Familiar Programs, New Demographic

Special To The Jewish Week
Friday, October 23, 2009

Although Gail Rusgo and her husband are Orthodox and attended day schools, they’ve decided not to have their children follow in their educational footsteps. Rusgo, a teacher, told her rabbi at the Lido Beach Synagogue on Long Island, “I’m going to be sending my children to public schools, and we need more children.” So she proposed offering a supplementary Hebrew school—Torah Time For Kids— as an alternative for some of the congregation’s own families, as well as non-Orthodox Jewish families in the area. Although there is a Reform temple in the community, the local Conservative synagogue has closed. “To me, there was not much available for Jewish children,” said Rusgo, who is youth director for Lido Beach Synagogue and has run the Jewish Theological Seminary program, which will be starting its third year this fall. “I wanted more connection to the community.” Her plan met with enthusiasm. “Our rabbi is very open and trusting of any Jew who walks in, “said Rusgo. “So many families were hesitant at first. A lot of neighborhood families have found that this is a good match for them. There’s no judging. When you’re there, you’re there.” Although supplementary Hebrew school and Orthodox synagogues would seem to be a contradiction in terms — after all, don’t most Orthodox families send their children to day schools and yeshivot? — several congregations in the metropolitan area have developed these initiatives. Borrowing a page from the Lubavitch Chabad playbook, which has had success attracting unaffiliated Jews through free, friendly Hebrew school, other educational programs, and a welcoming, non-judgmental approach to less observant Jews, some Orthodox congregations that self-identify as belonging to the more open arm of the movement are taking a similar approach. These initiatives — often featuring free or modestly priced Hebrew language and Jewish educational programs — are designed to serve the larger, often non-affiliated Jewish community as well as attract new members. For example, Mt. Kisco Hebrew Congregation, in Westchester County, recently received a significant grant from the Orthodox Union that recognized its outreach efforts. As Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider explained in an e-mail, “Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation over the last number of years has made a great effort to be an open and embracing setting for Jews of all backgrounds. Our Hebrew school has attracted children from families that are not members of the congregation, who have felt the warmth we try to provide.” At the Lido Beach Synagogue in Long Island, Sunday mornings now echo with the sounds of children who are attending the Orthodox shul’s Hebrew school. The students (currently about 25, between the ages of two and 12) eagerly participate in activities like making honey pots for Rosh Hashanah, or other crafts like tzedekah boxes. During these twice-monthly Sunday sessions, the students have a chance to work one on one with teenage volunteers and learn about the weekly Torah portion and appropriate holiday songs. The focus shifts to Hebrew language, music and prayer, as well as computer games, during the Wednesday sessions. Rusgo noted that eight new families have joined Lido Beach Synagogue because of the program (the $1,750 fee includes family membership as well as school, and public school students in the Long Beach school district receive free transportation to the Wednesday afternoon session). She added that many of these families are “more secular, and wanted more for their children than they had. They didn’t want Hebrew school to be something they dread. My thing is to make it fun, and foster a sense of community. I want the kids to want to come.” A similar mission, of conveying the joy in Judaism, is one motivation for Rabbi Ely Rosenzveig of Congregation Anshe Sholom of New Rochelle, who has offered a free Sunday program for the past three years. Noting that he’s “met so many young people who are disaffected and see being Jewish as a burden,” Rabbi Rosenzveig said “I have three goals: that the students have full-bodied familiarity in Hebrew reading; familiarity with basic Jewish texts, like the Bible and prayer book, and have a great love and sense of joy about being Jewish and about the centrality of Israel in their world view, that they’re looking eastward.” The Sunday morning program, which is primarily underwritten by three private donors, costs $40,000-$50,000 and serves about 30 students in grades K-8. There is an optional one-hour enrichment program on Wednesdays. “The emphasis is on Hebrew language development, and a greater emphasis on Israel and what Israel means to us,” said Rabbi Rosenzveig. “The reality is that as a supplementary school, students will not come out of this, for the most part, as Jewish scholars.” A New Rochelle resident, Amy Alpert, who grew up in Congregation Anshe Sholom and currently serves as both a synagogue trustee and Hebrew school board member, said, “The rabbi felt very strongly about trying to offer some sort of Jewish education and giving an opportunity to all sorts of Jewish children. Besides the Sunday morning program, we want the families to know that Anshe Sholom is a welcoming place.” Alpert, whose son goes to public school and attends the Sunday and Wednesday programs, added, “For the children that are there, the families are very happy. The kids are enjoying it, and the families are participating in other events.” For the past 20 years, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale has offered The Jewish Youth Encounter Program for students in grades kindergarten through 12th. Beginning in fourth or fifth grade, each student has a “big brother” or “big sister” from the synagogue community who works with the students on Hebrew language and bar/bat mitzvah instruction. Fees are nominal — originally it was provided as a free program, now the cost is about $225 for the year — and the emphasis is on hands-on, creative and joyful Jewish experiences to complement traditional knowledge. Such activities as music, art and baking are integral, said director Rabbi Andrew Kastner. So, too, are holiday celebrations of Shabbat, Shavuot, Chanukah and others—featuring singing and dancing. The 80-100 students mostly come from unaffiliated families in the nearby community, said Rabbi Kastner, although there are some from Manhattan and Westchester. “The goal is planting positive seeds of Judaism,” he said. “The strength of our teachers is to provide out-of-the-box curricula. We want there to be an awareness of Jewish life, culture and holidays, marrying formal teaching with informal pedagogy.” As an example, he cited a lesson when a younger class was learning about Noah and the flood, and went outside to the synagogue’s backyard to map out the Ark’s dimensions. Rabbi Kastner added, “As a value of an open Orthodox Jewish synagogue, we’re seeking to make Judaism accessible. This grows out of the philosophy of the community.” And it’s a philosophy that is shared by other Orthodox communities. “ ‘Jewish’ is not just another extra-curricular, like soccer or ballet,” said Rusgo. “ It’s more of who you are. We try to make it more inclusive.” For more information about any of these programs, please contact the following: Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation, www.mkhc.org, 914-242-7460; The Jewish Youth Encounter Program, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, www.hir.org, 718-796-4730 Lido Beach Synagogue, Gail Rusgo, Youth Director, 516-431-2882—sponsoring an Open House August 30 Congregation Anshe Sholom, www.anshesholomnewrochelle.org, 914-632-9220

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