aspect of this program,” said Pomson, “is that it is based in a university environment and is therefore subject to certain standards of excellence in teaching and research.” For quality control reasons, no more than 15 students are admitted to any of the four courses currently offered.

Future plans include expanding the number of courses offered from four to 12, with six available in any given semester. The centre hopes eventually to create an Accredited Advanced Jewish Teacher Certificate in Jewish Education and offer courses in different languages, starting with French. Private support of the program began with seed funding from the Israel-based L.A. Pincus Fund for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, and continues through the generosity of other interested donors.

As a gesture of thanks, Julia Koschitzky, Chair of the Advisory Committee for the Centre for Jewish Studies and a member of the York University Foundation Board of Directors, presented the Silvers with a set of books edited by York faculty members in the Centre for Jewish Studies. She attended the demonstration with her husband Henry Koschitzky.

“Thank you for placing your trust in us,” Martin Lockshin, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies, told the Silvers. “The great thing about York is that it allows people to achieve new things. With resources, anything is possible.”

For more information, visit the Mirkaz i.t. L’Morim Web site.