Can a Jewish educational standby become new and improved?
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Can a Jewish educational standby become new and improved?

It’s time to think about changing synagogue religious schools.

That’s the message being sent by the leaders of the Synagogue Life Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which next week will hold an evening meeting exploring innovative models of Jewish religious school education.

“Religious schools are using a model that was created 60 years ago,” said Lisa Harris Ms. Glass, the federation’s managing director for community planning and impact and SLI’s longtime head. “Think of all the innovations in education in all schools since then, in integration of technology, in a greater understanding of how kids learn.”

And think of the changes in society. Ms. Glass likes to cite the change in television programming – “I could tell you what show I like to watch but I can’t tell you when it airs,” thanks to her digital video recorder.”

Synagogue schools, she said, have to address the underlying “in-demand and on-demand” modes of today’s world, where for everything “there’s an expectation that you can get it in a framework that works for you.” The schools must “figure out how we can deliver what we deliver in multiple ways.”

“It’s about making sure that synagogue-based religious schools continue to be relevant,” added Stephanie Hauser, SLI’s change specialist. “There’s competition now from different sources. It’s not just synagogue-based religious school versus day school; it’s religious school versus private tutor or bar mitzvah-on-the-fly.”

Over this year, SLI will work with seven congregations to help them innovate with their religious schools, offering five sessions of training and discussion to which each congregation will bring a rabbi, an educational director, a teacher, and board members.

Thursday’s meeting is part of this program (called ATID – Hebrew for future, and the acronym for Addressing Transformative Innovative Design in Jewish Education ), but it is open to the broader community of synagogue leaders and to anyone interested in religious schools.

Attendees will hear from representatives of religious schools that have tried unconventional approaches.

One such school is that of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, where Sara Losch, director of lifelong learning, is working to integrate technology into the religious school.

Ms. Losch said that her synagogue is considering a major change in its educational programming. “We’re in the middle of talking about some very interesting models,” she said. She expects details to be finalized and announced early next year.

“Whatever we offer has to be at a very high level,” she said. “It has to be accessible. It has to be engaging.

“We know that there are more exciting but also efficient ways of working. How do we engage them while giving them high content material, and how do we put that together in a way that allows choice?”

Meanwhile, she has been integrating technology into existing programs.

Recently she took the sixth graders to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Rather than culminating a unit of study – a traditional field trip model – “we did not learn anything about it before we went. The idea was that the experience would lead to discussion and learning afterward,” she said.

Afterward, she posted pictures she had taken online, along with a text about welcoming strangers, and wrote a list of questions. At home that week, the students responded to the questions.

She said online discussions get a different response than classroom conversations.

“When you have an introverted child who rarely raises her hand in class, that child is more likely to write something very thoughtful in a computer community than in a face-to-face community,” she said.

There are other ways technology can expand the synagogue’s community and reach.

“When our associate rabbi was pregnant and on bedrest, she was doing a lot of her bar mitzvah training on Skype,” Ms. Losch said.

The parents were delighted, and not just because they didn’t have to drive to school for the lessons. “It was because the child was practicing in the house and on the computer. Parents were actually hearing the practice and were more engaged than when they come to the synagogue and go to the office and close the door.”

By contrast, at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom’s religious school, the innovation comes in creating a unique in-class community. Not that it’s new; the Mahwah congregation has been running a “Family School” alternative track within its traditional religious school for a decade now.

The Family School brings children and adults – generally a parent – to study together on Sunday mornings.

The program includes Hebrew study, Judaic study, a half hour of worship, and a 15-minute bagel break.

The program attracts about 45 families; a small portion of the 340 students registered in the school.

“A lot of our best students are non-Jewish parents,” said Rebecca McVeigh, the synagogue’s educator. “We have parents who are studying Hebrew, doing homework, getting called on, taking tests.”

By studying together (some lessons separate out the adult from the children), the religious school can be the subject of shared conversations.

“Not only do these parents know what the kids do, they talk about it in the car. They have a little more connectedness,” Ms. McVeigh said.

That, she said, is in contrast to a typical parent-child after class conversation: “What did you do in religious school today?” “Stuff.”

Having parents in the classroom changes the dynamic; the adult leading the class is not outnumbered by children. But not all grownups prove to be ideal students.

“We have parents who are on their phones. We have to give them the same speech we give everyone else.”

Ms. McVeigh herself took part in the first Family School group; she and her children remain close friends with their fellow participants.

“We think the family school is so amazing, that there was some talk about making it mandatory. But we met with Family School parents who said, ‘Why would I want to be in Family School with people who didn’t want to be there?'”

Other models being discussed at the SLI event include a Shabbat school and a camp-based program.

Information
ATID: Exploring alternatives in Jewish education. Learn how other synagogues are changing their religious school models to accommodate current demands.

When: Thursday, November 14, 6:30 sharp to 9 p.m. (A light supper will be served during the program.)

Where: Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, 50 Eisenhower Drive, Paramus

To register: Contact Nancy Perlman at nancyp@jfnnj.org or (201) 820-3904

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