When its new year starts on Sept. 9, the Hebrew school at Cong. Gesher Shalom/The Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee will become the first school in New Jersey to participate in Project Etgar, a curriculum for middle-school students developed by the Conservative movement.
Created by the Melton Research Center of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, Etgar (Hebrew for "challenge") is now entering its sixth year.
According to Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of education at USCJ and one of the program’s founders, the curriculum is used in more than 40 Hebrew schools across the country. "Every year we bring on another 10 or so schools," he said. "Kids at this wonderful, interesting age of middle school have felt that it challenges them and is of interest. It’s different than what they’ve gotten used to in synagogues."
Nancy Galler-Malta, Gesher Shalom’s education director, is in her second year at the Fort Lee school. Prior to serving this congregation, she spent five years as the principal of the Nanuet Hebrew Center in New City, N.Y., which used the Etgar system. When she came to Gesher Shalom, she brought the program to the board’s attention.
"A lot of kids having bar/bat mitzvahs were really dropping out [afterward]," she said of the national trend. "Project Etgar has helped change all of that. It really speaks to middle schoolers in a way they can relate to. They can take ownership deciding who they’re going to become as Jews."
Etgar is based on research suggesting that students learn best when they work collaboratively instead of competitively; when they are actively engaged in their learning; and when they can build new knowledge on previous knowledge.
It uses a model called "4MAT," which moves students through a curriculum cycle while encouraging them to ask themselves why they are learning and how they will use the knowledge. Because the program encourages children to ask questions and take on leadership roles, "it gives them a sense of personal empowerment as Jews," Galler-Malta said.
Gesher Shalom will begin utilizing the curriculum in its sixth- and seventh-grade classes. Both grades will have four core units: friendship, sifrei kodesh (sacred texts), kashrut, and bikkur holim (visiting the sick). The subjects will be supplemented by the Iyun Tefillah curriculum, which includes the Amidah and the Torah service.
The seventh-grade class will include mitzvah projects and will highlight the idea that all Jews are responsible for each other. Etgar will account for 90 percent of the sixth- and seventh-grade curricula; the remaining 10 percent will focus on Hebrew.
"It gave them tools instead of giving them a ‘this is what we do and don’t ask questions’ format," Galler-Malta said of her past experience with Etgar.
While Abramson said he does not expect all Conservative Hebrew schools to adopt Etgar, he noted that the program has continued to grow because people like Galler-Malta take it from one school to another. Not every school has the size necessary to take on Etgar, he said, but the schools that have adopted the program have been pleased.
"It’s a case of people recognizing the need to change and being willing to find the types of teachers that Project Etgar requires," he said. Often, Abramson added, bringing Etgar to a school only happens when there is a change in teachers or principal. "Some are quick to change and some are slow to change," he said.
"It’s an evolutionary process," said Galler-Malta. "The kids have this wonderful positive energy. They take pride in their learning."