Jewish Journal

Rethinking—and revitalizing—religious schools

by Julie G Fax

August 16, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Fourth grade teacher Irina S. works with a group of students

Fourth grade teacher Irina S. works with a group of students

Like most kids Jewish kids in the 1970s, Devorah Moos Hankin didn't like religious school, nor did she get much out of it. She remembers learning by rote, with a teacher standing at the board writing Hebrew letters.

Her sons are having a much different experience at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

Last year Jacob, then in third grade, wrote a story about lying. Matthew, who was in sixth grade, collaborated with a small group of kids to create a book about Passover, with drawings, poems and stories. Both boys plowed ahead in a self-paced Hebrew program.plowed ahead in a self-paced Hebrew program.

Temple Emanuel's new approach to supplementary Jewish education does away with the 1950s model of religious school, bringing in a campier feel with student-driven art, drama or hghi-tech projects replacing classroom learning. Kids work independently to learn Hebrew, with teachers circulating to help where needed.

"My kids were much happier last year, and seemed to learn Hebrew with more facility than they did in a more standard classroom environment," Hankin said. "I'm a big fan of the new program."

A growing number of synagogues around Los Angeles and throughout the country are upending the time-honored idea of Sunday school. Some synagogues now offer their kids classes on Shabbat; others are condensing 26 Sundays into three weeks of camp. Many are trying to bring parents out of the carpool line and into the school. This year, a handful of synagogues in Los Angeles will embark on an 18-month professionally guided process to completely restructure their educational culture.

At their worst, supplementary schools offer inexperienced or uninspired teachers who cover tired and repetitive curricula that seems divorced from anything else in the students' life. Parents are uninvolved, kids come to class tired after a long day at school, and the commitment to attending is considered a lower priority than soccer or hip-hop. Even if only one or two of those liabilities apply to most religious schools -- and some defy all of these stereotypes -- it's hard to get around the reality that congregational schools are the white elephant in the realm of Jewish identity diminishment.

That reality is supported by anecdotal evidence and reams of research. In fact, one study even shows that people who went to one-day-a-week school were less likely to stay meaningfully Jewish as adults than kids who had no formal Jewish education at all. In other words, doing nothing was better than going to religious school.

And yet, congregational-run supplementary school remains the primary way that most Jewish kids get a formal Jewish education. In Los Angeles more than 12,000 kids attend these schools.

"The number alone warrants serious attention to doing whatever possible to make those programs as effective learning environments as possible," said David Ackerman, director of educational services at the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles. "If a congregation is willing to look seriously at its program and is willing to make some changes and take bold steps, and is willing to ask questions about what are its goals and what it wants to achieve, perhaps we will discover that religious schools can be significantly more effective than they have been until now."

Ackerman is hoping to achieve that through the bureau's work with the Experiment in Congregational Education's Re-Imagine project, a program created by the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Rhea Hirsch School of Education. Re-Imagine will work with seven synagogues locally on a process of deconstructing and then reconstructing the educational goals for their entire congregation, and determining how youth education fits into that picture.

"I think a lot of congregations have been very focused on the idea that if we teach kids the skills they will practice the skills, so let's teach them about Shabbat, let's teach them the blessing, with the assumption that the act of actually doing the blessing and observing Shabbat will be taken care of at home," said Amy Asin, who is coordinating Los Angeles' Re-Imagine effort. But that scenario of Jewish home life has been outdated for decades. "So the question is, is the goal only to teach confidence and content, or is there a need for acculturation? And the answer to that will be different for every congregation."

Leo Baeck Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Temple Judea, Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, Adat Ari El, Temple Beth El of San Pedro and Temple Isaiah each contributed $12,000 to fund the program, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a donor from the Jewish Funders Network contributed the rest to make up the $450,000 price tag on Re-Imagine.

Temple Judea -- the largest supplementary school in the city, with more than 1,000 kids on campuses in West Hills and Tarzana -- has had a jump-start on Re-Imagine.

In addition to the traditional two-day-a-week school, Temple Judea has about 100 kids in private Hebrew tutoring and Sunday morning Judaica. That option is reserved for kids who have difficulty in a classroom setting, or who have extreme schedule demands -- such as those who are professional actors or athletes with Olympic aspirations.

Beginning in 2008, kids will be able to opt to forgo the regular classes to enroll instead in day camp for two weeks at the end of the summer, where from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. they will pray, learn Jewish content and participate in regular camp activities like music, art and sports. During the year those same kids will attend a weeklong winter camp, six family holiday sessions, and a few Shabbat dinners and weekend retreats. Fourth- through sixth-graders will also take part in the Hebrew tutoring program.

Rabbi Bruce Raff, director of education, said with this schedule kids will actually be studying more hours than they do in the usual 25 Sundays and Tuesdays in a year.

"We can create with repetition and intensity the kinds of things that get created in summer camp that you don't create as well in school," Raff said. "If we do Birkat Hamazon [the blessing after meals] every day for 11 days in a row, you're going to learn it."

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