Two-dozen fifth- and sixth-graders wave their hands wildly in the air. Teacher Eli Katzoff scans the classroom, but doesn’t have time to pick a student before they all speak at once. The students are role-playing a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, debating issues of security and refugee rights with an intensity that makes them lunge out of their seats and crowd the front of the room.
By the excitement on their faces, one could hardly tell these kids are in school during winter break.
For about 50 West Valley kids last December, winter break meant time for camp — or something close to it. The students took part in Nisayon, a new Hebrew school program at the West Hills campus of Temple Judea that turns the traditional religious school schedule on its head. Instead of going to class on Sundays and after school throughout the year, kids meet for two solid weeks in the summer and one week in the winter for a full-day experience. In between, monthly family and holiday events, mandatory Shabbat attendance and weekly in-home Hebrew tutoring keep the kids connected.
“We felt that religious school should be so enjoyable that kids love being there,” said Rabbi Bruce Raff, director of education at Temple Judea and founder of the program. “Every kid loves going to camp. Most kids don’t love going to religious school. Why not take the best of both worlds and create something that works?”
A typical day at Nisayon (which means “experiment”) consists of two 1 1/2-hour class sessions, Israeli dance, Hebrew songs and school-wide prayer. Kids also take part in electives, such as the Israeli martial art system krav maga, videography or drama. Last summer, “campers” swam, took cooking lessons, made mosaics, planted trees around the synagogue’s grounds and made care packages for Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
Each year, the whole school studies the same topic, such as Israel, the Jewish calendar or Torah. At the end of each day, the whole school comes together for “community time,” where each age group shares what they’ve learned.
“It’s not enough to sit next to your friend in class and share the fact that you both don’t like your Hebrew school teacher. That doesn’t build community,” Raff said. “What builds community is when kids enjoy the learning process together. Then, what they learn becomes what they live.”
Synagogues across Los Angeles are experimenting with religious school programs in an effort to fit working parents’ busy schedules and appeal to students who don’t get much out of weekly class sessions, said Janice Tytell, head consultant for religious schools at the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles (BJE). Hebrew schools are incorporating family Shabbatons into their curricula and hosting kid-only sleepovers that let students learn outside the classroom.
“Programs where the children have fun learning together enhance the formal learning process — they add a shared emotional experience,” Tytell said.
Families are included, too. Six times during the year, parents are invited in for Sunday afternoon learning sessions with their children so they can share the experience. Families must also participate in at least four Shabbat services during the year, including two Nisayon Shabbat dinners.
Nisayon brings instruction directly into students’ homes, as well — instead of cramming Hebrew-language classes into the program’s three jam-packed weeks, lessons take place weekly throughout the year with a private tutor. The program costs $2,630 for kids in grades four to six who choose one-on-one tutoring, or $1,765 if students buddy up for two-on-one tutoring. The total cost is $800 for kids in grades kindergarten through third, who don’t receive Hebrew tutoring.
Temple Judea also offers more traditional Hebrew school programs — the synagogue’s religious school is the largest in Los Angeles with about 800 kids — including a twice-weekly class for $1,475. But Raff believes Nisayon is a better fit for children who respond to hands-on learning.
Robin Solomon, of Encino, had enrolled her daughter in weekly Hebrew school programs at Temple Judea and Valley Beth Shalom before coming to Nisayon. She said the unconventional atmosphere there was a boon to both her children.
“It’s camp — it’s fun,” Solomon said, recalling how her kids last summer helped build a replica of Israel in the field outside the synagogue, complete with a kiddie pool filled with mud to simulate the Dead Sea. “There is no differentiation between fun and learning, so they’re absorbing the knowledge at a very high rate. They’re glad to get up in the morning and come home exhausted at night. It’s a very rich experience.”
That much was evident at the program’s daily prayer service. When volunteers were needed to lead prayers on one particular day, most of the hands in the room shot up.
Before coming to Nisayon, Rachel Nassiri, 11, didn’t know the words to the “Shema.” But sitting in the sanctuary with the rest of the school, she sang along cheerfully to a melody accompanied by guitar. “We do it every day, and the teachers make it fun, so it’s easy to learn,” she explained.
“This is better than going to [Hebrew] school every week,” she said, helping to collect prayer books after the service. “When I started here, I didn’t know anyone, but now I have a bunch of friends.”
Registration is now under way for the 2009-2010 school year. To learn more, visit www.templejudea.com.