KleinLife Brings Parents Into the Classroom

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The weekly Sunday program was launched to give children ages 5 to 13 a chance to learn about their Jewish identities and feel proud of it in a way most of their parents were never permitted.

The 45 to 50 children participating in KleinLife’s Sunday school program as part of its Russian Family Outreach Program are getting a very different Jewish education than many of their parents ever received.
In September, the weekly Sunday program was launched to give children ages 5 to 13 a chance to learn about their Jewish identities and feel proud of it in a way most of their parents were never permitted.
“The program is very important because the parents of the children that we’re trying to educate came from the former Soviet Union, where they were basically denied an ability to be Jewish and to have an ability to learn anything Jewish,” said Andre Krug, president and CEO of the Northeast Philadelphia organization.
“Probably none of them had bar or bat mitzvahs, and they were persecuted for even acknowledging they were Jewish,” he continued. “Now it’s really nice to see the children of these people who were so much removed from religion begin to feel proud about being Jewish.”
The school program, made possible by a grant from the Bernard and Etta Weinberg Family Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, is divided into three age groups — 5 to 7, 8 to 10, 11 to 13 — and is the “baby” of Victoria Faykin.
Faykin, vice president of Business Development, Membership and Russian Services, moved to the United States in 1997 with her husband and two children.
She grew up in Russia, where she remembers eating matzah her mother wrapped in a pillowcase under the table, and not really knowing anything about holidays.
For her, the program is an opportunity for these children to learn about their heritage and feel pride in it.
“The main idea [is] to be proud to be Jews,” she said. “Not just history and tradition and language — to teach them to be proud to be Jewish. And for parents like myself, when we grew up in Soviet Union, we were afraid to be Jewish, we were afraid to say, ‘Yes, I am Jewish’ if someone asks.
“The idea for the school was not just to give the children opportunities to learn,” she added. “Through the children, we give education to parents.”
She has worked at KleinLife for 18 years and wanted to bring a Sunday school program to the facility.
Since 2014, she and other leaders have worked with Gratz College, which created the program’s curriculum. It officially kicked off in September, and Faykin is happy — to say the least — with how it’s gone so far.
“Every Sunday, I run,” she laughed. “I wake up and run to Klein. This is the best day of the whole week.”
She has been getting to know the children personally, as well as their parents, who are the real targets for the program.
In that sense, it’s kind of the opposite of many other educational programs, Krug acknowledged.
“This program works in reverse in the sense that children are the ones who bring Judaism back to people’s homes,” he said. “So because the parents didn’t have access to that, we expect the children who participate in the program to bring their parents into the fold, which is a bit of a departure from the usual kind of Jewish programming.”
For him, this program is an opportunity to get parents more involved and learn alongside their children — or the children could be the ones teaching their parents.
“If the parents don’t know anything, we expect the children to start instilling the sense of Jewish identity in their parents and start bringing parents out for various Jewish activities,” he said.
They have held lectures and concerts and speaker events geared toward children and parents alike, all in line with the idea of feeling proud to be Jewish.
“We want parents to take more control over the program,” he continued, “and that’s one of the main objectives of the program because the Russian community is generally not involved in the life of the general Jewish community. The reason they’re not involved is they don’t have this kind of a culture of volunteerism, and this is what we’re trying to instill in them.”
He hopes that, moving forward, parents will start to be more heavily involved in choosing programs for the classes and for holiday celebrations.
Faykin has enjoyed watching the students learn more about holidays and traditions. They held a model Seder for Passover that for many parents or grandparents may might have been their first ever, she said.
They learn about famous Jewish figures and history and other topics, without focusing too much on religion, though the students also learn Hebrew and prayers.
“They know how to celebrate all holidays, traditions, Hebrew, and we learn prayers because you can’t celebrate Shabbat without the prayers or light the menorah for Chanukah without prayers,” Faykin said.
Their concept is nondenominational, Krug added.
“It’s based on the sense of instilling a Jewish pride in children, and we give them all kinds of education in terms of why you should be proud to be Jewish,” he said. “We teach them Jewish history and the current Jewish events and about, let’s say, scientists and sports figures that are Jewish, so children have some kind of a yardstick to say this is why we’re so proud to be Jewish.”
For instance, his 10-year-old daughter who is enrolled in the program, learned recently about Jonas Salk, who created the vaccine for polio. She was excited to tell him about what she learned.
He hopes as parents get more involved and the students learn more about their Jewish heritage, the program will have lasting effects.
“It’s a pretty unique thing, I’m not sure that anything like this exists anyplace else in the country,” he said. “And it’s a long kind of a process of bringing Russian Jews into the scope of the Jewish community, and hopefully this is gonna be a very successful effort because it is a successful effort so far. Hopefully it will have a long-term impact on children their parents.”
In June, they will hold a bar mitzvah ceremony for some of the 13-year-olds in the program — who then ask what they can do next year, Faykin said with a laugh.
“They don’t want to leave,” she said. “They fall in love with the program.”
Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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