New Initiatives Spark New Hebrew School Models

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New grants and initiatives spark new thinking for supplementary Jewish education.

If you walk through the main entrance of Temple Sholom in Broomall, you’ll notice that it has two mezuzahs — one at the usual eye level and another low enough for people in wheelchairs to touch as they enter.

That inclusive gesture comes courtesy of the Reform synagogue’s elementary school-age students, who suggested adding the additional mezuzah, as well as large-print and braille prayer books for congregants with disabilities.


You’ll also learn that students — during Sunday school — started looking around the synagogue to determine where other hurdles for people with disabilities existed.

The project evolved as part of Temple Sholom’s participation in a two-year incubator program sponsored by Jewish Learning Venture. The new approach is centered around the idea that students are best educated by experiential learning rather than by sitting at their desks.

According to Temple Sholom education director Lori Green, teachers are now never in front of the classroom.

Never? “That’s correct,” said Green. If you’re just talking to the students, “they’re not learning, By them engaging in the learning, by them doing the research, they are learning through that process.”

Temple Sholom’s new model, known as Rimon, after the Hebrew word for pomegranate, is one of many local and national efforts in recent years to make significant changes in supplementary Jewish education.

The quest for innovative programming is not altogether new. The stereotypical lament of kids being forced to attend Hebrew school has long plagued educational directors looking for new and inspiring ways to engage Jewish children.

But the issue has taken on added significance in recent years amid growing disaffiliation and disaffection among Jewish families.

Studies show that fewer younger Jewish families outside the Orthodox community are joining synagogues. And if they aren’t joining synagogues, they are less likely to send their children to Hebrew school, meaning that those numbers will likely continue to decline in future generations.

“We are in a period when we look at congregational enrollment and religious school enrollment, and the numbers are not up,” said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of the Melrose Park-based Jewish Learning Venture.

A 2013 survey of American Jewry from the Pew Research Center found that fewer than one-third of Jews in the United States say they belong to a synagogue. And excluding day schools and yeshivas, only 22 percent of parents have a child enrolled in a formal Jewish educational program.

For families who do want to Jewishly educate their children, there are other options such as Chabad; Makom, a daily Jewish afterschool program in Center City; or private tutors, all of which can be less expensive than Hebrew school at a synagogue.

But Warmflash and other local educational leaders say that declining numbers are not the driving force behind the change initiatives.

“Nobody is saying that the numbers are great, but this is not just because of numbers. This is because we have a changing population. We have changing needs, we have changing ways of learning,” said Warmflash.

“It’s important that the people who are making the choice to be part of a synagogue community, to enroll their children in a congregational school, feel like what’s happening with their children is going to have a positive impact on their lifelong engagement Jewishly.”

To develop new educational models, Jewish Learning Venture, through a grant from the Covenant Foundation, is sharing the results of its work at Temple Sholom and other local synagogues with four other community agencies around the country who are similarly trying to innovate.

Among other recent initiatives on the local scene is a collaboration of three synagogues — two Reform, one Conservative — along the Old York Road corridor in Elkins Park that are preparing to develop a new merged Hebrew school, expected to launch in the fall, that will also use project-based curriculum.

In addition, the Center for Jewish Life and Learning of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia provided a $50,000 grant for Gratz College and Jewish Learning Venture to develop a pilot program that could include educational events such as one-day or weekend retreats centered around Jewish learning.

Some local programs are examining how they can change the structure of their religious schools because of families’ busy schedules, said Barbara Hirsh, director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning.

“Kids are involved in so many activities, and they are under such pressure even from a young age,” said Hirsh, noting that some of that pressure stems from wanting to be involved in activities that will look good on a college application.

“This is one more thing that competes for their time and unless it’s really interesting to the kids, they may make other choices,” she said, adding that “the amount of time they have devoted to Jewish education is something we need to address.”

Among the ideas being discussed for the Federation, Gratz and Jewish Learning Venture pilot would be to invite religious schools to participate in programs outside the synagogues at places like the Franklin Institute, which would offer a course that melds Torah and technology, or at the National Museum of American Jewish History, where family members could be interviewed about their history, said Hirsh.

In addition to focusing on projects rather than lectures, religious school leaders are also trying to better integrate technology. When Temple Sholom moved to the project-based learning model in 2013, it also changed its curriculum and materials. Previously, they used prayer books “that focused much more on the decoding and straight meaning of the prayer and what specific words meant,” said Green, who has been in Jewish education for 30 years and at Temple Sholom since 1998.

The school created its own prayer books and now each elementary school student — the synagogue is in the process of changing its model for later grades — also has a digital portfolio where they record video or audio reflections on prayers.

“When a child learns a specific prayer, it’s one thing to be able to read and chant it; it’s another thing to understand it and make personal meaning of it,” said Green.

When Green and other leaders at the synagogue decided to make the change, they increased the education budget by about $10,000 and hired six additional teachers. The synagogue, which has about 450 families, remained stable through the recession and did not see declines in either elementary school-level enrollment or membership, said Green. Although the high school enrollment has declined somewhat, some 230 students attend kindergarten through 10th grade.

The changes were “not brought on by any dissatisfaction from families or as a way to increase membership,” said Green, who met with Rabbi Peter Rigler to discuss the changes a few years ago.  

The synagogues involved with the merger — Beth Sholom Congregation, Adath Jeshurun and Keneseth Israel — are considering allowing families to send their children for one year without belonging to one of the three synagogues involved, said Warmflash.

That would serve as an introduction, he said, with the goal of the families joining a synagogue after the first year.

Adath Israel in Merion Station already uses a similar model. It allows non-member families to send their children from kindergarten through second grade but then asks them to join the congregation by third grade.

With the assistance of Jewish Learning Venture and its predecessor, the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, the Conservative synagogue has participated in a number of development programs over the last decade, according to its education director, Sherrie Klein.

Teachers have stopped standing in front of the classroom. Parents now have the option of sending their children on Saturday or Sunday. There are chugim, or clubs, in which students work on project such as knitting scarves for Israeli soldiers while learning about the Israel Defense Forces.

Klein said there has been significant innovation and yet, 11 years ago there were 250 students enrolled in religious school compared to about 200 students now, despite an increase in synagogue membership. She did note, however, that enrollment increased for the first time in a decade this year and some of the larger numbers are in the younger grades.

For Adath Israel and other synagogues looking to innovate, the process can be a matter of trial and error.

Klein cited as an example the decision to switch from a traditional mincha afternoon prayer service to a camp-style ruach session for third-graders to sixth-graders, who meet on Wednesdays in addition to one of the weekend sessions.

“We had people writing camp songs, and the kids didn’t like it; they didn’t buy into it,” said Klein. “I had kids coming to me and saying, ‘Can’t we just do our mincha service?’ ”

The school switched back to mincha.

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