Jewish supplementary education
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Jewish supplementary education

A view from the schools

Teacher Barbara Marks joins last year’s fifth-grade class at Gesher Shalom ““ Fort Lee Jewish Center. Students in the class came from Fort Lee, Englewood Cliffs, Leonia, Closter, Cresskill, and Maywood.

Frieda Huberman of Jewish Educational Services of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey pointed out that of the nearly three dozen local supplementary schools, one is Reconstructionist, two are nondenominational (Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff and Chavurah Beth Sholom in Alpine), 11 are Reform, 16 are Conservative, and three fall into the category of “other,” embracing “Workmen’s Circle, Israeli and JYEP” schools.

She noted further that while some schools recently shifted from three-day to two-day programs, “a number,” such as Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, “have not significantly deceased their hours – [instead] elongating their Sunday sessions, adding special family programs, and/or incorporating additional informal and special programs.”

In addition, she said, “some of the Conservative schools that meet twice a week have longer hours than most of the Reform schools that meet twice a week.”

Nancy Galler-Malta, education director of Gesher Shalom-Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, said the school, which serves some 75 children and offers classes from pre-kindergarten through seventh grade, offered both one- and two-day options when she took the post three years ago.

“I eliminated the one-day option and actually increased the hours,” she said, adding that “no Hebrew school can be effective in under five to five-and-a-half hours a week,” the number of hours required at her school for grades two to seven. “There’s a critical amount of time to be put in so that the kids will have significant retention of information,” she said.

Galler-Malta said her school stresses Hebrew reading and writing as well as prayer literacy. She also introduces the basics of Hebrew conversation.

“I want them to see Hebrew as a living language,” she said, adding that “we’re trying to create Jewish children who have knowledge that will help them find their place in the beautiful link that is Jewish tradition. We want them to be literate in prayer [and] comfortable anywhere in the world.”

She added, “I want them to understand that being a good Jew is not only determined by knowing liturgy but having knowledge of Jewish sources and history, and appreciation and love for tradition, law, and the reasoning behind it. We have an obligation to put joy into their birthright.”

“If the children are happy to be there, we can teach them,” she added, noting that “we constantly tell parents to stop telling [their children] that they hated Hebrew school and that it’s just a means to an end. It’s not. It’s a means to a beginning.”

Sixth-graders, all age 11, participate in the “Kosher Bracha Bee” at Ridgewood’s Temple Israel religious school.

“We try to reach parents and tell them it’s not the ‘same old Hebrew school,’ but we’re on a journey together,” she said. “Parents must fully understand their role as partners and know what their kids are learning so they can learn together. We want to help parents evolve into education partners.”

Marcia Kagedan, education director of the religious school at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus for the past 12 years, noted that her school – where hours and days attended depend on the grade – serves about 100 children. Students in grades three to five attend a six-hour program over three days.

“We want to give them as many hours as possible,” she said. “You can’t teach in five hours what you can teach in six.”

Kagedan pointed out that “actual” teaching hours must account for time spent moving between classrooms, taking into consideration students’ late arrivals and early departures, and the like. For a five-hour program, she said, “the actual teaching hours would only be about four and a quarter hours.”

Kagedan noted that parents complain that their children have “too many activities; they can’t handle it.” She told of a nanny who came to collect a child at the school, to take her to her dance class.

“The nanny complained that the children were overprogrammed and said she couldn’t understand why the parents were doing this,” sending the children to Hebrew school.

Kagedan noted that “the total number of contact hours between teachers and students is very important. Coming more often during the week is better than coming less often,” she said. She added that attending junior congregation is also important.

“You can’t teach the ‘experience’ of Shabbat,” she said. “You need the feeling of being there.”

Many parents don’t feel that they need to be involved in the synagogue, said Kagedan. “But they need to come to shul on Shabbat themselves not only to learn about it but to serve as role models. It’s the little messages they give to the kids.”

Nine-year-old fourth-graders study a map of Israel at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center religious school.

Parent education is crucial, she added, noting that she holds family education programs several times a year so that parents can learn with the children.

“The parents appreciate it,” she said. “The ones who come develop a comfort level in the synagogue.”

Echoing Galler-Malta’s opinion, Kagedan said that “it’s not the quantity of historical information a child learns that is important but rather [developing] a positive Jewish identity and connection to Yiddishkeit. The messages to be derived from the Torah portions are more important than knowing each parsha.”

Kagedan pointed out that parents choosing supplemental schools no longer do it on the basis of affiliation. Rather, they look at the days on which the school meets and where their children’s friends are going.

