Rabbi Estelle Mills, the education director of the Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy (whose acronym is pronounced “ninja”), has nothing negative to say about large religious schools.
But she believes that bigger is not always better.
Smalls schools offer several advantages, she said. For example, “you’re able to do Hebrew instruction in small groups that are ability-based. You can take those who started later or are a bit slower and put them with others their age, so they won’t feel like they’re in a lower class. You can also challenge those who want to be challenged.
“We’re able to take a child at whatever level they’re at and provide a curriculum that will work for that child’s learning style and needs and age as they begin study,” she said. “We do our best to make sure that they enjoy it and have a positive Jewish identity.”
Another advantage, she said, is “the ‘personalization’ of teachers knowing students.” Teachers’ willingness — and their ability — to reach out to their students is of singular importance to Rabbi Mills, who lives in Mountain Lakes. Since she took up her position with NNJJA in 2014, she has made a special effort “to get teachers with the same philosophy, who are dynamic, innovative, and flexible. They’re all top caliber,” she said of her 10 instructors, “and the kids really like them.”
The notion that students should have fun is reflected not only in the school’s participatory learning style but also in its electives program. (Krav Maga, anyone?). Over the past year, student activities included — among other things — Sukkot hayrides, a Pokemon Shabbat, and an “Escape the Room” Passover program.
But what happens when the fun stops? Will students still be interested in Jewish life?
“My personal philosophy is that students have a lifetime to learn everything about Judaism,” said Rabbi Mills. But if you turn them off at an early age, she warned, they may never come back in. “With a positive experience, they’ll want to continue.”
Rabbi Mills, who has been in the rabbinate for several decades and has extensive experience in Jewish education, understands what modern families face as they try to put their children’s schedules together, fitting in both Hebrew school with other things that their children perhaps find more appealing. According to Rabbi Mills’ bio, on the Temple Israel website, as a parent, “She can empathize with the struggles of today’s Jewish families to make Judaism central to their lives when there are so many other competing activities demanding their time.”
Because her own daughter was been a Division I athlete who competed in diving for the University of Pennsylvania, Rabbi Mills says that she has “a direct window into the juggling act parents do to make time for both religious school and rigorous sports training in their children’s schedules.”
The solution, she believes, “isn’t throwing in the towel or watering down content” but rather making Jewish education more compelling.
Based at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, NNJJA, which first opened its doors nearly six years ago, now serves some 60 students from around Bergen County. A consortium of five synagogues — each with its own distinct culture — it was created when the five shuls realized that it made sense to pool their resources. Some were suffering declining enrollment; another member shul, Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck, had a lot of children but most of them go to to day schools.
In the words of a 2012 Jewish Standard article, the shuls — including, in addition to the Teaneck and Ridgewood shuls, Temple Beth Sholom of Fair Lawn, Kol Haneshamah of Englewood, and Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes — “concluded that they have far more to gain than to lose from banding together.”
Ordained as a Reform rabbi, Rabbi Mills has a good deal of experience serving Conservative congregations. Not surprisingly, she thinks it’s important for her students to experience different religious styles.
“We have a Friday night service at each of the participating shuls,” she said, adding that Shabbat and holiday programs rotate among synagogues in the consortium. “We bring members of the student body to help lead a Friday night service. The kids lead the service and share what they’ve learned.”
There are advantages, she said, to having a Hebrew school comprised of students from more than one synagogue. “It exposes kids to more friends, people who go to the school but don’t belong to their shul.” In addition, it may engender a closer adult community, as families from one congregation become friends with families from another.
Each of the participating synagogues “is in a different place on the spectrum of how traditional it is,” she said. “This exposes students to other ways of Jewish observance. By visiting synagogues, they see the things that other shuls do, and they’re exposed to different rabbis.” That exposure extends to the Reconstructionist movement as well, she added, since Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Israel is housed at Temple Israel.
NNJJA, which teaches not only how to read Hebrew “but how to understand the meaning of the prayers,” also focuses on Jewish holidays, Bible, Jewish history, Israel, and ethics. “We have a strong prayer curriculum,” Rabbi Mills said. “We offer a high level of Hebrew, so our students are able to lead the service for their bar or bat mitzvah and understand what they’re doing.”
“I’ve tried to be innovative,” she continued. “I come from a strong Jewish camping background. I try to make it like learning at camp — more experiential. I use that as a model.” A longtime Midwesterner, she has had a long relationship with the Goldman Union Camp Institute in Indianapolis. In addition, for her commitment to innovation in Jewish education, she was awarded a Legacy Heritage Innovator Grant as well as a URJ Belin Incubator Award.
NNJJA, which is funded through tuition and student subsides from their home congregations, also is open to students from outside those congregations. The next semester, which begins on September 10, will include classes for pre-K through second grade (Sundays, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.), third through seventh grade (Sundays, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Wednesdays, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.), and monthly Torah Tot Time for children 2 to 4 years old (Sunday, 9:45 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.).
For more information, email Rabbi Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org.