Helping to Make Schools That Work: A Publisher’s Response to Jack Wertheimer

In the last couple months, you may have noticed Torah Aura Productions using a new mission statement: “Making success in Jewish education an achievable reality.”

We’re really excited about this new articulation of our mission because it so clearly sums up who we are and what we do. We’re in the business of helping Jewish schools succeed.

So it was with great pleasure that we read a new study from Professor Jack Wertheimer entitled Schools That Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Supplemental Schools. It’s an analytical look at Jewish schools that suggests a path towards success. (You can download the entire report by clicking here.)

With the help of a team of top-notch researchers and funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, Professor Wertheimer looks at ten excellent supplemental schools and draws out common elements that contribute to their success.

What is important about this study is that it affirms a truth stated too infrequently: that supplementary schools can succeed. Perhaps more importantly, Wertheimer identifies the elements that help define “success” in schools, offering suggestions for replicating the excellence that he and his team found.

The study presents six “noteworthy characteristics of good schools.” Good schools (1) work on building friendships and community, (2) go beyond teaching facts to allow students to work on meaning, (3) use experiential education, (4) actualize a clear vision, (5) value themselves and their students, and (6) involve not only students but their families. Wertheimer makes it clear that it takes “a combination of traits to forge a strong school.”

Because we’re invested in making success in Jewish education an achievable reality, we take these six characteristics very seriously. Wertheimer’s work has pushed us to ask some meaningful questions about our work. How can we help enable schools to actualize these characteristics in their own authentic way? In what ways do these principles inform the curricular materials we publish? What does it mean to be a publishing company whose mission is to help Jewish educators and teachers achieve success?

Cultivating a Nuturing Jewish Community

Wertheimer writes:

“The best schools intentionally develop a community among their students, staff, and parents. They begin with the assumption that learning cannot be separated from context, and that to a large extent the school’s most important message is embedded in the culture and relationships it fosters.”

It felt good to read this, because this is something we’ve always believed. It’s why virtually all of our materials are built to encourage hevruta study. It’s why we’ve published books designed to enable teachers to build learning communities, and it’s why we’ve been outspoken in our rejection of individualized self-guided “programmed instruction” in religious schools. Wertheimer’s research supports our belief that real Jewish learning is fundamentally and inextricably tied to Jewish community.

Many years ago, Professor Saul Wachs taught us that when one student quotes another student in a discussion a teacher can know that they really succeeded.

Here’s how it works in practice:

Being Torah is a text that challenges elementary school students to engage with the real biblical narrative. It’s a powerful approach to teaching Torah, but the real magic happens in its companion, the Being Torah Student Commentary. In every unit of the Student Commentary, students write down both their textual interpretation and the interpretation of one of their classmates. The teacher regularly writes everyone’s interpretations on the board and students then choose from among the wisdom of their classmates. Being Torah isn’t just a set of textbooks. It’s a curricular approach that integrates the notion that a classroom is a learning community.

We believe that curricular materials should be designed from the ground up to be used in the context of community, to enable teachers to foster relationships, and to empower students to see Jewish learning as something that must happen conversation.

Beyond Being Torah, all our materials emphasize hevruta learning, small group work, and the regular involvement of active learning that happens through interpersonal interaction. Our lifecycle text, The Circle of Jewish Life, centers on the collaborative creation of lifecycle events. Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter utilizes a teaching process involving constant collaboration and consultation to create an Israel experience in the classroom. (Yisrael Sheli, that does the same on a younger level.) Our heroes materials, Eizehu Gibor: Living Jewish Values, centers on small group and hevruta work to learn core values from Jewish heroes’ lives and words.

Wertheimer says that such community “attends to the needs of individual children, embraces them in an environment where they their classmates become good, often best friends…”

In Teaching Jewishly, we suggested the same thing:

“Torah both builds relationships and takes relationships. Being a teacher is an act of love (family or neighborly), and it comes with the responsibility to create friendships among your students.”

