Founding Director, CBI Forest School
Director of Education
Congregation Beth Israel
Jill Abbey-Clark is the Founding Director of the CBI Forest School and Director of Education at Congregation Beth Israel, in Charlottesville, VA.
As Director of Education at CBI, Ms. Clark oversees the early childhood education program, the synagogue religious school, serves as part of the senior leadership team, and oversees the PJ Library program for Central Virginia and surrounding counties. She is also the Director of Camp CBI, a summer camp for children in pre-K through 8th grade, and she supervises a teen CIT/counselor program.
Ms. Abbey-Clark has also held a number of volunteer and lay leadership roles in the Jewish early childhood arena, including as a coordinator and presenter for The Paradigm Project.
In the late spring of 2020, after the start of the pandemic and several months of virtual school, Ms. Abbey-Clark founded the CBI Forest School, an outdoor program that follows a developmental, constructivist approach for children to play, learn, and grow together in a Jewish environment. Within weeks of launching the program and expanding it to a full-day program that includes students through 4th grade, 106 students were enrolled. Now in its’ second year, the school meets daily at a forest location on a campsite just outside the Charlottesville city limits.
Infused with Jewish meaning and values, the Forest School curriculum explores the spiritual and historical connections between Judaism and the natural world in ways that are both educational and fun, and has become a laboratory and a model of Jewish outdoor learning in the wider early childhood education (ECE) community.
From Her Letters of Nomination and Support
“In the nine years that Jill has been director of early childhood education at Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) she has provided extraordinary vision for our Jewish community, along with the dedication and leadership and collaborative skills necessary to translate her vision into reality.”
“Jill’s own Jewish journey and natural sensitivity ensures that families are met with respect at the place where they find themselves on the path of Jewish living, and are encouraged to grow joyfully with their children.”
Rabbi Tom Gutherz
Congregation Beth Israel
“Jill is a dreamer, imagining, envisioning and finding ways to transform our community’s hopes and dreams into reality. She gently pushes teachers to be their best, even when dealing with difficult situations.”
Kindergarten Teacher, Congregation Beth Israel Forest School
Q&A with Jill
Avoiding copperhead snakes may not be a concern of most Jewish educators. But Jill Abbey-Clark says it’s all in a day’s work as Founding Director of the CBI Forest School — the pandemic-generated reimagining of pre-K – 4 Jewish education in Charlottesville, VA that has pushed the classroom into the woods.
“The CBI Forest School is a story of Jewish survival,” says Jill, also Director of Education at Congregation Beth Israel. Overseeing the early childhood education program and the synagogue religious school, she has envisioned and designed programming and structures engaging students, parents, and educators in a mutually supportive environment of Jewish learning and growth.
The CBI Forest School was a bold initiative that you envisioned and spearheaded, to maintain the continuity of Jewish education during the pandemic. Do you consider yourself a risk-taker?
I’m not a huge risk taker, believe it or not. But I absolutely like change, and I like new.
I was recently telling my dad a reflection I had about being in Israel when I was in college, and my roommate was a scuba diver. She told me the Red Sea is the second best place to scuba dive in the world and that I shouldn’t miss the experience. And I said OK, it sounds like a good thing. But the thing is, I hate putting my head underwater. In fact, I’m terrified of it. But I didn’t think about all the reasons why I shouldn’t do it. I just thought about the reasons why I should. I was pretty petrified, thinking back on it. But there was never a moment where I thought to myself, this is a terrible idea.
And I think that describes who I am. Yeah, I’m petrified, but I am compelled to do it.
Can you describe a moment of epiphany for yourself at CBI Forest School?
To get to the property, you have to drive down a gravel road, so you have to slow down, concentrate and drive through the woods. Parents tell me that their kids will say, “Mom, turn off the radio and roll down the windows, I want to listen to the forest.”
At the school, we find ourselves literally in the woods building a sukkah out of branches and sitting in these shelters that we have made with our own hands. That in itself is amazing. On Hanukkah, we learn how to make fire with a stick in a bowl. How powerful is that?
It’s those metaphorical life moments and lessons that are incredible. So I know something is right. Something is going well here.
The Forest School seems like a great place of escape in itself, but where do you go to get away from absolutely everything?
We’ve been going to the coast of Maine for the last 30 years every summer —my family, my sister’s family, my parents. We have two weeks of just unhooking from the world and being together. The days are no more complicated than watching the tide, because it’s so extreme. When it’s low tide, we look for hermit crabs. So it’s down to the basics of just seeing what the day brings, and to me that is the ultimate mental and physical escape.
What is weighing on you?
As Jews, we believe that education is a top priority, but we have to put our dollars where our beliefs are. In our community, we’ve started to think about other revenue streams, because the math doesn’t work when we count just on tuition dollars to make salaries. Young families can’t afford it. Teachers can’t afford it. So how are we going to sustain and grow this long term?
What’s your leadership style like?
I remain open to possibilities and try to model that to my staff, with vulnerabilities and all. We are all learning together, I don’t have all the answers, I do not promise all the answers, and I don’t always have a plan, necessarily. But ultimately, we’re going to do this together.
We’re amazing educators, we’re creative people. We want to work and we want to be with children and help families and that’s what we’re going to do. It is definitely a group effort. I try to make it an adventure.
Interview conducted and edited by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation