NESS - Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools

Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools (NESS) is a three-year, whole-school, on-site intervention program, custom-designed to meet the needs of each synagogue school.  Beth Jacob was chosen to be one of six Bay Area synagogues to participate in this initiative.







On February 9th, 2011, synagogue schools from Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area came together to share outcomes from their participation in NESS. This video highlights the changes in curriculum, culture and volunteer participation that have taken place at each synagogue over the past three years, as a result of their participation in the NESS initiative.


The mission of the NESS Initiative is to strengthen synagogue schools through:

  • professional development for teachers
  • leadership development for educational directors
  • training in organizational development strategies for lay leaders

By redesigning our approach to synagogue school education, we will:

  • provide our youth with an engaging, meaningful, and enjoyable high quality Jewish education
  • help our youth develop strong Jewish identities and increase their commitment to active involvement in the Jewish community
  • increase student participation in Jewish learning and involvement beyond their B'nei Mitzvah

It's no wonder NESS means miracle in Hebrew!


  • What’s the Big Idea? Professional Development for Teachers (PDT)

People are asking, “What’s the big idea with NESS’s Professional Development for Teachers (PDT)?” Actually, there’s more than one! Professional Development for Teachers is all about big ideas in Judaism and education.

PDT involves Jewish concepts like:

  • Brit (Covenant)
  • B’tselem Elohim (In the Image of the Holy One)
  • Israel
  • Mitzvot (Commandedness)
  • Midot (Values)
  • TaNaKh (Bible)

It also deals with core pillars of good pedagogy such as:

  • Differentiated learning
  • Family education
  • Lesson planning
  • Classroom management
  • Cooperative learning
  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Meaning making
  • Strategies for teaching children with learning disabilities.

With the expert guidance of the BJE’s NESS staff and consultants, the 90 teachers and education directors from NESS’s 5 participating schools are exploring these crucial topics, and how they impact student and family learning. This mutli-generational, cross-denominational group of educators from different backgrounds and with varying levels of prior professional training, meets for a total of 60 hours over two years (30 this year and 30 next year).

“All Jewish learning is personal, and for teachers to be successful, they must be learners as well. Jewish learning should be both organized and collegial, recognizing that teachers benefit when they can ‘talk shop’ with their peers about real-life situations in the classroom and the challenges of lesson planning,” explains Nechama Tamler, one of NESS’s PDT consultants.

PDT engages educators in theory and practice of big Jewish ideas and big pedagogic ideas to create a shared language among the NESS schools, as well as a framework to underpin the individualized, targeted curriculum development work to begin next year at each site. The 6 seminars in 2009-2010 create a professional learning community that, when coupled with ongoing coaching and support by the education directors and NESS staff, gives teachers the best chance at transferring new skills and knowledge to their practice in the synagogue school classroom.

With the ultimate goal of having students being able to know, do and feel all aspects of their Jewish education, PDT has the teachers (who serve not only as deliverers of the curriculum, but also as Jewish role models for the children) to engage with the material both cognitively and affectively.

“I have had a great experience so far with the teacher enrichment portion of NESS…The PDT trainings have been very fun, creative and hands-on…I have been able to use the ideas I’ve learned and apply them directly to the classroom,” says Gat Slor, who teaches at Congregations Beth Jacob and Kol Emeth. Whereby she felt that she was often “winging” it in the past, “the training has really helped me with the tools and confidence I need to hone my skills as a teacher,” she adds.

Irene Resnikoff, Education Director at Rodef Sholom noticed soon after a PDT session on Family Education taught by the BJE’s Vicky Kelman, that some of her teachers were, for the first time, designing projects for their students to complete at home with their parents and then bring back to share with the class. Others have begun to include in email newsletters ideas for how parents can extend at home the learning their children are doing at their synagogue school.

As PDT participants grapple individually and as a learning community with the core concepts so vital to their work as Jewish educators, the “big ideas” serve as their guide.

  • PDT is only one of six integrated and coordinated components of NESS. Here’s a brief update on what has been happening lately in the five other ingredients of NESS’s alphabet soup:

POD (Program for Organizational Development):

The NESS leadership committees (or “PODs”) at each of the schools are identifying key curricular goals, both cognitive and affective, for various subjects areas. These will inform the curriculum sub-committees as they develop the schools’ curricula one strand (subject/concept) at a time. Each POD is also directing subcommittee work aimed at strengthening specific aspects of its school, such as family engagement and institutionalization of best practices.

CDP (Curriculum Development Process):

CDP chairs and their committees have been meeting regularly at all five schools. They use an Enduring Understandings/Essential Questions framework to craft lesson plans for a single strand of the curriculum (chosen by the PODs and varying from school to school) to be piloted in Fall 2010.

LDS (Leadership Development Seminar):

The education directors from the NESS schools have been meeting monthly with NESS Director Debby Jacoby to explore the topic of educational leadership and how to further and deepen PDT concepts with their staffs. Recent readings and discussions have focused on supporting teachers through lesson planning coaching and in-class observation and mentoring. LDS meetings are scheduled back-to-back with the BJE’s Education Council meetings to enable the education directors participating in NESS to share new insights with the other principals and to help them stay connected with the rest of the synagogue school community.

JSASIP (Jewish School Assessment School Improvement Process):

Now that an initial, comprehensive assessment of each school has been completed by NESS staff, training of lay assessors is beginning so that they can conduct mid-stream mini-JSASIPs to monitor progress made in areas targeted by the PODs. Final, full assessments will again be conducted by NESS consultants toward the end of the NESS initiative for this cohort of schools.

PFE (Parent and Family Engagement):

BJE Family Education expert Vicky Kelman led professional development sessions as part of the PDT program. NESS consultants are helping the schools keep parent and family engagement as a high priority agenda item and coaching them on how to integrate it into every aspect of NESS work.


The POD Committee members are:

Julie Dorsey - Chairperson

Neil Blecherman, Ralph Boucher, Alison Deutsch, Nicole Goldstein, David Langer, Michele Madansky, Tami Raubvogel, Gwen Solomon, Lisa Levine Sporer

If you would like more information about NESS at Beth Jacob, contact Julie Dorsey.



School Benefits

Selection and Application

For more information about the NESS Initiative, contact NESS Director Debby Jacoby, at 415.751.6983 x 111. Debby Jacoby serves as the NESS Director and Congregational School Specialist for the Bureau of Jewish Education. Her role is to support all congregational schools in the community. Debby is currently building the NESS team of BJE staff and consultants.

NESS is a project of the Bureau of Jewish Education, modeled on a program created by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia, and made possible through the generous support of The Jewish Community Endowment Fund, the Annual Campaign of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, the Koret Foundation, and PELIE.

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