Helene Z. Tigay
Helene Tigay laughs when she says she has had an “internal Jewish compass since birth.” As the head of the community’s central educational agency for 20 years, her compass charted her on a course to become a pioneer in the field of supplemental Jewish education.
Raised in a Conservative family in Buffalo, N.Y., Tigay says the significant experiences of her youth (attending Camp Ramah, teaching Hebrew School while in high school and traveling to Israel at the age of 15), reinforced the headings on that compass. She attended the joint undergraduate program at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, where she met her husband, Jeffrey Tigay, the recently retired Emeritus A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. The couple relocated to Philadelphia in 1970, when Jeffrey was hired to teach Bible in English and Hebrew at Penn. “One day I got a call asking me if I would teach fourth grade at Solomon Schechter” day school, she recalls. A few years later, she moved to Akiba Hebrew Academy, where she taught for 20 years, first Jewish studies and then, after obtaining a master’s in school psychology at Penn, she was the school counselor.
While it is tempting to view the Tigays as joint pioneers in the field of Jewish education, nothing, according to Jeffrey Tigay, could be farther from the truth. “At Penn, I had predecessors, notably Moshe Greenberg, who were already teaching Jewish studies. And while the field expanded during the ’70s and ’80s, it had already started this growth before I even got there.” The true pioneer, says Tigay, is his wife, whose work at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education has now become part of the Jewish Learning Venture. She was behind the creation of the NESS (Nurturing Education in Synagogue Schools) program, which was seen as revolutionizing the field of supplementary Jewish education, where about 80 percent of the children who receive a Jewish education, do so.
The challenge to develop a plan to foster excellence in synagogue schools became the focus of Tigay’s last decade as executive director of ACAJE. She retired in 2009 after 20 years at the agency. What was revolutionary was not only the approach, which was developed on the basis of research, but also the interdisciplinary nature of the way in which NESS was created, designed and implemented.
“It was the first time a program was created on the basis of research instead of whim,” she contends. That research was conducted by then-consultant (now senior lecturer in Penn’s Graduate School of Education) Sharon Ravitch, who conducted a survey of post-Bar and Bar Mitzvah kids in the Philadelphia area about their experiences in Hebrew school. It was, according to Tigay, “the first time anyone had ever asked the kids what would it take” to make congregational schools better — “and they were thrilled to be asked.”
NESS, piloted in several local synagogues and now being replicated in San Francisco, was created on 18 philosophical principles, not the least of which was the firm belief that synagogue schools could be vehicles through which their students develop strong Jewish identities and increase their commitment to the Jewish community. The approach had to be holistic in order for it to be systemic. The components of NESS — professional development for teachers, leadership development for educational directors, and training in organizational development strategies for synagogue and school lay leaders — engage constituencies across the entire synagogue and school communities, many of whom do not routinely interact. “We try to look at the synagogue as a system with interlocking leverage points,” explains Tigay.
According to former colleague Rochelle Rabeeya, “Helene was the rare combination of a leader who had a vision of excellence for part-time Jewish education and, at the same time, like a musical conductor, brought together the knowledge, experience and thinking of experts — the central agency staff, other professional and lay leaders from the community, from the fields of secular and Jewish education — to create and implement something new and innovative that made an impact on student learning, on the congregation, on the parents and even on the Central Agency itself.”