Traditionally, when Jewish children first learn their Hebrew letters they’re given candy or honey to create a sweet association. At North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, L.I., the connection is more savory — try marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. So begins the Tuesday night Hebrew school for students in seventh grade.
“They all start out loving it because we start out by serving pizza and cookies and dinner for them,” said Laurie Silverman, principal of the religious school of the Reform congregation. “They start out the hour socializing.”
The dinner is also a blessing for busy parents who shuttle their children from one after-school activity to the next. “I’m taking one from lacrosse practice to Hebrew school, and she has to eat,” said Suzanne Sedge, mother of two children in North Shore’s religious school. “They’re making that transition a little easier for me as a parent and easier for the kids. They have a nice, comfortable environment to hang out.”
For families whose children attend public school or a secular private school rather than a Jewish day school, finding time for religious study can be a challenge. Even in elementary school, before kids are bogged down with Regents, AP classes and SAT courses, their lives are often surprisingly full with art classes, dance classes, a sport, music lessons and an endless variety of enrichment courses vying for attention.
Despite the difficult juggling act of balancing work, home life and a child’s after-school activities, many parents are willing to sacrifice a weeknight karate lesson for the rabbi’s parasha class.
“People fit into their overscheduled lives things that are important to them, so it’s a matter of helping our families experience Judaism as a support and a way to help them through life,” said Evie Rotstein. She is project director at the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators, a program run by the schools of education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Jewish Theological Seminary and funded by UJA-Federation of New York.
Students show up in baseball uniforms for Wednesday night Hebrew school at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills, and that’s all right with educational leader Faye Gilman. “A lot of the kids find that it’s important to do both,” she said. “The parents are setting the tone. They’re saying yes you can go to your game, but at this time it’s time to be a part of your other social group, the Jewish community.”
Many synagogues have responded to families’ time constraints by revamping their educational programming.
“It’s about choice and flexibility,” said Rob Weinberg, director of the Experiment in Congregational Education, an initiative of the HUC’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education in Los Angeles. “Many of the designs that are emerging are recognizing that families are overburdened with demands on their time. Congregations are trying to find ways to create flexibility and choice.”
In partnership with UJA-Federation, the Experiment in Congregational Education has worked with 32 synagogues in the New York area on the RE-IMAGINE project, which helps congregations develop new models that meet the changing spiritual and educational needs of Jewish families. Many of the redesigned programs emphasize family participation and focus on the natural rhythms of the Jewish calendar.
In some ways, rather than being just another activity on the long to-do list, many argue that Judaism can be the perfect antidote to our hectic, hyper-scheduled lives. If we follow God’s lead and, on the seventh day rest, we often find Shabbat is a natural time to slow down and focus on the family.
“Parents need to be countercultural, and that’s what Judaism is,” said Wendy Mogel, clinical psychologist and author of the popular Jewish parenting tome, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Penguin Compass, 2001). “That’s why Shabbat is the most widely countercultural rejection of the way we live, the manic way we operate.”
One Westchester mom drives a runaway train — her second grader’s overstuffed schedule. Her 8-year-old daughter swims competitively, plays soccer, attends Hebrew school, takes karate, dabbled in ballet and is a Girl Scout. And then there’s the kindergartener with Hebrew school, soccer, non-competitive swimming and piano lessons. “I want them to get exposed to different things, but it’s definitely out of hand at this point,” said the mom, who didn’t want her name used to protect her family’s privacy.
However, even she slams on the brakes when it comes to Friday night, the only weeknight the family eats dinner together. “Everyone knows what comes on Friday night, and Daddy’s there, so maybe inadvertently it helps to resuscitate the week and forces us to be home at night,” she said. “Without it we’d be on the run more.”
“People are harried and frantic, kids are over-programmed and so many look everywhere else for answers — to their therapist or to the gym or to some other spiritual practice — and our tradition has always had Shabbat here waiting for them,” said Weinberg.
Many Jewish institutions are incorporating Shabbat into their schools’ experiential learning. Once a month families from the Reconstructionist West End Synagogue in Manhattan meet for Friday night services and a potluck dinner. Children in the younger grades and their families at North Shore Synagogue have a monthly Friday night program that includes a dinner, a lively children’s service and an educational, family activity.
Educators are thoughtful when it comes to scheduling; they try not to make too many demands on weekend time.
“We have Shabbat family study once a month,” said Gila Hadani Ward, director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, L.I. “When it’s on Saturday morning, the Sunday classes are optional. But in place of those Sunday classes is a family tzedakah project. Again it’s optional. This way you don’t miss classroom learning but we’re providing a meaningful family experience.”
At Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in the West Village children in kindergarten through fourth grade meet on Shabbat twice a month for a program called Limmud B’Shabbat.
“Congregations are in that unique position to create learning and sacred communal time,” said Cyd Weissman, director of Innovation in Congregational Learning for BJENY-SAJES, New York’s central agency for Jewish education. “We see many in the New York area structure Shabbos and holidays as the most natural time for quiet, to put away the BlackBerry and to talk about what’s important to you and to me.”
The Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Plandome, L.I., added a Shabbat school in 2004. Families can opt for the Shabbat school instead of the traditional two afternoons-a-week Hebrew school. The program includes a commitment from parents to study texts and attend two Shabbat services each month.
“We find that the kids who come Tuesday/Thursday might have a stronger knowledge of prayer,” said Rabbi Jodi Siff, explaining that teachers guide the learning during the week. “However, the knowledge that their parents are with them and it’s a family unit within a larger Jewish community overrides the intellectual benefit they might be losing.”
At Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan families starting in third grade choose the two days a week they’d like to attend Hebrew school. It’s either Sunday and Tuesday or Monday and Wednesday. The calendar is filled with monthly Shabbat dinners, kid-focused services and other fun family programs.
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