Being part of a larger Jewish family

Being part of a larger Jewish family

Montebello Jewish Center, Nanuet Hebrew Center merge religious schools, youth groups

Before the pandemic, students at the Montebello Jewish Center learned about Passover. (MJC)
Before the pandemic, students at the Montebello Jewish Center learned about Passover. (MJC)

It takes just 10 minutes to drive between the Montebello Jewish Center and the Nanuet Hebrew Center in Rockland County. And now the two Conservative synagogues will be closer than ever.

They have decided to merge their religious schools and youth groups.

Jane Sherwood, president of MJC’s board of education, said, “With the changing demographics of the towns and our county, and our small size, this is the most sustainable and forward-thinking route for us. We will have the personal classroom attention our students have come to appreciate, with the added bonus of more student interaction, to achieve the most enriching experience.”

The combined religious school will be called Makom — Hebrew for “place.” The principal of Makom is Rebecca Bern-stein, an experienced Hebrew teacher and former part-time principal at Temple Sinai religious school in Massapequa, on Long Island.

Ms. Bernstein, who has lived in Rockland County for seven years, said that each school had about 20 students. “Our aim is for the students to come together in greater numbers and feel they’re part of a larger Jewish family,” she said.

Makom’s opening event will take place outdoors on Sunday, September 13, when the educational chairs of MJC and NHC will welcome both communities. Families will have an opportunity to meet Ms. Bernstein, MJC’s Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein and NHC’s Rabbi Paul Kurland, the three teachers from NHC and two from MJC, and the teen tutor volunteers who will help the kids build their confidence in chanting prayers.

Classes will be held — on Zoom, for now — on Sundays from 9 to 12 for third- to seventh-graders and from 9 to 11:15 for children in pre-K through second-graders. Children in third to seventh grades also will meet on Thursdays from 4:45 to 6:30.

If students eventually can move to in-person learning, classes will be divided equally between NHC and MJC.

“We’re planning fun interactive learning activities, using online tools and the talents of our teachers. The students will get a lot of individualized attention from their teachers and from the tutor volunteers,” Ms. Bernstein said.

Her plans include introducing third- to seventh-graders to Shalom Learning’s Escape Room on Jewish Topics, sharing video clips of Israel based on the topics the students are learning in class, and inviting parents and local Israeli residents to speak with the students. “My overall goal is that the students feel proud and happy to be Jews,” she said.

Ms. Bernstein was an instructional technology staff developer in a public school and taught computers for the last couple of years in the Bais Yaakov High School of Ramapo, so she is well qualified to work with teachers on getting the most out of remote learning.

Older members of Center Rock USY — the name of the newly combined Kadima and USY youth groups for grades six to 12 from both synagogues — also will be recruited to participate in fun activities with the religious school students, she added. (Kadima is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s youth movement for middle-schoolers; its United Synagogue Youth is for high schoolers. Center Rock USY was formed to incorporate both age groups.)

Center Rock USY’s leader is Rachel Benner, a Kadima/USY alumna and a lifelong member of Nanuet Hebrew Center. Ms. Benner, a paralegal and the mother of two young children, said that the two synagogues’ youth groups have shared activities in the past, but she organized online activities over the summer to better acquaint the approximately 25 kids with one another.

“It’s always fun when there are more kids at an event,” Ms. Benner said. “Now that we have a big chapter, if not everyone comes to every event there will still be enough participants that it will be enjoyable.”

Center Rock USY’s fall schedule will kick off with a virtual shul in, starting with an online Havdalah service and virtual game night. “It will run late enough that it will feel like the in-shul sleepover party we used to do,” Ms. Benner said.

And for those kids whose parents are comfortable with an in-person event, there will be a socially distanced outdoor movie night in the coming weeks.

“A lot of these kids haven’t seen anybody throughout the pandemic,” Ms. Benner said. “USY is a very warm, connected group and it will be great for them to see each other.”

Ms. Benner described the members of the combined group as “smart kids who are very involved in their schools.”

She said that she still is close with a few of her USY friends, “and I would love these kids to walk away with that, 10 years down the line. I want them to feel connected to their synagogues and communities, and I hope they will choose to join Hillel when they go to college so that they can continue their connection with Judaism.”

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