The words voiced to many Jewish parents are too familiar: "Why do I have to go to Hebrew school? It's so boring; I'm not learning anything."
Through research and population studies over the last few years, such sentiments have become a wake-up call to the Jewish community. With 80 percent of Jewish youth receiving their formal religious training in supplemental schools and the realization that their experiences were less than positive - coupled with the fact that post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah enrollment has declined by an estimated 50 percent - the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Jewish Life and Learning Task Force on Children, Youth and Family Education decided to make a significant investment in the community's future.
"What better way to do so than to invest in our children?" said Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg, the center's senior planner for Jewish enrichment. "Educating our youth and families is a top priority for the Jewish community and the center."
For the past year, the task force, chaired by Susanna Lachs Adler, has studied supplemental-school practices nationally. One program leading the pack is Philadelphia's own Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools. This three-year pilot program just completed its second year at six area congregational supplemental schools that run the gamut in terms of denomination, size and location. Federation made an initial investment in the NESS program of $150,000 over three years, and recently added $327,669 to this investment.
The seeds for NESS were planted when the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, a community partner of Federation that is also developing and administering NESS, commissioned a study: "Engaging and Retaining Jewish Youth Beyond Bar/Bat Mitzvah."
The findings identified the need for systemic changes. NESS aims to provide Jewish youth with a meaningful educational experience to develop identity and increase community involvement. Its key components include learning best-education practices through the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Literacy Network; mentor/teacher training; school assessments; and leadership, organizational and curriculum development.
Carol Auerbach, a trustee of the Auerbach Family Foundation and a key sponsor of NESS, worked closely with ACAJE on the program's conception and development.
Gloria Becker, educational director at Lafayette Hill's Congregation Or Ami, a pilot school, said of the program: "The kids are excited; they want to come to school. We have a great curriculum, teachers know their kids, parents are more involved, and lay leaders are making sure that we have all the resources we need to succeed."
Adler, a board member of ACAJE and a member of the NESS advisory committee, said: "NESS is a lot of hard work and a big investment, but definitely worthwhile. We hope it will be replicated in other synagogues in our community."
To that end, the Tuttleman Family Foundation has made a grant to fund NESS.
Laurie Levine, an Or Ami parent and board member, shared her perspective: "The NESS program has brought renewed dedication and excitement to our religious school. We also have kids that love going to services and the philosophy of NESS has begun to permeate our entire Or Ami community."
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