Students these days have a lot on their plates. Between school every day and after school activities taking up much of their time in the afternoons — and sometimes on the weekends — it can be hard to fit in religious school between dance lessons, soccer practice, guitar rehearsal, debate club … the list goes on and on.
For parents, it can be equally difficult to make sure their kids fit in all of their activities and still get to religious school on time — and have dinner. It’s an even bigger stressor when the classes are during the week.
That’s where synagogues come in.
Religious school programs strive to give kids a Jewish education that will be effective and beneficial and also fit into their schedules.
Parents will sometimes say, “My child is so busy with sports and dance and karate that we don’t have time for religious school,” said Steve Weintraub, educational director for Temple Judea.
“I’ve always felt that was a mistake — very few of our children will grow up to be professional ballers but they will all grow up to be Jewish, and if they don’t have the background, they will have difficulty functioning in the adult world,” he said.
For that reason, Temple Judea’s religious school has flexed to help the kids accommodate their schedules — as well as the parents who have to get them there.
In previous years, including the 28 years that Weintraub has been in his role, classes were held from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. This year, he said, they changed it to 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., to better fit people’s schedules and to give the kids a little “decompression time” between finishing their everyday school classes and starting their religious school classes.
“We felt enough of the students had enough of an issue,” he explained of the decision. “We felt the extra half-hour would make a difference.”
The students are also treated to a pizza dinner at 6:30 p.m., so parents can be assured their kids won’t be sitting through classes with their stomachs growling because they may not have eaten anything substantial since lunchtime.
“Obviously, the students nowadays are programmed to the hilt — many would say over-programmed — and they’re busy between public school and extracurricular activities and dance and karate,” Weintraub said. “A lot of times, they’re running and they don’t have time to have a nutritious meal and downtime. We feel it’s important to provide that.”
According to Weintraub, students can use this time to do homework and study if they do not want dinner, Weintraub said, or if parents want to pick them up, this is the time to do it. He does not recommend the students leaving, however, because in addition to enjoying pizza — or sometimes pasta to switch it up — it is a time for the students to socialize with one another.
The dinner comes at the end of classes for the students in fourth to sixth grades on Wednesdays, while the seventh- to 10th-graders enrolled have dinner at the beginning of theirs, which is 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., so if the parents don’t want to have them participate, they haven’t missed any class time.
At the moment, the new class time seems to be working, as Weintraub hasn’t heard otherwise. “One of the things I’ve learned as a Jewish educator is if people don’t complain, that means they’re OK,” he said.
For other programs, the option of choice comes into play to help balance religious school in addition to other activities students have going on.
The third- to seventh-graders at Har Zion Temple have participated in Route 613 since last year, which gives them the options of classes to take, and days to take them, said Rabbi Nogah Marshall.
Marshall, the education director, said all students come on Sunday, which is standard, but the students can pick what day they come for class during the week, either Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday night or Saturday morning.
“It’s helped families who have other commitments, and it helps attendance,” she said, adding there are about 125 students currently enrolled.
The classes are also varied in terms of medium as she recognizes all students learn differently. In addition to traditional classes such as Hebrew, prayer and text study, there are also yoga, debate and art classes that explore Jewish themes and lessons in ways that might better fit particular students.
“It gives them ownership of their studies,” she said.
These choices help provide an environment that is “appealing to all students.”
She hopes that the options they offer will better fit the student’s ability to make it to class and help the parents get them there. She has already seen it working as fewer students have been leaving early, while attendance has improved.
“We want the family to know we know there are other commitments, and we want them to be involved and give their students an education,” Marshall said.
Others, like Rodeph Shalom, have done away with mandatory weekday classes entirely because it can become too much for the students and instead focus on the Sunday classes.
Sundays have become the biggest day of programming for the synagogue, said Rabbi Eli Freedman. The classes are held from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and that period allows families to carve out time to make it to the synagogue, he said.
They do offer optional Hebrew classes during the week on Wednesdays, but because it isn’t required that helps families, he said.
“Having that sort of option for the families that want that two-day experience, it’s great and they come during the week,” Freedman said. “Because we don’t require it, most families come Sundays. That seems to balance really well for them.”
The students are “rewarded” with bagels in the morning, although Freedman hopes there are other incentives for coming to class, he joked. Students who choose to come on Wednesdays also are provided with snacks.
The families also use this time to engage with one another, he said. When parents drop off their kids for classes, they don’t just leave.
The synagogue is a place where the whole community comes together, Freedman said, and it’s helpful that classes are on Sundays as that has become the biggest day of gathering, perhaps more so than Shabbat.
“We have a unique culture,” he said. “We do a lot of our other programming on Sundays and really make it a one-stop shop.”
The balancing act is important because he knows the students have a lot written into their daily planners.
“We understand that our kids are busy,” he said. “They’re a lot more programmed than I was when I was their age. We take that into account in terms of our expectations of them and we try to work with that.”
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