“The choice is social rather than philosophical,” she said. “Content is less important than the social environment.”

Sharyn Krantz, principal of the religious school at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, told the Standard that while the synagogue is committed to maintaining its three-day-a-week program, which now serves more than 100 children, “both parents and kids complain.”

“In the society we live in, there are so many outside activities” for the children, she said, and parents don’t want their children “to miss out.”

“No educators want to reduce their programs to two days,” she said, “but parents feel the children can get the same amount without committing to that extra day.”

“I hope we will stay with three days,” she said. “You get more done with that extra time.”

The school, she said, “teaches tefillah [prayer], Hebrew reading and writing, holidays, Jewish life, Bible, history, and brachot [blessings]. We want them to have the feeling that being a Jew is a good thing.”

Krantz said the curriculum also focuses on Israel and the Holocaust and what it means to be a Conservative Jew.

“We want them to have pride in who they are and where they come from,” she said.

She noted that the supplementary school offers programs four times a year when parents learn in the classrooms with their children.

Rabbi Sharon Litwin, now in her third year as director of education at Ridgewood’s Temple Israel, noted that her school serves 100 children from kindergarten through seventh grade. Until this year, she said, the school offered a three-day program for students in grades three to seven. Now, for the first time, it has moved to a two-day format.

According to Litwin, the decision was partially driven by the synagogue’s membership committee – who polled prospective members and found that they preferred two-day programs – and partially by parents, who say their children are “overcommitted.”

“There has been some opposition to the change,” she said, but she added that while she does believe you can do more in three days than in two, the school’s hours have been “enhanced.” In fact, she said, while weekday hours were cut by 45 minutes, time has been added to the Sunday program.

According to a statement issued by the synagogue announcing the reduction in days, “Though compressed in time, the program will be expanded in terms of instructional activities. Students will learn … prayer melodies for holidays and Shabbat; they will create religious ritual objects, learn traditional Israeli folk dances, and engage with Judaism through dramatic arts.”

Litwin explained that every other Sunday, Cantor Caitlin Bromberg will teach the students prayer melodies, while on alternate Sundays, synagogue volunteers will teach other skills.

“We’ve added to our program,” she said, “adding a cultural arts component for an extra half-hour every Sunday.”

The school director said she needs from eight months to a year to be able to evaluate whether the new program is as good as the old one.

“When the kids leave now, they are fluent in tefilkah,” she said. “I don’t know if this will change. I hope it will be adequate and that the children will be as literate.”

Litwin said the school is “looking to impart comfort in the synagogue and a strong attachment to their Jewish identity. We hope the enhancements on Sunday will do even more.”

Karen Weiss, now in her second year as principal of the 100-student religious school at Shomrei Torah in Wayne, noted that the school offers a three-day, six-hour program to students in grades three to six. While she has heard some talk about reducing the program to two days, she said, “there is no pressure to change.”

“They’ve talked about it but the shul is firm,” she said. “They believe in it and have chosen to stick with it.”

According to Weiss, “you absolutely can do more with the extra time.” She explained that a six-hour program allows teachers to go into greater depth on the subject matter and not “skim the surface.” In addition, she said, it provides more time for things such as social action activities.

“We want students to be well-rounded, with expertise in synagogue skills,” she said. “We also want them to have a certain comfort when they join the community as adults and to feel good about it. We want them to have it all – to know about Israel and the holidays and to have a strong Jewish identity.”

Michele Weisberg, executive director of the Clifton Jewish Center, noted that in the eight years she has served the congregation, the school, now with several dozen children, has offered a two-day program.

“We teach the services, Hebrew reading, and the significance of the holidays,” she said.

Cantor Rebecca Zwiebel, head teacher, pointed out that the program aims to give children “a foundation of Jewish knowledge to use not only now but also throughout their lifetime.”

She said the Hebrew school at the Clifton Jewish Center focuses on prayer, lifecycle events, and Torah.

With prayer, she said, “we teach students not only how to say them in Hebrew but also what they mean, in order to identify with them. By doing this, they will be able to find their own meaning within the prayer.”

The shul also focuses on lifecycle events, so that students will become familiar with ceremonies such as a brit, baby-naming, or bar or bat mitzvah and “understand what ceremonies are performed and why they are done.”

Zwiebel also wants students to “become familiar with the stories of the Torah … and understand what significance they have in today’s world and in their world.”

“Everything comes down to what does this all mean, why do we need to know it, and how does it relate to me? There needs to be a connection that means something to the student.”

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