Engaging Judaism at a High Level

According to Professor Wertheimer,

“Good schools have developed a sophisticated curriculum that goes beyond rote learning, examining Jewish content so it ‘sticks’….Through class discussions and informal experiences, schools challenge students to analyze, evaluate, and compare texts, ideas and ethical dilemmas and encourage them to develop a personal relationship to religious questions.”

Our vision of excellent Jewish learning has always integrated a process we call “making meaning.” We think that when Wertheimer talks about “engaging Judaism at a high level,” he’s talking about enabling our students to make meaning.

Jewish education is not like math education. When you study math, you learn how to manipulate numbers, and how to apply equations and formulas and graphs to solve problems. The best math education encourages analysis and synthesis. Which formula will work best to solve this problem? How might I apply what I know about the volume of one container to figure out the volume of this bigger container, and which container might be better suited to a particular task?

Jewish education is different because it needs to go way beyond facts and skills, even high-level application of those skills. Simply teaching our students how to read Hebrew or how to parse a biblical text is not enough. We must challenge them to analyze the text, evaluate the text, and then internalize the text to the point that it affects their identity. Whereas the math student asks, “How can I use these facts and my skills to solve a problem?” our task is to get our students to ask, “What does this have to do with who I am as a human being?”

As creators of educational materials, we believe that this is a fundamental goal of Jewish education. What’s the point of knowing the prayers and how to chant them if you don’t know what they mean to you personally, or if you don’t think participating in services is worthwhile? What’s the point of knowing that kavod means respect if you’re not a respectful person?

Wertheimer says that this process is about developing a personal relationship to religious questions. Isa Aron calls it “owning our own texts,” and gives the example of learners who study liturgy and then develop their own siddur. Joseph Reimer talks about students who have ‘face-to-face’ encounters with texts and ideas, and who are taught to “seize the opportunity to enact their identities as Jews.” We call it “making meaning:

“It is the nature of these texts, and perhaps their profound magic, that many workable answers suggest themselves. In the end, the learner is forced to choose. It is this very act of choosing what the text means, of making it have meaning, which ferments the dialogue, forms the essence of the secrets revealed by the voice, and actualizes the drama of the experience.”

Our values materials are based on this principle, because understanding Jewish values is about struggling with ethical dilemmas so as to guide future behavior and personal identity. Start with an ethical dilemma. Let students work in small groups to work out their best possible solutions. Those solutions are shared, and then a series of primary sources portraying Jewish answers are present. Students decode these texts, voice their opinions, match them to their own solutions, and then make a choice as to the right answer. In the process they walk away with a clear understanding of one or more Jewish values. This methodology is behind virtually all of our values material: You Be the Judge, Mah La’asot, Bet Din, Body Ethics and Stories We Live By.

Our siddur curricula work in a similar way. They teach students how to perform a prayer, but also, they ask three questions: (1) What does this prayer literally mean? (2) What did this prayer mean to the rabbis and to our tradition? and (3) What does this prayer mean to me?

Most of our work has been involved in facilitating learners making their own meaning out of primary sources by empowering them to ‘analyze, evaluate, and compare texts, ideas and ethical dilemmas’ and then inviting them to choose its meaning as an act of ownership. This may be challenging for teachers, but it’s so fundamental to success in Jewish education that it cannot be ignored. For years, critics and competitors have accused us of making materials that were too hard to use, and they offered alternatives that were “easier” because they engaged in simpler learning. Wertheimer’s study is a validation of something we’ve always believed: Successful Jewish schools challenge their students to engage with their Judaism in deep and meaningful ways.

Create Opportunities for Students to Engage in Experiential Jewish Education

Wertheimer notes the value of experiential education in achieving success in supplementary schools:

“The experiential component, in tandem with formal learning, is vital, as it provides students with opportunities to live their Judaism and not only learn about it.”

Typically, formal and experiential (or “informal”) education are painted as opposing educational methodologies. Experiential education is what happens at camps, on retreats, and in special school programs. It involves fun, excitement, engagement, and projects. Formal education is what happens in the classroom, and involves chairs, blackboards, and… textbooks.

