August 16, 2007
Rethinking—and revitalizing—religious schools
(Page 2 - Previous Page)But will the intensity -- and knowledge -- of August wear off by November? And does condensing religious school into a few weeks in the summer and winter send the wrong message about the consistency of commitment required for Jewish learning?
Raff believes the flow of events throughout the year will keep the summer spark alive.
"What it becomes is something exciting and fun. Kids don't respond to school in the same way they respond to camp. Kids love going to summer camp, and unfortunately, the average child doesn't like going to religious school," he said, adding that nevertheless kids at Temple Judea's regular religious school are quite happy there.
Raff is likely to face some opposition when the synagogue tries to change a model that is so entrenched in the American Jewish culture. New models can be perceived as dumbing down the curriculum; capitulating to families' dwindling willingness to invest time in building Jewish identity. And some experiments might be too radical, or require too much participation from parents.
Some pilot programs have garnered attention, according to Isa Aron, a professor of Jewish education at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, and a founder of the Experiment in Congregational Education. In Boston, Kesher, an after-school daycare, offers informal study time, Judaic electives and Hebrew study. At a congregation in Rye, N.Y. that just went through Re-Imagine, children and their parents separately and then together study a specific value with accompanying Torah text and prayers, following up by acting out that value in social action and then creating a family project.
Aron's favorite model is the Shabbat learning community.
"If a family is going to services on Shabbat every week and learning for 10 years, that is going to change people," Aron said. "It doesn't always make them Shabbat shul-goers, but it gives them a sophisticated concept of Judaism and it makes what you are learning about in the school context true to how you are actually living."
IKAR, a spiritual community in Los Angeles, has adopted the Shabbat model.
"Our philosophy is to teach Jewish life as Jewish life is happening, and it doesn't happen in two-hour blocks on Tuesdays and Sundays, it happens on Shabbat," Lisa Alpern, director of education and family programming said.
Founded in 2004 and now 300-member units strong, IKAR is launching its religious school this year, with one weekday afternoon of Hebrew study and a Shabbat program with parallel prayer and study tracks for kids and adults, based on IKAR's vision of the intersection of spirituality and social action.
But the Shabbat model has one significant challenge: Parents are required to make the same time commitment required of their kids.
"Most parents, though they are dedicated to instilling within their children a love for Judaism are not necessarily willing to partake in in a consistent way, not because they don't have an authentic love for Judaism themselves, but rather that their ultimate interest is the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony," said Meirav Finley, who runs Ohr HaTorah's religious school, which meets on Shabbat and has about 70 kids. "They are more attracted to the kind of school where they candrop their kids off on Sunday, and go to the tennis court or shopping or to work."
Meirav and her husband, Ohr Ha Torah spiritual leader and founder Rabbi Mordecai Finley, have created the religious school in the mold of the synagogue, whose nondenominational, progressive congregation meets in the Faith Tabernacle Church in West Los Angeles. The Finley's vision is for the kids as well as the adults to understand that Jewish tradition, appreciated in the full context of history and spirituality, can be immeasurably enriching -- if the whole family is actively involved.
"Sure, we can teach Shabbat observance. However, if it is not practiced and experienced by the family is it not absorbed and creates conflict at the home as well as the classroom," Finley said.
While regular Shabbat attendance is not the norm for all communities, many schools are trying different approaches to integrating parents into the process. Some require parents to attend Sunday morning classes, others send material home for parents and kids to complete together. Schools are working toward parents reinforcing what kids learn through rituals in the home.
At Temple Emanuel, parents are invited to six chagigot, holiday celebrations, where kids present their projects, opening up avenues for family discussion and creating a more cohesive community among the families.
Last year Emanuel switched to project-based learning. After a short introduction from the teacher about the matriarchs, for instance, kids might research, write and perform a play on the life of Rebecca. Kids reap the benefits of studying topics in depth, choosing to work alone or in groups and picking a medium that interests them -- comic books, art or video productions said Geoff Prass, Emanuel's religious school principal.
Educational experts agree that mastering a topic to present to others is one of the best ways to learn it. Focusing on specific aspects of a holiday or Torah portion also avoids repetition from year to year.
For Hebrew study, Temple Emanuel adapted the Union for Reform Judaism's Mitkadem curriculum, in which kids work independently to learn to read the prayers, grasp their meaning and translate important Hebrew words' roots, then progress to the next level when they pass an evaluation.
The approach has motivated kids to work hard and allowed for the appropriate level of teacher input and time, said Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, director of education at Temple Emanuel.
Aaron and Prass both say they see kids excited about the progress they make. Of course, there are challenges as well.