Dr. Michael Zeldin, Professor of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, has been associated with HUC-JIR for 48 years, ever since he entered the first class of education students to study in the Year-In-Israel Program in 1973. Serving on the faculty since 1979, he has taught education, rabbinical, and cantorial, students, initially at the New York campus and since 1982 in Los Angeles. His guiding mission has been his profound belief that “Jewish educators touch lives, transform communities, and change the world by bringing Jewish values to life.”
Zeldin calculates that he has taught close to 600 education, rabbinical, and cantorial students over the years, and cites his colleague Dr. William Cutter in saying, “We at HUC are in a wholesale business – our graduates do the on-the-ground work to inspire and educate.” His mentorship has had a great impact on his students’ studies and careers, and he recounts that one student notably said, “When I face challenges, I ask myself, ‘What questions would Michael ask me?’”
Historically, Zeldin links three generations of his family’s vital connection to HUC-JIR: his father, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, the founding Dean of the Los Angeles campus in 1954 who later served Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, and founded Stephen Wise Temple and Milken Jewish Community School; and his daughter, Dr. Sivan Zakai, current Sara Lee Professor of Jewish Education, who is a pioneer in Israel education and has conducted longitudinal research about how children think and care about Israel that has never been done before in the Jewish community.
Looking back on his career at HUC, Zeldin recalls, “For 25 years I was part of the three-person core of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education (RHSOE), contributing my focus on day school education. My partners were the RHSOE Director, Sara Lee, who created the RHSOE’s course of study, secured the Wexner Foundation grant that transformed field work into mentored clinical education based on medical school internships, and also focused on interfaith education; and Dr. Isa Aron, who focused on congregational school education.” Together this team of three secured the Mandel Foundation grant that supported strategic initiatives, including the development of an alumni association, the funding of the Sara Lee Chair, the Experiment in Congregational Education, and Jewish Day Schools for the 21st Century, guiding day schools to become values-driven, which was later funded by the Avichai Foundation. Their work together led to Zeldin serving as the co-editor with Lee and lead author of Touching the Future: Mentoring and the Jewish Professional, the first and still most influential book about mentoring in the preparation of Jewish professionals.
Succeeding Lee, Zeldin served as RHSOE Director and Senior National Director of HUC-JIR’s Schools of Education for ten years. Describing himself as an “intrapreneur,” heworked with venture philanthropist Laura Lauder to create the Teach for America-inspired DeLeT Program, the first and only program in the U.S. to prepare Jewish day school teachers who hold state teaching credentials, now in its 20th year.
Zeldin led the Jim Joseph Foundation Education Initiative, a $15 million project that supported the redesign of HUC-JIR’s website in 2014, student scholarships, and the creation and launch of new programs, including the Executive M.A. in Jewish Education, the Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults, the Rabbinic/Education program for students in Cincinnati, and the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute. With Dr. Sam Joseph, he created and co-directed HUC-JIR’s Reform Jewish Day School Externship, co-sponsored by the URJ’s PARDeS, which brought over 100 rabbinical, cantorial, and education students to spend a week in residence at Reform Jewish day schools across North America. “This program has inspired future rabbis, cantors, and educators to advocate for Jewish day schools, and some of its participants have gone on to become educators and directors in day schools,” Zeldin notes.
An architect of the institutions of Jewish education, he was among the founders of PARDeS, the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, for which he was described as “the intellectual father of Reform day schools.” He also was one of the founders of the Network for Research in Jewish Education, the scholarly society of Jewish educational researchers, and later served as its Chair. He served as Visiting Professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and currently serves on the faculty of the iCenter’s Masters Concentration in Israel Education.
A prolific author, Zeldin has published on several important areas in Jewish education: the process of change, Reform Jewish day schools, integrated curriculum for Jewish day schools, Jewish educational leadership, and Jewish summer camps. Among his writings that are used most often in graduate programs in Jewish education are “Making the Magic in Reform Jewish Summer Camps,” “Integration and Interaction in the Jewish Day School,” and “Change in Jewish Education: Prescriptions and Paradoxes” (co-authored with Aron). He led the re-launch of Journal of Jewish Education, which he served as Senior Editor for a dozen years and established it as the premier scholarly and research journal in the field. His current research, funded by the Consortium of Applied Studies in Jewish Education and conducted with Dr. Lesley Litman, focuses on “Enduring Dilemmas” of Jewish educational leadership. In his role as Professor Emeritus he will continue to teach the leadership course for the Executive M.A. in Jewish Education and the RHSOE.
Zeldin is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, received his M.A. in Hebrew Education at HUC-JIR, and his Ph.D. in Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education from the University of Southern California.
Reflecting on the challenges of the past pandemic year, Zeldin acknowledges, “I have never worked harder. I had to redo courses with new platforms, and in the end was gratified to produce powerful and creative learning experiences for students.” He is ready for new adventures and is proud that the School of Education is poised to excel in new directions. “I want HUC-JIR to have a vital future. That’s how Reform Judaism and Judaism will flourish.”
As his grandfather, a Talmud scholar and Jewish educator, taught him, “to live is to learn, and to learn is to live.” He affirms, “I will continue to learn and use my knowledge for the field of education. My primary identity is a Jewish educator, and through my professorate I feel that I have made, and will continue to make, a difference in the world.”