The following is the first in a series of articles about the Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools program.
An estimated 80 percent of Jewish children receive their formal religious training through a synagogue supplemental school. For many of these youngsters, research has revealed what their parents have known for years — that the experience inside the classroom has been less than positive, and interest in attending Hebrew school less than enthusiastic.
Enter the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education's Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools — or NESS — program. This innovative initiative and national model has spread its wings across the Philadelphia region, and is changing the sentiments of Jewish youth.
"NESS is striving to transform and restructure synagogue supplemental schools," said Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg, acting director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Jewish Life and Learning, which funds the initiative designed by ACAJE. "A top priority for Federation is to ensure high-quality and engaging education for children and their families.
"It is critical that children and families feel positively connected to Judaism as a result of participating in Jewish education, so they stay connected throughout their lives," continued Goldberg. "Federation supports the NESS initiative as a tool to accomplish this goal."
Federation initially invested $527,669 to fund the three-year pilot program that included six area congregational schools, varying in size, location and denomination. That program, which concluded last spring, was extremely well-received by students, parents, educators and synagogue leaders. It encompassed curriculum improvements and groundbreaking innovations where students serve on steering committees that direct the synagogues' future.
Because of such success, Federation is funding a second cohort of six schools for a four-year period that began in September, with a first-year investment of $196,500.
Federation has also made a one-year commitment to fund an extended learning and practice program, further strengthening the schools from the first cohort.
The six synagogue schools that comprise the second cohort are Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, Temple Sinai in Dresher and Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
Rabbi Fredi Cooper, director of the NESS initiative at ACAJE, said that "our goal for the second cohort is to continue to diffuse the program throughout the community. We have gone from six congregations to 12, and are making an impact and transforming schools."
NESS was first conceptualized by ACAJE in response to a 2002 study it commissioned titled "Engaging and Retaining Jewish Youth Beyond Bar/Bat Mitzvah." The study was conducted in response to the national and local trend of Jewish youth expressing discontent with supplemental-school education, as well as a decrease in enrollment by 50 percent of post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah children.
The goal of NESS is to provide Jewish youth with a meaningful educational experience, while at the same time developing identity and increasing community involvement.
Its key components include learning best practices for teachers from both secular and Judaic standpoints; mentor/teacher training; school assessments; and leadership, organizational and curriculum development.
NESS is not a quick fix, pointed out Cooper.
It is a program with six interrelated components, she said, to be implemented from grades three through seven over a four-year period: "We hope that what we have learned will also be integrated at the pre-kindergarten and high school level. We also hope that the learning from the NESS initiative can be applied throughout the educational spectrum in synagogues."
Cooper noted that much of the practical knowledge gleaned from the experiences of the first cohort has enabled ACAJE to enhance the program even further for the second set of schools.
Assessing the Needs
One tool proven highly effective across the board is the Jewish School Assessment School Improvement Process. Foundations, Inc., an outside organization that, in conjunction with ACAJE, developed and administers the tool, works in unison with ACAJE consultants to enable schools to examine their strengths — and even their weaknesses.
JSASIP involves two assessors going into a school to observe and develop an assessment. In addition, schools use various other measures, such as surveys and focus groups. Congregational schools in the second cohort are presently immersed in this self-examination process.
Just six months into the program, Phil Nordlinger, educational director of Beth Sholom Congregation, describes the assessment stage as an enlightening process. He said the synagogue is asking the following questions: "What do we want our students to know, to do, to feel?" and "What supports need to be in place to make those goals a reality?"
By reaching out to the diverse factions that constitute the 950-family congregation — students, parents, educators, the Sisterhood, the Men's Club, committee members — Nordlinger stated that the synagogue is "dreaming up the possibilities" and envisioning an ideal program. He expected curriculum changes to take effect in the fall.
"We watched the great success of the first cohort and saw how it really strengthened the schools," he continued. "We wanted to identify our areas of strength and those in which we could improve and meet the needs of our current and future students. By participating, we hope to inspire parental involvement, and increase enthusiasm among our children and parents."
Gloria Eiseman, education director at Beth Am Israel, said that her synagogue is committed to NESS. Parents from the 350-family congregation were very responsive to a survey, and students have been communicative in the classroom when asked for their thoughts, she explained.
Before applying for the second cohort, Eiseman benefited from attending a NESS-sponsored leadership-development program for education directors.
"I am very excited about the possibilities of what the initiative can achieve in the religious school and the synagogue community," said Eiseman, a Jewish educator for 30 years now. "The most astounding change I have seen so far is the transformation of our Education Committee. It's now looking at the school in the bigger picture and determining what needs to be done."
Eiseman said that in the past, committee meetings were mostly comprised of parents of children in the school; today, stakeholders such as the rabbi, synagogue president, incoming president and congregation members are key participants in steering the synagogue's future.
Process of Setting Goals
When Donald Cohen, education director at Tiferet Bet Israel, heard rave reviews about the effectiveness of NESS from his colleagues, he knew that the timing was right for the mid-size congregation of some 520 families to submit an application to become part of the second cohort. Cohen found the management training during this first year, along with the collaboration and idea exchange among the educational directors, an invaluable experience.
"We are still in the process of setting goals," he said, acknowledging that putting ideas into action will take time. "Our goal is to make the school as enjoyable and productive as possible for students and teachers, which is what NESS is all about."
For more information, call Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg at 215-832-0665.