Jewish Journal

Religious schools add family programs, new apps

by Rachel Heller

Posted on Aug. 17, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Melinda Pittler and daughter Zoe study together at Congregation Or Ami’s Mishpacha family learning program. Photo by Michael Kaplan

Melinda Pittler and daughter Zoe study together at Congregation Or Ami’s Mishpacha family learning program. Photo by Michael Kaplan

Hebrew schools across Los Angeles are starting to look less and less like, well, Hebrew school.

A growing number of programs now invite parents to learn alongside their children. Computer software is becoming just as crucial in class as teacher instruction. And often, lessons don’t take place in a classroom at all.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami remembers taking 112 kids and parents to the Los Angeles Zoo two years ago as part of the Calabasas synagogue’s Mishpacha family learning program. For a creative lesson in navigating the Tanakh, he handed families a list of 20 biblical quotes and had them find the animals referenced in each text. The activity, Kipnes found, proved to be the kind of hands-on learning experience children remember.

“They learned more about how to use the Bible than if I’d spent a whole afternoon teaching it,” Kipnes said.

Congregations have long been experimenting with alternative models of religious education that impart Jewish values to children in innovative ways. This fall, many of the latest offerings spotlight two key aspects educators believe are central to how children learn: family and technology.

Or Ami’s Mishpacha program is a variation on the Shabbat Community religious school model, in which whole families take part in Shabbat-related programming together. Instead of dropping their kids off at synagogue for a few hours each week, as they would in a traditional religious school, parents stay and become students themselves.

This model favors family activities and communal prayer over student classroom time — a tradeoff that distills the most important mission of religious education: creating kids who love to be Jewish — said Isa Aron, professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

“The purpose of supplementary Jewish education is enculturation — to bring people into the Jewish culture,” said Aron, senior adviser of the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), a national program founded in 1992 at HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education. “It’s not really about subject matter but how to be part of the community. It’s not about prayer, for example; it’s about how to pray. The more experiential you can make it, the better.”

Shabbat Communities have been around for more than a decade, but the model started gaining momentum in Los Angeles only recently. Much of the current interest sprang from the ECE’s RE-IMAGINE Project, a 2007 initiative aimed at transforming synagogue-based education in the Southland. Increasingly, Aron said, educators are now embracing the notion that learning to be a member of the Jewish community shouldn’t be confined to classroom walls.

At the Shabbaton program of Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), for instance, families learn in informal chavurot, at each other’s homes and gathered around a Havdalah candle.

The experimental program, founded in 2010 as an alternative to TIOH’s traditional religious school, brings families with children in third to sixth grade together for Saturday afternoon study sessions at the synagogue. Beginning at 3:30 p.m., families gathered for songs and blessings and then broke into age groups — children by grade, parents all together — to discuss a daily topic. Later, families formed small chavurot for further study in a mixed-age environment. Participants ended each session with a Havdalah ceremony. Once a week, kids met in small groups for a separate Hebrew-language lesson, usually at a family’s home.

“The overall mission was to build community among families,” said Rabbi Jocee Hudson, director of the religious school and youth programming. “So many parents have told me they did it for their children yet were surprised how much they got out of it for themselves.”

When families learn together, lessons are more likely to translate into their home lives, said Kipnes, who sends Mishpacha families home each session with a discussion topic he calls the “Carpool Convo.”

Founded eight years ago, Mishpacha is the longest-running intergenerational religious school in the L.A. area and has received the Union for Reform Judaism’s Nachshon Award for commitment to lifelong learning. The program features twice-monthly sessions that are similar to Shabbat Community-style learning, except they take place Sunday mornings. Two out of three sessions include some classroom time for kids, but rarely for more than 20 to 45 minutes. The rest of the time is spent in experiential activities and projects that immerse kindergarten to seventh-grade students in active learning, Kipnes said.

“How do kids learn best? It’s not sitting in chairs — it’s by doing,” he said. “If you want to teach about David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, let’s get kids into a round-robin where they can meet members of our faculty dressed up like them, face to face.”

Joshua Mason-Barkin takes a similar approach at Shabbat B’yachad, the Shabbat Community religious school founded by West Los Angeles’ Temple Isaiah in 2008. Here, learning sessions for families with children in kindergarten through seventh grade occur alternately on Friday evenings, Saturday mornings and Saturday afternoons. In class, educators are more likely to throw kids into a political role play than teach Israeli history by rote.

“It’s hard for us to have much control over what facts kids remember,” said Mason-Barkin, director of congregational learning at Temple Isaiah. “We’re focusing more on ‘who does the learner become,’ rather than ‘what does the learner know.’ The reason parents schlep their kids to religious school is because they care about things like heritage, community, giving kids a values-based worldview and a Jewish identity.”

Most families still opt for Temple Isaiah’s traditional-model religious school, but Mason-Barkin believes family learning offers lasting benefits. Children become more invested in their education, he said, because “kids are getting an explicit message all the time that this matters to their parents.”

But alternative religious schools don’t work for every congregation, said Aron, the HUC-JIR professor. These programs are costly — in terms of time and funds — and require support from the entire congregation, she said. Families must be convinced the concept is worthwhile and often must recruit their peers to commit financially to an untested idea.

Leo Baeck Temple’s alternative track, Family Shabbat Experience, disbanded this year because not enough families enrolled to sustain it, director of education Avram Mandell said. Compared to the Bel Air synagogue’s traditional Sunday morning religious school, most parents felt there was no contest, he said: Sunday sessions typically include art, drama, Israeli dance and even gardening as an elective, or kids can spin Jewish tunes as a DJ on the religious school’s own radio station.

“Since we create that energy on Sunday mornings, it was hard to get people to try the Saturday program,” Mandell said.

But Leo Baeck is making strides in another rapidly growing learning frontier — using digital technology for religious school instruction. Last year, Mandell began offering Hebrew tutoring via Skype. He is also making a series of Hebrew instructional videos that he uploads to YouTube. And for those with iPhones, he has created two Hebrew learning apps, Alef-Bet Bullseye and Alef-Bet Pile Up.

Technology makes religious school more convenient for families who find it difficult, logistically, to get to synagogue on a weekday afternoon, said Jane Slotin, executive director of New York-based PELIE (Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education). Besides, she said, computers and smart phones are becoming ever more popular routes for kids to engage with each other, so why can’t they help kids engage with Judaism?

Bel Air’s Stephen S. Wise Temple Religious School built on that philosophy when educators introduced the school’s iLearn program last year, now available to fourth- and fifth-graders. Kids enrolled in iLearn meet for traditional, in-person instruction on Sunday mornings but also convene digitally on Wednesday afternoons at a “virtual classroom” accessed through their laptops, wherever they happen to be.

Children might relate better to lessons conducted in an interactive computer format that resembles Internet games and chat features they use regularly, said Stephen S. Wise religious school director Andrea Gardenhour. And although iLearn uses new tools that may seem unfamiliar to parents, at its core, the program offers the same instruction kids would get in a traditional classroom.

“Instead of pages in a book, it’s Web frames,” Gardenhour said. “This is about moving into a new age of learning experiences.”

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