Believe It: A Madrikhim Program That Works!

Walk into Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, CA on any given school day, and you’ll find a committed group of madrikhim helping to create a magical school environment. Here’s how it works.

by Leah Zimmerman

Recently, a teacher on our staff and veteran Jewish educator sat down in the chair across my desk and said, “I don’t think you know what you have here, but you’ve created a team of teachers and madrikhim who really work together and it is making a big change around here.”

We are four months into the year and I volley between thinking, “Of course it’s working,” and, “I can’t believe it’s working.” As I walk through classes each day, I see small groups of students huddled around a teenager, teens working one on one with students, and teens running icebreakers or Hebrew games in the classroom while the teacher watches. I see teachers and madrikhim planning together discussing student needs and making plans for future lessons. There is a growing dynamic energy throughout our school as the social capital increases. We are spending resources to build relationships and as a result, we are seeing more relationships develop and influence the learning environment.

Each class has a lead teacher and at least two madrikhim. Having recently trained for their own b’nai mitzvah all these madrikhim bring a knowledge of Hebrew, familiarity with prayer, and a familiarity with our community to the classroom. Most of them have attended Jewish camps or been involved with BBYO and bring the energy of Jewish experiential learning to their work in the classroom.

One of the madrikhim in each classroom is a high school student who has worked with us at least a year and has proven that s/he is reliable, committed and effective in the classroom. We call these madrikhim our senior madrikhim and compensate them for the time they spend in the classroom. These more experienced madrikhim, especially the 10th -12th graders take on certain teaching responsibilities and demonstrate for our newer madrikhim how to be effective in the classroom.

The other madrikhim in the classes are newer to our staff; they are 8th graders, or new high school students who are working for community service credit, the mitzvah of it, and the possibility of becoming one of our paid madrikhim. This year’s 8th graders have brought an energy and excitement into each of the classes in our school. We have been very lucky to have such an enthusiastic group of madrikhim who are also wonderful at working with children. We launched them into the year with a specific training session, and they have done exceptionally well.

We also have two classes with college interns working with us as co-teachers, modeling for our madrikhim Jewish engagement during the college years and how one transitions from being a teen madrikh/ah to being a teacher. They lead parts of lessons, lead group learning, and substitute when the teacher is absent. We plan to increase the number of college interns next year.

The goal of this program has been multifold. Initially it grew out of the observation of how challenging it is to find qualified teachers in our area and that many of our own students and madrikhim were knowledgeable, interested and underused in the classroom. Having more madrikhim has enabled us to have more small group work and more individualized instruction as well us more opportunities for students to make meaningful social connections with older students. With all the additional madrikhim help, we have been able to reconstruct the relationships in the classroom from a classroom with one teacher directing students to a classroom with a lead teacher coordinating a group of teachers. By having all these layers of modeling (our teachers model adult Jewish engagement for our teens, our teens modeling Jewish engagement for the students, the college students model the transition from teen involvement to adult responsibility, our older teens model effective madrikhim techniques for our newest madrikhim) we have created a more nuanced and dynamic social structure in the classroom.

So far, it’s working, but I still can’t believe it.

Leah Zimmerman is Beit Sefer Principal at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, CA and directs the children’s learning program at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles. She has worked in formal and informal Jewish contexts as a mentor, teacher, education director, and tutor, integrating Jewish learning with the arts and family and community education.

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