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Focus on Scott Kaplan (Cohort 7)

Shalom Aleichem!

I write this with a knot in my stomach.  I'll tell you about that in a minute.

In the last three years since graduating with Cohort 7 (the best cohort...!), I have been privileged to teach Judaics and Hebrew at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, Texas - a 6 through 12 community school.  In my first year I taught 8th grade, and for the last two years I have been teaching 6th grade.

Emery/Weiner is a young institution, and it has been exciting to be a part of a school that is actively and openly working to determine and develop its particular culture, hashkafa, and curriculum.  This year, we introduced an in-depth study of the Siddur as a new element of the sixth grade curriculum.  This has helped to ground sixth grade Judaics in more text-based learning, and it has been a real highlight for me to see the students working in their Siddurim and using text skills to make meaning out of the words.  It has also shown me that the Siddur is a text that can be studied, analyzed, and mined for meaning as much as a perek from Mishna or Tanakh.

Another exciting development at school this year has been a redesigning of our Shabbat programming. We noticed that Kabbalat Shabbat in our middle school was almost entirely led by us, the faculty, and we shared the concern that students were not engaged.  One of my colleagues came up with a plan involving sitting the students in smaller groups, and now they make Shabbat on their own, taking turns saying the blessings over candles, kiddush, and Hamotzi.  Each time we do Shabbat in this new format, we see further improvements that we can make, but already the atmosphere on Friday has begun to change.

The Jewish community in Houston is active, vibrant, and very warm.  There are several day schools, and congregations ranging from a few dozen families to a few thousand families, with plenty of learning opportunities year round.  When I first arrived at my shul, UOS (United Orthodox Synagogues), I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome I received, and now, two and a half years later, I am still receiving invitations for Shabbat every week. I, and other newcomers, have been similarly welcomed in the other shuls in Houston, and I run into people from the Jewish community around town regularly. Many members of the community in Houston are 'out of towners', and it is easy to make fast friends in the neighborhood.  There are even a few unique things to see around the city with your friends, such as NASA, and yes, the rodeo!!  The support of the Jewish community has made it easier for me to live and work in this new place.

The bond I feel with the school and its students has grown as I have grown as a teacher.  I am grateful for the skills that I have acquired here, and although I still have so much to learn (we all do of course...I get encouragement by remembering the many times when our own veteran teachers at Pardes would say, "I could have done that differently with you guys"). It is an amazing thing to endeavor to put those skills right back into the class where I learned them and push myself and my students further.

At the end of this year I'll be leaving my school in Houston and returning to Israel.  On the one hand, I am excited and thankful for the opportunity to take a break from full-time teaching to pursue some other personal goals of mine.  On the other hand, leaving the school that has invested so much in me - and to which I feel a deep commitment - is very difficult.  Hence, the knot in my stomach.  I believe that next year the feelings of personal fulfillment and growth that I hope to have back in Israel will be coupled by this "knot," this feeling of separation from the classroom, the students and their learning.  I hope to return to teaching and to take the experiences that I will have with me in order to become a better, more effective educator.

Kol tuv and b'hatzlacha to everyone as we continue on our paths!

Bivracha uv'chaverut,

Scott Kaplan  Cohort 7