A homegrown experiment in reforming afternoon religious school at Santa Ana's Temple Beth Sholom is among five alternative models developed by other innovative congregations singled out for recognition by the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
"Jewish education is not like public education; there are no national standards," said Isa Aron, an HUC-JIR education professor and founding director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.
The research results of the 11-year-old project are evolving into a national clearinghouse of best practices and cutting-edge programs that address the seemingly relentless criticisms of synagogue education -- from inconvenient hours to teachers without professional training.
To help students avoid conflicts with after-school enrichment activities, Beth Sholom began allowing students to be individually tutored in Hebrew if their parents also take a synagogue class and participate in Family Learning Circles, a communal activity such as a Shabbat dinner club.
"Having parents continue to learn is a great role model," said Mindy B. Davids, Beth Sholom's education director.
Now, 57 percent of students and families in the 650-family congregation are enrolled in Family Learning Circles. Enrollment in adult education rose more than three-fold last year to 342. "I can hardly believe it myself," Davids said.
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