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Master’s degree in Jewish education – a game changer

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“For more than 80 years as a community, we have sent into battle our motivated teachers, rabbis, rebbetzins, and adult educators relatively unarmed and untrained. Tonight, that changes.”

So said Rabbi Ramon Widmonte at a historic graduation ceremony held online last Wednesday, 17 February. The event celebrated the first-ever cohort of candidates for the master’s degree in Jewish education in the history of South Africa’s Jewish community.

“We have been driven by one simple question,” said Widmonte, the co-founder and dean of The Academy of Jewish Thought & Learning. “Without outstanding trained educators, how can the South African Jewish community sustain itself or thrive? They are our lifeblood.

“In 1940, the Cape and Transvaal Boards of Jewish Education proposed a merger, driven by a desire to build a teachers college for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. That merger, had it materialised, would have changed our school system and rabbinate, but it fell through.”

The degree offers the opportunity to rectify this, Widmonte said, with the academy creating the country’s only symposium for Hebrew and Jewish Studies educators. Through its adult and environmental education programmes and educator training, the academy has reached about 6 000 students in South African and almost 15 000 worldwide.

“Our graduates come from around the country, representing major Jewish schools, educational organisations, and shuls,” Widmonte said. “We’ve helped rabbis, rebbetzins, and adult educators get to the top of their game.

“Our community has such a powerful message. To deliver that message in the 21st century, we need our educators to be equipped with the best training. There is no reason our maths and science teachers should be best equipped but those who man our pulpits and classrooms should have no such options.”

Widmonte, Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, and other guest speakers paid tribute to the graduates.

“We are celebrating teachers but also excellence in teaching, dedicating ourselves to making sure that the way that we teach is the best possible,” said Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the deputy president of the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) with which the academy has partnered to make the programme possible.

“Education is our lifeblood, and has kept our people going for 3 000 years. For you to dedicate yourselves to teaching and making sure that it’s of the highest quality is work of the highest order. It is a service to G-d and to the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Raphael Zarum, the dean of the LSJS, stressed that the qualification is not a mere piece of paper but a tool with profound implications.

“It professionalises the field of Jewish education,” he said. “This masters turns you into shapers of Jewish education instead of doing what has always been done. It allows you to read, learn, reflect, choose, and grow.

“Our students and community members can get a better education,” Zarum said. “We can learn from experiences around the world, from our own experiences, sharing ideas with each other. We can make decisions based on evidence and knowledge.”

Of course, passion and a love of Jewish people is fundamental, but “when you couple that with systematic thinking and professionalism, Jewish education becomes unstoppable”, he said.

“That was the idea of this master’s degree. You have raised it in South Africa to a level I couldn’t possibly imagine.”

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