“I Learn Because I Am a Teacher”: Shira Forester

When Shira Forester (William Davidson School MA, May 2022) was a rosh edah (unit head) at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, she had the responsibility for developing a summerlong educational theme for her unit of entering seventh graders. “The theme was meant to infuse all our programming,” said Forester. Loving to pick apart texts and draw out multiple meanings, Forester chose a biblical verse that she knew was familiar to her campers.

The first line of Psalms 133–“hinei mah tov u’mah naim shevet achim gam yachad” (“how good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together”)–became the edah theme, and Forester devoted each week to a deeper engagement with one word from the verse. 

“In the first week, we focused on ‘hinei’ and we explored the concept of ‘hineini’ and of being present,” said Forester. “We were able to create connections with and among the campers by making the text come alive,” she said.

The power of text study to open up lines of connection runs throughout Forester’s own background and passion for Jewish education.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Forester attended Solomon Schechter Day School and the Rochelle Zell Jewish High School. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she found herself choosing Judaism for the first time as opposed to it being chosen for her. As part of her teaching job at a local Conservative synagogue, she helped facilitate the High Holiday youth programming and found that this filled a need for her. 

“I realized that I found my work with the children more meaningful than what I generally experienced in the sanctuary,” she said. Teaching, for Forester, became a real love. “I came to envision a career in which teaching sacred texts would nourish my own spiritual experience and expand my own Judaic knowledge. I thrive off of making connections with kids, and that relationship-based learning is really at the heart of text study,” she said.

Forester was a fellow in the Nachson Project which supported her undergraduate study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Through Nachson, she also studied weekly at Pardes where she explored text “for its own sake, not for credit.” “Part of the mission of the Nachshon Project is to inspire future Jewish professional leaders,” said Forester, and she was encouraged to attend The William Davidson School with the organization’s financial support.

“I knew that I would pursue a career in education, and I was really drawn to how The William Davidson School prioritizes the development of one’s own identity as an educator,” Forester said. “When I came to JTS, I chose the pedagogy track. In the end, I learn because I am a teacher.” 

In Forester’s practicum placement this past year, she student taught middle school at the Luria Academy in Brooklyn. “My experience with adolescents taught me that I really enjoyed being with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and I felt that I would hone my own text study skills with them more than I would with younger kids,” said Forester.

At Luria, Forester teaches humash and some lessons on holidays. When Covid struck her mentor in the fall, she filled in for ten days and this spring she spent a month covering for a teacher on maternity leave. 

When she teaches text, such as a unit on Sefer Shemot / Exodus, Forester starts by identifying essential questions that the text raises. “Before we even look at a text, I ask the kids to discuss a relevant question, like ‘What makes a good leader?’ Then I pull out Hebrew words that may be unfamiliar and prepare them so that even before they read the text they are familiar with the big ideas and vocabulary,” said Forester. “As we encounter the text itself, the kids translate, mostly on their own, and then we raise questions, sometimes looking at Rashi or other commentators.” The question-asking is Forester’s favorite part of the lesson, where she feels the learners are really engaged in the meaning-making that is her ultimate goal.

“There are a lot of skills that go into unpacking a text—Hebrew vocabulary, syntax, grammar,” said Forester. “Asking questions is also a text skill. Sometimes parents want kids to have mastery over content and our job is to achieve some level of basic literacy alongside the skills of interpreting and analyzing text,” she said. “These are transferable skills that learners will use throughout their lives.”

Forester’s parshanut course with Dr. Walter Herzberg was specifically designed for William Davidson School students, and the experience greatly informed her teaching. “Sometimes it is actually easier to teach text than it is to learn it,” said Forester with a chuckle. 

Looking ahead, Forester knows that she thrives off of connecting with kids. “I like to put myself in kids’ shoes and ask myself, ‘What if I were the learner?’ as I plan lessons.” Next year, Forester will be teaching full-time at Luria as a fourth- and fifth-grade Judaics teacher, and this summer she will return to Camp Ramah as an educator. Through cultivating connections with text, Forester will continue to develop her own identity as a teacher.

 Written by Suzanne Kling Langman