Forget those athletes who rake in the millions, or the actors who are revered by a celebrity-adoring culture. The true heroes of a community are those who can ignite a child's mind and touch his soul. They are also known as ... teachers.
In 1998, a critical shortage of trained teachers existed in the region's supplemental Hebrew schools. So to address this need, TeacherLink was launched. This pilot program was the result of a proposal made by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for a comprehensive teacher recruitment and training effort. TeacherLink was the first program of its type in the Greater Philadelphia area, and was successful from the time of its inception.
In its first year of operation, there were more than 250 inquiries, and 145 registrations from people available to teach on the program's database. During its inaugural year, 82 men and women completed the training courses that qualified them to become classroom teachers; by 1999, close to 100 percent of the area's supplemental schools opened with a full complement of teachers. TeacherLink was clearly an idea whose time had come.
"We're all very proud of this program," said Dr. Miriam Spector, director of Teacher Recruitment at ACAJE and a passionate supporter of TeacherLink. "We have the support and cooperation of synagogues, schools and the organized Jewish community," said Spector, who points with justifiable pride to the universal positive feedback the recruitment and training program has garnered.
Helene Tigay, executive director of ACAJE, applauds the philosophy of the training, which emphasizes active learning.
"Children are not receptacles who get 'fed' information," said Tigay. "The teachers we recruit and train understand that a child must get meaning from a supplemental-school experience for it to have value."
Both Tigay and Spector also emphasize that the skills involved in teaching young people can be learned and mastered by motivated people who are inspired by discovering this new skill in themselves.
Just ask Alan Luxenberg, who took on the challenge of classroom teaching after he was intrigued by promotions he saw suggesting "Become a Jewish Hero!" At age 49 -- after immersing himself in a 10-week orientation and then taking specialized courses in various subjects -- he entered his first classroom, and has never looked back.
For Luxenberg, vice president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, teaching is the Holy Grail -- the way to make a difference and master the cornerstones of good teaching, which he defines as "planning, organization, imagination and passion."
"How to move our students to live life more Jewishly, how to make them thirst for more knowledge and understanding -- these are the questions that every teacher must eventually turn over in his mind," suggested Luxenberg during a sermon he delivered at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park several years ago, titled "Why I Became a Jewish Hero."
Luxenberg will be the first to tell you that the courses he took through ACAJE in classroom management were invaluable, but that his best teachers turned out to be " ... rambunctious, hormone-crazed adolescents" who reminded him during his first semester of teaching that in many ways, when you become a teacher, your students are often your guides.
'An Unbelievable Opportunity'
For Lannie Hulnick, whose "day job" is as the senior project coordinator of the Kehillah of Delaware County, a Jewish Federation Community Collaborative, teaching was a natural outgrowth of her love of kids.
"I'm just very comfortable with young people, especially teens," said this 31-year-old, who feels a great pull to instill a sense of Jewish identity in younger people. "I feel it deeply myself, and I want to share it. "Teaching makes that happen."
By taking several professional-development training sessions through ACAJE, Hulnick felt that she had increased her skills.
"I obtained tools and techniques that I was able to use in the classroom," said this enthusiastic young woman who sees Hebrew-school teaching as " ... an unbelievable opportunity to have an impact on the future Jewish generations."
Today, Hulnick is teaching in Chester County's Gratz Hebrew High School program, and has dealt with what some regard as the most challenging age group: eighth- through 12th-graders.
But she sees it otherwise.
"I felt quite prepared because of my training, and because I truly enjoy this age. I feel connected to these kids. I understand their culture," said this gratified Hebrew teacher, who insists that her students call her "Lannie."
"I think it puts us on a more equal footing, and gives all of us a better experience. I want my students to leave my classes loving Judaism, and loving the learning experience on the way."
Rosalind Holtzman has combined several lifetimes into one. She's been a nurse for both children and adults, has taught childbirth education and, for the past several years, has become a local superhero in the Jewish community by teaching fifth grade Hebrew and Judaica at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park.
"I came up through the 'farm system,' " said Holtzman, using the baseball metaphor of the odyssey to the major leagues.
"About six years ago, Rita Siegel, Kol Ami's director of education, suggested that I consider ACAJE's TeacherLink program. Two years later, I finally decided to do it."
The main motivation?
"I'm passionate about Judaism, and its deep sense of joy and hope," she replied. "I love our religion's ability to foster a meaningful, just and compassionate life."
Admittedly not as conversant as she wanted to be about the religion, Holtzman had already taken courses at the Reconstructionist College and at Gratz to close the gap. However, she had no formal teacher training until her TeacherLink experience.
And while she acknowledges that there's no substitute for experience, she emphasizes that the training she received through TeacherLink provided the skills she needed to get out there and test her new wings.
The TeacherLink program at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education operates year-round.
There is also a summer professional-development series for new teachers or those seeking some additional training in managing a classroom.
These sessions run on Aug. 27 and Aug. 28 for "Newish Jewish" teachers, with the focus on how to set up a classroom and other related topics.
On Aug. 28 in the afternoon, there will be a session on teaching arts, music and drama.
On Aug. 29 and Aug. 30, there will be workshops for teachers on enhancing the teaching of the Hebrew language.
Stipends will be available for those who complete the coursework and go on to teach within 12 months.
For more information about the TeacherLink program, call 215-635-8940, Ext. 1224.