Torah Aura Productions has always rejected this dichotomy between books and experiental learning. The distinction is rarely as clear-cut as it is portrayed, and few classrooms (and certainly no good classrooms) are as purely “formal” as critics would have us all believe. Furthermore, we believe that formal and informal models of education are complementary, and Wertheimer agrees. He doesn’t simply jump on the bandwagon of experiential education, but instead suggests living Judaism and learning Judaism are part of the same equation, a “tandem” relationship.

We grew out of a fusion of camp, youth group, and school experiences. We firmly believe that a textbook can be the foundation for a good program and have regularly made use of this truth both in the books we design and the teacher’s guides we create to bring those words off the page. We believe that each classroom needs an experiential component in tandem with formal learning.

Recently we published a book called Active Jewish Learning that teaches,

“There is a whole lot more to teaching than telling! Learning is not an automatic consequence of pouring information into a student’s head. It requires the learner’s own mental involvement and doing. Explanation and demonstration, by themselves, will never lead to real, lasting learning. Only learning that is active will do this. What makes learning ‘active?’ When learning is active, students do most of the work. They use their brains… studying ideas, solving problems, and applying what they learn. Active learning is fast-paced, fun, supportive, and personally engaging. Often, students are out of their seats, moving about and thinking aloud.”

Wertheimer explains experiential Jewish learning:

“…participating in actual prayer, leading religious services, attending Shabbat retrats, engaging in activities to help the poor and needy, participating in programs that they may long remember and may stimulate them to explore questions of personal meaning.”

This may be the first time we disagree with Wertheimer, if only because we find his definition limiting. All of his “experiences” happen outside of the classroom. We firmly believe (and have created materials that enable) experiental learning as a classroom model as well. We don’t deny the need for extra-classroom experiences, but we don’t believe that a student’s experiental learning should be limited to them. As a result, we’ve begun creating teacher’s guides that aren’t just guides to teaching out of a book, but rather collections of programs and suggestions for integrating experiential learning with the texts and activities that live on the page.

A simple example: Our latest Israel textbook, Yisrael Sheli, has a couple of pages on “The Knesset.” We briefly describe the nature of Israeli elections. The teacher’s guide creates a simulated “third gradish” election where parties trade their “votes” for “power cards” and form a government. They might learn a few facts about Israel’s government in the book, but those facts are given the opportunity to jump off the page and become real learning experiences.

We regularly build major experiences into the materials we create. Some of our books like You Be the Judge are inherently programmatic experiences. The same is true of Torah Toons, Being Torah and Make a Midrash Out of Me.

Align all Their Efforts with School Goals

Wertheimer says that successful schools align their efforts with their goals. It is a common refrain in the report, perhaps because so many schools are out of touch with their goals, or perhaps because this element is so fundamental to school success. He explains:

“Good schools understand the need to align all their efforts with school goals… Effective school define a vision of their ideal graduate and the means they will develop to produce such students.”

Torah Aura says “Amen.”

Of particular interest is Wertheimer’s insistence not only on goals, but in efforts that align with those goals. We frequently hear from educators whose schools have clearly articulated visions. They can tell parents and colleagues and even students what it means to be a graduate. But they struggle when it comes to creating classrooms and curricula that are designed to effectively achieve those goals.

There is also a problem when schools try to accomplish too much, or adopt goals that are unclear. Unfortunately, the educational publishing field hasn’t helped this problem. Wertheimer complains, “Commercial publishers have muddied the waters by producing textbooks that purport to meet all of these goals (both modern Hebrew Language and Siddur Mastery).” We applaud this complaint. We make a clear distinction between our siddur materials (Journeys Through the Siddur, S’fatai Tiftah, and Pirkei T’fillah) and our Hebrew language material. We are sorry that other publishers don’t.

