Louis Nagel was born in Philadelphia but has been living in Baltimore since he was 5 years old. Growing up, he attended religious school and worked as a madrich at the Orthodox shul B’nai Jacob. Additionally, he worked as a counselor at Camp Milldale.
Nagel, 59, graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in early childhood education before teaching preschool locally. In 2009, he received his master’s degree from Baltimore Hebrew College. He is the new director of education at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, and prior to that, he served as director of education at B’nai Israel Congregation in North Bethesda.
“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Nagel to Beth Shalom,” said Beth Shalom Rabbi Susan Grossman. “He is incredibly talented and kind and engaging. He understands different learning styles and is able to translate, in a meaningful way, the Jewish system of values. We couldn’t be more excited to have one of the top educators in the country coming on board.”
The Jewish Times sat down with Nagel to learn about his career.
Tell us about your career.
The process of getting my Ph.D. opened me up to seeing the potential for Jewish education. I was studying a lot of philosophy and also studying epistemology, the study of being. A lot of what I was reading mirrored what we are teaching in Jewish schools — to find meaning in life. All of what we are learning in Torah and tefillah is really an exploration of being, of discovering who we are and what our purpose is in the world. After getting my Ph.D., I started doing a lot more work on pedagogy.
For the children, I want Judaism to be meaningful to them. I want them to live lives informed by Jewish values.” — Louis Nagel
Is there any particular aspect of pedagogy on which you focus?
I definitely focus on the pursuit of better education, but the main thing is getting away from teacher-centered study to student-centered classes, a lot more of teachers introducing material and then turning it over to the children to look for what text means to them personally. Hebrew teachers can easily focus on “I’m going to teach you how to confidently chant ‘Adon Olam.’” A lot of what I saw, that was the be all and end all. What you get is children and teens and adults who know how to daven, but they don’t know what any of it means.
Why did you come to Beth Shalom from B’nai Israel?
I have lived in this community for more than 20 years. I have been coming to this synagogue for a lot of that time. I very much like Rabbi Susan Grossman and the cantor, Richard Walters, and the community as a whole.
Do you have any particular plans or goals for the program?
For the children, I want Judaism to be meaningful to them. I want them to have an understanding, appreciation and enthusiasm for Jewish ethics and values, mikdot. I would say that is one of the highest priorities of mine. I want them to live lives informed by Jewish values.
In 2015, you received the lifetime achievement award from the Jewish Educators Assembly. Was there any particular accomplishment for which you were being recognized?
If there is anything in particular that I am known for professionally, it is teacher/educator professional development. I have worked for Volunteer, it’s a professional organization. Much of my work in the Jewish Educators Assembly has been connected with educator professional development. I was on the conference committee a couple of times, and I chaired for six years the professional development committee. I hosted webinars almost every month, usually nine to 10 times a year.
Is it odd moving to a smaller community?
This synagogue has about 15 teachers and about 120 children, a little over 300 families. One of my friends a long time ago, Gloria Eisman, said so many things don’t matter if you’re in a big congregation and a big school or a small congregation and a small school. You still have to develop a program for those kindergarteners, first- and second-graders and on up. You still have to have a curriculum in place for each of those grades. And it is connecting to those individual children, those individual families. Those are some of my priorities. I am looking forward to that very much.
What other Jewish organizations are you involved in?
I am the president of Jewish Educators Assembly. I am developing an affinity for AIPAC, I went to the Policy Conference this year. I have already attended a Jewish Federation event, so I am expecting to be much more engaged with the Howard County Jewish Federation — we don’t have a JCC here. I have long been involved in the wider Jewish community of educators where there is not much unity of purpose, so I am looking forward to working with those colleagues and starting to create a community of educators.