Jewish teaching bolstered

Jewish teaching bolstered McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 8, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 12
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 8, 2001 > Jewish teaching bolstered

Jewish teaching bolstered

McGill's commitment to training teachers for Jewish schools got a million-dollar boost recently from benefactor Leanor Segal.

Segal hopes that by enriching the training of Jewish teachers and making the profession more attractive to the community's best and brightest, the quality of teaching in Jewish high schools will improve and more young people will be attracted into the profession.

This, in turn, should improve the chances that students attending Jewish primary school will carry on to Jewish high schools. At the moment, many switch to non-Jewish schools.

Her gift to the Department of Jewish Studies will provide the cornerstone for the budding McGill University Institute for Jewish Education, slated to open in September 2002. In the interim, the money will be used to support the existing Jewish Teacher Training Program in the Faculty of Education. Jewish Studies and Education will continue to collaborate once the institute sets up shop.

The Jewish Teacher Training Program grants a bachelor of education degree, which includes general and Jewish studies, allowing the graduate to teach in either a parochial or secular school. The institute will continue to grant that degree as well as offering a new master's program.

Education professor Eric Caplan, director of the JTTP, was elated by the news of Segal's gift, for the program was facing a crisis in financing. Founded in 1973 with the support of the Jewish community, JTTP has fallen on hard times as fewer and fewer students enrolled and interest in supporting it dwindled.

Paradoxically, while education is highly valued by the Jewish community, teachers are less so.

"The community has to reverse the idea that 'he's only a teacher,'" said Professor Gershon Hundert, chair of Jewish Studies and holder of the Leanor Segal Chair, the product of a previous gift by Segal and her husband, Alvin Segal. "Two generations ago, a teacher commanded respect."

Segal, for her part, is concerned by what she calls a "pediatric" approach to teaching Jewish topics in some high schools. She attributes much of this to a pronounced shortage of teachers equipped with the training to make Jewish course material come alive.

"Because of the shortage, most people [high school students] don't get the kind of education they should get when they're old enough to understand, analyze and philosophize... There's a bounty of knowledge that hasn't been accessible."

With Segal's gift, Caplan, a former high school teacher of Jewish studies, is keen to increase enrolment in the program. It currently admits and graduates an average of five students per year. He believes that one of the reasons some Jewish students opt for the general bachelor's program in education, rather than the JTTP, is their fear of not being able to master Hebrew in four years, a requirement for teaching in elementary school.

Now, however, the program has the means to offer enrichment courses, such as supplementary Hebrew classes. "Being able to offer enriched activities will allow us to do an even better job," said Caplan.

While graduates of the JTTP are guaranteed a job and their choice of city -- this year, there were 400 job openings and only 50 graduates in all of Canada and the United States, noted Hundert -- the lure of sure employment isn't enough to attract many CEGEP students.

For that reason, part of the Leanor Segal Endowment for Jewish Education will go to recruiting, both in CEGEPs and high schools.

"Some are turned off by the Hebrew, but others just don't think about the program," notes Caplan, adding that he "could take 25 students every year and graduate 25."

To convey the message that students in the Jewish Teacher Training Program have nothing to lose and much to gain, he has taken out two big ads in the Dawson (College) Plant newspaper highlighting that the program qualifies teachers to teach both general studies and Jewish studies.

Caplan thanks Segal for "having assured [the program's] presence at McGill." Subsequent to her gift, the Faculty of Education was able to open up a permanent budget line for the program. Speaking at last Monday's reception for Segal, Dean of Education Ratna Ghosh noted that not only will the future Institute for Jewish Education train teachers for Montreal's 22 Jewish schools, it will attract students from across the country and beyond. York University is the only other Canadian university to prepare teachers for Jewish schools.

All of which makes Caplan optimistic about the future of Jewish teacher training, both at McGill and in North America. Noting that the Jewish community is responding to the teacher crisis in Jewish education through such foundations as the Covenant Foundation and Avichai, he hopes to secure funding for master's fellowships and for recruitment from both.

"Leanor Segal's gift is well timed because it comes at a time when there is more attention focused at the community level on the shortage of teachers. What Mrs. Segal did was an amazing thing. It has transformed our position completely."

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