European Jewish Educators Take Stock, Plan for the Future

At a time when various crises roil Europe, the theme of this year’s Arachim Conference, “Challenges and Solutions,” was markedly resonant among the continent’s Jewish educators who gathered in Warsaw for the annual confab.

More than 80 Jewish school principals and educators representing 20 European countries traveled to the Polish capital for Arachim’s seventh biannual conference, dedicated this year to exploring difficulties facing Jewish schools and forging solutions from a pan-European perspective. The conference was organized by the European Council of Jewish Communities (ECJC) and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with the support from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

European Jewish educators and schools face the need today to provide quality, innovative, diverse, and inclusive educational platforms in an effort to bring Jewish education into the twenty-first century, often in places where there is just one Jewish school available. At the same time, they are working in environments hard hit by financial troubles and anti-Semitism. To that end, panel sessions not only focused on sharing best practices, but prioritized “what if” scenarios to explore varied approaches to problem solving and to demonstrate that many issues can be overcome no matter the constraints Jewish schools in Europe may face.

Resilience programming was therefore a central theme at Arachim and made possible through the generous support of UJA-Federation of New York. To kick off the conference, Dr. Shiri Daniels from the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC) made the keynote presentation on responding to crises. She then chaired a session with colleagues from Athens and Paris looking at how their communities were responding to the ongoing challenges in their communities. Dr. Daniels also led practical workshops on how educational professionals can deal with a crisis at schools.

“Arachim shows us that the realities, the needs, and challenges of Jewish schools in Europe are the same. They might be expressed in different languages, but only by bringing together professionals from diverse schools and cities, we can create discussion spaces where the solution is created together. Even the chance of meeting new peers inspire these professionals to go back to their work place with an enriched vision and new willing on how they can improve their schools,” said Mariano Schlimovich, Director of ECJC.

While in Warsaw, participants took advantage of the emphasis and opportunity to interact with the local Jewish community. One evening focused on visiting the city’s new JCC – a project of JDC – and sampled the wide range of programs that link Jewish schools with the JCC, an important model for developing programming. On the last morning, Warsaw’s Lauder Morasha School opened its doors to attendees where they met students – who gave them tours of the school – and were given an address by the principal to learn about the challenges the school faces.

These visits were a powerful antidote to the grim view of Poland held by many in the Jewish world that the country is simply a heritage site associated with the tragic murder of Poland’s Jews in the Holocaust. In fact, at the group’s visit to POLIN, the new museum of Polish Jewish history, the theme of contemporary Jewish identities and their link to the past as well, as the resilience with which new post Holocaust communities have emerged and grown, were prominent.

“Jewish schools in Europe face common challenges. Arachim provides an opportunity to learn from diverse schools and communities how they respond to these challenges.  Thinking about other, often better, solutions than those we regularly employ is the best way to grow and improve,” said Josh Spinner, Executive VP & CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

The conference also drew key global institutions dealing with Jewish education, including Centropa, Beit Hatfutsot (Israel), Yad Vashem (Israel), the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and speakers like Nic Abery, Director of Look to Learn, and artist Jacqueline Nicholls, among others. The program was coordinated by leading Jewish education expert Alastair Falk from the UK.

“Jewish schools and educational professionals are often at the heart of European Jewish life and Arachim emphasized the importance of developing more resilient Jewish school environments in the face of major challenges in Europe. By learning about different approaches to resilience, the school professionals who gathered in Warsaw learned they too can play a greater role in contributing to collective efforts of Jewish communities to create a stronger sense of belonging, engagement, and safety,” said Diego Ornique, Director of JDC in Europe. Following those themes, JDC staff expert Mario Izcovich led a session on robustly engaging teenagers at Jewish schools and helped co-direct the conference.

Following Warsaw, the next gathering for this cohort is a trip to Helsinki in March to learn from practitioners and schools in what many consider the best educational system in the world.

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