There’s a New Reason to SMILE at Or Hadash

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Come September, students will have a reason to smile — Or Hadash will introduce its SMILE program, which stands for Sunday Mornings Include Learning for Everyone.

Parents, you know the drill.

The kids finish their school days, go to soccer practice or dance rehearsal or music lessons or insert other extracurricular activity here, eventually start their homework (you hope), have dinner at some point and still try to get a good night’s sleep.


With their increasingly busy schedules, it can be especially hard to get kids to Hebrew school if it’s during the week.

Or Hadash Congregation understands the feeling. That’s why after a year of talking with parents of students who went to the congregation’s Sunday morning and Tuesday night classes and trying to think of a solution for a better time, it will be introducing a new program.

Come September, students will have a reason to smile — Or Hadash will introduce its SMILE program, which stands for Sunday Mornings Include Learning for Everyone.

“We’ve noticed a decline in attendance on Tuesdays, and it was a concern to us,” reflected Barbara Weisman, education director of Or Hadash. “We’re a small group anyway, so when we noticed that, we thought we would see what was up with our families.”

Around the same time, she and a few others who made up the steering committee met with Cyd Weissman, director of the Reconstructionist Learning Networks at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, to discuss the challenges they’ve been facing and possible solutions.

One such solution Weissman suggested was having a “hopes and dreams conversation” with the families. That would allow parents to talk about their hopes and dreams for their children’s Jewish education.

“When we talked with the parents, they were really happy with our program, but they admitted it was a challenge to get their kids to Hebrew school on Tuesdays,” Weisman said. “So with that information, we formed a committee, and we talked about my conversations with the parents and we determined it would be prudent to go to a one-day school.”

Whereas before there would be a two-hour program on Tuesday nights as well as a Sunday school program, SMILE consolidates those classes to a one-day program on Sunday.

In forming the new program, Weisman said they are taking the parents’ opinions seriously, and she is excited to see the outcome.

“We’re looking at the curriculum and revamping it for the coming year, but we’re really excited about this,” she said. “We’re taking the information the families gave us — they really want their children to feel comfortable in Jewish settings, to be comfortable learning about holidays and prayers and it’s really going to be a full curriculum, but we feel like we’re meeting our families where they are and that’s exciting to us.”

In crafting the new curriculum, Weisman said they have created two new initiatives she is particularly excited about.

One, called Mensch 2 Mensch Mentors, pairs younger students with older members of the congregation who are involved with subjects like Torah study and mussar “and they have a lot of really good interests and passion in Jewish life.”

These congregants will perhaps come in to teach a class or a hold a workshop for students to not only get them engaged in learning but also teach them a different perspective, which could be especially valuable for students of interfaith families, for instance, Weisman said.

“I also want them to invite the children to come to services and be there with them so they can spend time in the synagogue and be with their partner and form friendships because it works both ways,” she explained.

“Some of these people either don’t have grandchildren or have grandchildren across the country, and some of these Jewish children are hearing a different conversation or hearing different Jewish stories.”

It allows these congregants to truly live l’dor v’dor, she added, and be able to pass down their knowledge and wisdom to the next generation.

That generational factor also plays a key role in the second initiative Weisman is excited about. It’s called Generation 2 Generation.

There were two congregants who expressed that they saw a need for extra help in the classrooms. Teachers might need a helping hand sometimes during lessons or if there is a family education program, which the school tends to hold, and there is a need for help for that project, these congregants can step in.

It will serve as a support system, Weisman said, which will be valuable for the program.

Her hope is that as the students learn in their classes about holidays and prayers — in addition to their other classes, which used to be structured so that Tuesdays were for Hebrew and Sundays were for Judaica, but now it will be a combination.

That includes classes with a more creative and “artistic strand” — they will bring their parents to synagogue and involve them directly in what they’re learning about.

The synagogue focuses a lot on community, she added, which goes hand in hand with its goals for the education program and involving the families.

“It’s for you to experience, too,” she continued, “not just something that happened years ago in some far off place — it happens in our homes, too. So these are things that really involve the community and not just having the school as an entity that’s ‘Oh, that’s for our families with young children’ but seeing it as a community endeavor.”

The classes are split into age groups, starting as young as 4 years old through 10th grade (though 11th- and 12th-graders have the chance to stay in the classroom as assistants for the younger students).

It lasts throughout the morning in shifts, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Weisman herself will be involved with teaching the confirmation class with a few other instructors, including the rabbi, to give students fresh perspectives on what they’re learning about.

“It’s valuable for teens in forming their Jewish identity to hear those different voices so they can form their opinions from that,” she said. “Reconstructionist Judaism is not a

one-size-fits-all model, and our school is very Reconstructionist in that respect. We want our kids to experience different topics and feel comfortable in their Jewish skin.”

She is hoping the new program will help students find their own voice in their community and take their education into their own hands.

“We asked what they wanted, and we listened to them,” she said, “and I think that’s part of what they love about their school is they’re empowered to speak their minds and tell us how we can include you and it makes them feel part of the community, too.”

Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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