We have always made sure that educators and teachers have a clear understanding of both the educational vision and the learning goals of each of our products so that they can write them into their school or classroom curriculum. We also believe that schools should pick curricular materials that fit their own goals, not goals set by us. We don’t believe that every one of our products is right for every school, and that’s why we develop new products only after consulting with lots of “on the front lines” educators about how new materials might be best constructed to fit their needs.

An example: A few years ago, schools came to us and expressed frustration that there were no materials available that helped them to teach the complete structure of the service. In our previous siddur materials (and in materials offered by other publishers), each section of the service was set up to be taught in a different year, with a student studying the entire service over the course of three years. While this works in many schools, we learned that the structure didn’t meet the needs of schools who placed importance on teaching the service as a complete unit. Journeys Through the Siddur addressed that need, and we now offer schools the opportunity to choose siddur materials that help them to achieve the goals they set out for themselves.

Furthermore, in working with schools that successfully put vision into practice, we’ve tried to do the same thing as a publishing company. When we explore the possibility of creating a new product, our first question is not one of marketability, sales figures, or customer demand. Rather, we ask ourselves, “Will these materials help schools succeed at the task of enabling Jewish children to become empowered Jewish adults?” We hope that being a vision-driven publisher helps us to better serve vision-driven educational institutions.

We are committed to constantly defining a vision for our own materials and we have the resources to consult, enable, and assist a school with its visioning and curricular process. We have also published key resources for this process: What We Now Know About Jewish Education and The Family Education Case Book are just two examples.

Value Themselves and Their Students

Wertheimer says that “good schools value themselves and their students.” He clarifies that successful supplementary schools honor students (and effect discipline) “by attending closely to the needs of individual children and engaging them with compelling material.” He isn’t explicit on this front, but from his many examples it seems clear by implication that schools who value their students don’t waste time with busy work and hokey activities, don’t place the needs of teachers over the needs of students, and don’t treat school like it is just training that students have to suffer through.

We have taught teachers,

“The bottom line is that Jewish teachers represent God in their classrooms; they speak for God. Just as God deals with difficult individuals who have free will, so does the teacher. Just as God often has to try again and give second chances, so do teachers. And remember this: No matter how difficult, no matter the struggle, teachers are not in the classroom to teach their own message; they are there to bring Torah—God’s word.”

A good example of this is our siddur materials that respect students, respect teachers, and respect schools in the way they present content. We k’velled when we Wertheimer mentioned the use of our materials in his report,

“The two teachers work…with workbooks and materials from S’fatai Tiftah: Siddur Meaning and Mastery produced by Torah Aura Productions. The teacher adeptly connects the root words that the students read to one another (i.e. Kadosh and Kiddush)…The children are engaged and the words are connected to meaning immediately for them.”

This respect for students as competent learners is replete in out material. Wertheimer is observing a classroom where students aren’t doing word-search puzzles or coloring. They feel respected because they’re engaged in real learning.

(Wertheimer also takes this opportunity to mention the importance of teachers who are qualified to do a good job of teaching material of this depth. We share his concern, and will address it below.)

Families as Allies and Also Clients

Wertheimer’s final characteristic involves engaging parents. He explains, “In this sense, schools still have a mission to engage parents and not only children.” As Carol Starin says:

“BJL Beginnings is based on a simple truth. The more you link with parents, the greater the impact your teaching will have. This curriculum provides parent opportunities in each lesson, as well as folders designed specifically for parents.”

Torah Aura Productions understands families as partners in the Jewish education of their children.

We have published books about family education, Jewish Parents: A Teacher’s Guide and The Jewish Family Education Casebook. We have published books for families like 40 Things You Can Do to Save the Jewish People. And we have published materials with family components like Alef Celebrations, BJL Beginnings, and Drops of Honey (our pre-school curriculum). Also, Ot la-Ba’ot and Tiyulim (our Hebrew primers) come with home workbooks and interactive websites that empower parents to study along with their students.

In truth, this is an area with much room for improvement. Educators frequently tell us that there is a lack of good resources for family education. We agree. We’re working hard to meet that need, and to help enable this particular element of school success.

