The Stars that Shine in Dark Times

By Miriam Heller Stern, Ph.D.
National Director, School of Education, Vice Provost for Educational Strategy, and Associate Professor of Education
January 25, 2024

Miriam Heller Stern

Finding light in the darkness: this theme emerged powerfully last week during the “One HUC” Delegation to Israel, a three-day experience in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv shared by a cohort of American and Israeli faculty, staff, and students from across all four campuses. We heard stories of loss and resilience, of despair and hope. Still deep in the traumatic fog of October 7th and the over 100 days since, it is impossible to predict what the future holds. As we met with families of the fallen and captive, and the spiritual leaders who rise to the occasion to organize, care, and comfort, it became clear that in the darkness, our relationships, connectedness, and collective wisdom are the stars that shine. As Sallai Meridor, Chair of the newly opened National Library of Israel, told our delegation about the treasured texts of the Jewish people, “Even if the canons have to fire, the muses won’t be silent … Even if we are in a terrible trauma, you can look in the collection and see how we went through it in the past. That’s the spirit of this place.”

As an educational historian who teaches about vision, I often find myself simultaneously viewing the world through the lenses of past and future. The futurist in me wants to predict that the Jewish people’s signature trends over millennia – resilience, adaptability, community, family, wisdom, faith, creativity – will aid us in prevailing against current threats. And yet the historian in me can’t help but hear the gentle mournful soundtrack of “Al naharot Bavel/by the rivers of Babylon we wept as we remembered Zion,” recalling the history of divisiveness, religious persecution, expulsion, forced migration, libels, and extermination over centuries. Both narratives of history and future are true, and are being felt very deeply now in Israel and by Jews around the world. We have not overcome every chapter of persecution the moment it has happened. And yet, we have powerful narratives of overcoming over time.

Which narrative will triumph in our times? What will be sacrificed? How will we evolve or be transformed? What elements can we empower ourselves to own and direct, and what obstacles are so deep and entrenched, we will just have to learn how to live through them? The presentist in me doesn’t know. I come back to Los Angeles from Israel treading water in a sea of questions, but buoyed by the relationships that strengthen Jewish peoplehood and resilience.

“Not knowing” can be an uncomfortable stance for an educator. Aren’t we supposed to have the answers? Aren’t we supposed to have it all planned out, backwards designed toward our vision and goals with every outcome aligned? Our colleague Dr. Sivan Zakai, Sara S. Lee Associate Professor of Jewish Education, has reminded us over the past few months the importance of sitting with questions and uncertainty, and distilling the values, fears, and hopes that motivate the questions. We have to live with knowing and not knowing. “Being present” between the past and the future is an opportunity to remind ourselves what we do know: what really matters to us. We can process our thoughts and feelings, coping and hoping, even if we can’t yet see the possible answers.

I was incredibly moved this Fall by our alumni’s steadfast willingness to be present for the School of Education. HUC announced that in 2026 we will sunset our residential Master of Educational Leadership program, the program for emerging career leaders that replaced the historic MAJE and MARE programs in LA and NY. Our one-year clergy education degree will run two more cycles, in 2024-25 and again in 2025-26, and will be replaced with program trajectories that are integrated into the seminary course of study. The announcement surfaced important questions from our alumni: without the MEdL program, will HUC, and the field, be able to recruit new talent to the early career stage of the pipeline for the broad spectrum of Jewish educational sectors that look to HUC for new professionals, especially congregations and independent learning programs? While the DeLeT programs continue to bolster the day school teaching profession, and the Executive MA program in Jewish Education successfully supports and advances midcareer leaders with a minimum of five years’ experience, how might we entice and support more students who demographically fit our classic graduate education programs?

It was not surprising that the questions about the program and the future unearthed deeper existential questions about the profession and the field. The challenges of talent pipeline, resources, professional status, working conditions, and communal priorities feel steep and widespread.

HUC will continue to play a valuable leadership role in elevating the field of Jewish education. The shape of our work will have to evolve, but the mission remains the same. We have a rich history. And we know that this moment in history demands a level of skill, wisdom, and nuanced leadership from Jewish educators that begs more adequate support and appreciation.

The School of Education team remains hopeful that over the next few years, we will be able to design a new and sustainable degree pathway for early career professionals that remains rigorous in academic and professional standards, strong on mentorship, and flexible enough to meet the demands of a changing labor force post-college and a shifting landscape of graduate education and seminaries. Both DeLeT and the EMA continue to be successful by conducting significant remote learning while also relying on relational cohort-building in immersive learning experiences in person. Perhaps in the future, we will be able to attract early career students in greater numbers to study at HUC with a similar formula. We may also evolve as a school by taking a more holistic approach to our structure, sharing more resources across programs, and creating more synergy across the seminary. Plans will need to be researched and designed within the broader context of HUC’s strategic decisions about the institution’s future.

This week we celebrated as two HUC School of Education faculty and alumni received the Distinguished Educator Honor from the Association of Reform Jewish Educators: Director of the Master of Educational Leadership program, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer ’95, Ed.D., MAJE ’94, and Executive MA in Jewish Education Clinical Faculty Member, Joy Wasserman, MAJE ‘81. Our Provost Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Ph.D. joined our School of Education leadership, alumni, and the Reform Jewish Educator community at the Annual Gathering of the ARJE and the ECE-RJ, presenting at the ARJE board meeting, teaching, and sharing reflections on Israel and Rabbi David Ellenson, z”l. Welcoming guests to the HUC-JIR reception she shared in the incredible spirit and connection of our movement’s professional associations. The leadership of ARJE and our dedicated alumni are partners in problem solving with the HUC School of Education leadership team. Knowing that we have a community of wise and committed colleagues who understand our history and have an eye on the future is a source of light. Several of our alumni wrote to me in the wake of the announcement, expressing their empathy that change is hard, and describing their faith in our team’s ability to find creative solutions. That kind of creativity has fueled resilience and imagination throughout the history of the Jewish people. It is our torch as we continue to pursue our sacred tasks in uncertain times.