Longtime Austin Community Member Ordained as Maggid-Educator
Jewish educators are charged with teaching their students all there is to know about Judaism: its wisdom, practices and rituals, values, language and sacred text. While educators hope students might benefit from and embrace their heritage – and pass Judaism down as a precious inheritance to future generations – some question whether it is enough.
As receivers of a Jewish education, students – now adults – may ask themselves, considering spiritual needs and daily challenges, how well one’s Jewish education provided support and guidance throughout life.
These questions brought together Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founder and dean of the first ever ordination for Jewish educators – the Maggid-Educator Training Program – and Cathy Schechter, a Talmudic scholar, long-time teacher and Austin resident. Schechter was among the program’s inaugural graduates held in August at an ordination ceremony at the NewCAJE conference for Jewish educators. She was ordained a maggid-oman.
“Historically, maggid was the ordination title that was given to some of the Jewish storytellers, typically those who knew how to guide lives and communities through the power of Jewish stories,” explained Milgram. “We have added the Hebrew word “oman” (אמן) (aleph-mem-nun), which comes from the same root at “Amen,” meaning faithful. The words “omanut” (artful) and “aman” (a skillful educator or guide) derive from the same root.”
Ordained maggid-educators are faithful, artful guides who are reclaiming the traditional role of the Maggid storyteller as originally practiced, merged with the skills of a master educator who deeply listens to and supports, inspires and guides students and communities through the power of a Jewish lens.
A longtime member of Austin’s Jewish community, Schechter studied Talmud every Sunday morning for close to 14 years with the widely acclaimed author and Talmud scholar, Rabbi Judith Abrams of Houston. As Schechter became more adept at her studies, Abrams also pushed her to teach others.
“Just as the Buddhist proverb teaches that when the student is ready, the teacher appears, and I found that when I was ready to teach, the students appeared,” said Schechter, who taught at her dining room table and the dining room tables of friends, at her synagogue and “to anyone who would learn with me.”
In 2014, Abrams died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving her grieving student in shock and uncertain about the future of her studies.
While completing her master’s degree in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College, one of Schechter’s Talmud classmates from Connecticut told her about Maggid-Educator training.
“I needed to find a way to channel all of this knowledge I had gained from my years of studying, to make it sing so that people would come to love it as much as I do. By enrolling in the program, I surprised myself by learning a tool kit full of new skills and, unexpectedly, deepening my spirituality,” said Schechter.
The maggid training program, under the auspices of the Institute for Jewish Spiritual Education and the parent non-profit Reclaiming Judaism, is the only one specifically designed for those who serve in Jewish educational settings. This year’s graduating class included educators from Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Chabad, Jewish Renewal and unaffiliated settings from Hawaii to Memphis.
Milgram noted, “Cathy Schechter dove right into our ethos, supporting every student to develop who they are through the lens of the brilliant texts and insights she shared with us. We’ve added her to our faculty of seven master teachers for the next class given her exceptional background and many gifts as an educator and guide.”
Schechter has also recently assumed a part-time role as a Jewish educator with Shalom Austin and continues to teach individuals and small groups.
Maggid-educator trainees develop a repertoire of more than 50 Jewish spiritual practices, or mitzvot, paired with ancient and contemporary stories and text study. With expert guidance from master educators, trainees undertake an in-depth exploration of their personal spiritual beliefs and practices. Drawing from the fields of Mussar (ethical character development), InterPlay (personal expression through sound and movement), Hashpa’ah (Jewish spiritual guidance and development), Jewish meditation and the arts, they learn to create sacred, supportive and life-affirming learning and living experiences for both themselves and their students.
Schechter’s passion is teaching other teachers.
She explained, “I’m most interested in nurturing the souls of our Jewish educators by guiding them to explore themselves as teachers within the context of our beautiful, rich ancient wisdom about how to teach. Our curricula-driven, menu-option modern teaching approaches perilously overlook the role of Jewish educator as a spiritual guide to those growing individual souls sitting in their classrooms. Members of the next generation need to also be taught how to apply their own innate and unique abilities to strengthen our community now and in the future. I strongly believe we need to teach not just about Judaism, but how to be Jews in the world.”
Previously, Schechter was primarily teaching text. Now she teaches through stories that express one of the sacred spiritual practices from the Talmud, Torah, Jewish folklore and personal experience.
“There are archetypal Jewish characters in our ancient wisdom tradition who have not been brought out to the world for people to know, to feel that lives like theirs are represented in the tradition,” she said.
As a child’s first teacher, parents and grandparents need to concern themselves with adult Jewish learning as well.
“They are the ones who model Jewish practices in the home,” she added.
She notes that many in the Baby Boomer generation had at least one immigrant grandparent who conveyed their wisdom through folk tales, ritual practices brought from the old country and their own stories.
“Now, as this generation is becoming grandparents, I see people who view a deficient religious education as an existential crisis of sorts,” Schechter said.
Maggid-educators are found in synagogues, community centers, Hebrew and day schools, camps, colleges, libraries and retreat centers.
They are called upon, through one-on-one guidance, to apply the principles of Jewish spiritual education to Judaism’s many rituals and rites of passage.
"To me, it is critical that our community offer many and varied ways for adults to take the time for Jewish learning,” says Schechter. “Really, once you set out on that path, I promise, it is more delicious than chocolate. ■