There is a Scarcity of Teachers

Wertheimer has a section on “intractable challenges that are endemic to the field.” In it, he points out the problems presented by the scarcity of qualified teachers. This is not a new phenomenon. Wertheimer discusses the challenge in two different ways:

• “There is a scarcity of teachers well-versed in Hebrew and Judaica who have the skill to transmit their knowledge to students.”

• “While ample curricular materials are available to schools…the real challenge lies in implementing them properly in the classroom.”

We take this problem very seriously. Anyone involved in Jewish education knows that staffing a school entirely with wonderful teachers is virtually impossible (no matter where you are). There are essentially two choices (as expressed in the title of a mediocre 1967 Jerry Lewis movie) “raising the bridge” and “lowering the river.”

Many of the other publishers believe in “lowering the river.” They see the same problem we do, that most teachers are ill-equipped to do a good job of teaching Hebrew and Judaica. So they lower the level of their materials to meet the needs of sub-par teachers. They advertise their materials as “easy to teach” or “teachable by anyone.” We believe this is code for “dumbed down.” It reduces what students learn and reduces the kind of experiences they can have in the name of protecting the teachers by making their lessons simple and boring.

In stark contrast, Torah Aura believes in teachers. We believe in their potential. We believe in their dedication. Our commitment is to empower teachers success through the materials we design, through the teacher supports we create, through the teacher education books we publish, and — most importantly — through the free teacher education we provide. We are absolutely prepared to work with any teacher teaching any of our material. We are prepared to help with Judaica, with pedagogy, and most of all with insights into our material and strategies with which other teachers have found success. We have more than 25 years of experience in working with schools to achieve success, and we put every bit of that experience to work when we help teachers. In the last year, we worked face-to-face with teachers from over 100 schools, and we used phone conferences, webinars, and e-mail to work with many more. The solution to the problem of unqualified teachers isn’t to dumb down the material. The solution is raising up teachers, qualifying them to create effective magic in the classrooms. Our materials are designed to that end, and we spend countless hours on the road and on the phone to make success a reality.

Believing in teachers means giving teachers choices. It means not scripting them. It requires ecouraging them to bring themselves into the classroom and it means inviting them to respond to their students, to teachable moments, to the dynamic of the classroom process. As we’ve said before,

“Jewish tradition believes in teachers. It sees teachers as rich (not mechanical) enablers of individualization and personalization. Teachers allow lessons to go off on tangents, listen to student needs, and take advantage of the moment. Teachers can appreciate and celebrate, understand and empathize…Not every teacher is ideal, but teachers are our ideal.”

In Conclusion…

We’re grateful to Professor Wertheimer for his important contribution to the field of Jewish education. As we said from the outset, perhaps its most important contribution is the notion that supplementary schools can succeed, and that there are some really good schools out there. We’ve always believed this, and we continue to. We think of ourselves as cheerleaders for good schools and also as teammates. We believe in your school’s success, and we want to be a part of it.


Aron, Isa. Becoming a Congregation of Learners: Learning as a Key to Revitalizing Congregational Life. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2000.

Grishaver, Joel. “The Technology of Making Meaning, A Systematic Inquiry into the Task of Enabling the Teaching of Jewish Texts,” (monograph) Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 1988.

—. “Thinking About Teacher’s Guides”, TAPBB, 2004. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions.

—. Teaching Jewishly. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 2007.

—. “Self-Paced, Point & Click: The Jewish Problem with Programmed Instruction,” TAPBB, March, 2009. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions.

Reimer, Joseph. Succeeding at Jewish Education: How One Synagogue Made it Work. Philadelphia: JPS, 1997.

Silberman, Mel and Silberman, Shoshana. Active Jewish Learning: 57 Strategies to Enliven Your Class. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 2009.

Starin, Carol Oserin. BJL Beginnings Teacher’s Guide. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 2003.

Wertheimer, Jack. Schools that Work, What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Supplementary Schools, New York: Avi Chai, 2009.