Today’s Complementary Ed Is Not Your Father’s Hebrew School
Wed, 08/22/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Cyd Weissman right, and Robert Weinberg
Cyd Weissman right, and Robert Weinberg

Like most recent broad-scale surveys of the Jewish population in local communities, the recently released Jewish Community Study of New York explores the impact of childhood Jewish education, including “supplemental schooling,” on adult Jewish identity.

The conclusion of the report: The old model of Jewish education in which parents dropped children off in a classroom for a few hours of instruction, in isolation from Jewish family engagement and Jewish communal life, yields little to nothing in the life of a child. Who could disagree with the findings of the study?

Not us. We, leaders of local and national organizations committed to transforming yesterday’s model, wholeheartedly agree. We know that the largest number of children who will receive a Jewish education in non-Orthodox settings will do so in congregations. Happily, we can say, the transformation the community seeks is not just a wish and prayer, it’s a reality. New York is leading the way with a network of congregations, known as The Coalition of Innovating Congregations, that have over the last five years opened doors to meaningful and joyous learning for children and families by replacing classroom-only experience with Jewish learning that lives.

So let’s report the news, not the history. The old model doesn’t work and in 2012, over 50 congregations with close to 3,600 children and 1,000 Jewish educators are creating a dynamic new landscape of Jewish education.

The changes have been dramatic: more family-based and experiential learning, more attention to making learning life-relevant, a greater emphasis on nurturing relationships and building community, connections to other educational venues like camp and more intensive preparation of educational leaders and teachers. Truly, this is not your father’s or mother’s “Hebrew school.” 

Don’t take our word for it. Take a closer look at a few of the diverse models created by members of The Coalition.

Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El offers, instead of classroom-only learning, multiple options for children to experience Jewish living within a caring community. Preteens and teens participate in Mitzvah Corps focused on social justice. Each experience, whether at soup kitchens or animal shelters, is grounded in Jewish text. Students also reflect to create meaning, articulate values and build relationships with their peers. This cycle of learning, doing and reflecting ensures meaningful learning that can inform adult choices.

Emanu-El, like all congregations in our coalition, continues to explore new ways to engage families. This year it is launching a “Tribes” model, where children build communities across ages, grouped by shared interests. Teens will lead Jewish rituals for welcoming, celebrating and honoring the highs and lows of children’s lives, everything from getting a soccer trophy to experiencing a death in the family. Emanu-El is also participating in the Jewish Journey Project, a pilot project in which synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish institutions, collaborate to provide children with a wide variety of courses from which to choose.

Meanwhile, children at the Community Synagogue of Rye (CSR) in Westchester participate in the Havurah Model. Weekly, children meet in groups of 10 in each other’s homes or in other settings that provide the appropriate context for that week’s learning (the mall, a yoga studio, Shabbat dinner at their teacher’s home). Havurah learning is based on the interests and questions of the children. They are asked: “What is something important you hope to accomplish in the next three months?” or “If you can make a difference to someone what would that be?” Then educators bring a Jewish response to the children’s questions.

Families at CSR also celebrate holidays/Shabbat once a month in the temple or in homes. Children participate in weekly Skype Hebrew lessons, and in communal learning or celebrations at the temple (e.g. Shabbat morning family learning) and social activities like movie night. Instead of children learning what someone else tells them is interesting about Judaism, they build their relationships with Jewish study through their own questions.

Another example is Temple Beth Sholom (TBS) of Roslyn, L.I., which offers multiple models for Jewish learning and Jewish living. Its Shabbat Family Model enables families to come together for regular study, prayer and social time. Establishing relevance to real life is a priority. Families also meet once a month to put Torah into action through Tikkun Olam projects. Instead of the children learning about Judaism as if it were a subject to be accessed some time in the future, Judaism becomes part of the fabric of the family.

TBS is also a Camp Connect Congregation. With funding from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, they are building mentoring relationships for every child and family, linking them to nine overnight camps, and infusing year-round experiences with the song and spirit of camp.

These are just a few examples of dynamic models of Jewish learning created by the Coalition of Innovating Congregations that speak to the real lives and real questions of today’s families. To learn more, visit innovatingcongregations.org. Hear the voices of children and parents who are being nurtured by powerful Jewish learning. Listen for voices like Emma’s, a child in Emanu-El’s Mitzvah Corps program, who says, “Before we were sort of just sitting in the classroom and hearing about it and maybe doing an activity or two. Except now we learn about it, we go out and do what we just learned about, and then we reflect upon it … you can relate to what you’re talking about.” And then click to hear Julian from the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore say, “It was like school … and now it’s like, it’s like going to a friend’s house …”

These are the voices of today’s young people that will be captured in the next Jewish Community Study of New York. Not every child sounds like this … yet. But, we’re not stopping until they do. And, if you don’t hear these kinds of reflections from your children, then we call on you — parents, clergy, teens and educators — to roll up your sleeves and join the Coalition of Innovating Congregations in creating Jewish education that matters. No one should accept anything less.

Cyd B. Weissman is director of innovation at The Jewish Education Project. Robert Weinberg is national director of the Experiment in Congregational Education at Hebrew Union College’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education.