Looking back, we have to wonder how much market research was conducted before the idea of Hebrew school was invented.
Kids and school, after all, often go together like felons and jails. Sure, kids spend lots of time in school. But they’re often counting the days and hours until they escape. So who thought it was a wise idea to turn Jewish religion, culture, and language into a second shift of school?
No wonder that generations of American Jews don’t have warm nostalgia for their Hebrew school experience — even if they sent their children for a similar Jewish education.
But why does Hebrew school have to be so much like, well, school?
That’s the question that Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, a former administrator at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, asked as she set about transforming Hebrew school for the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan and three Upper West Side synagogues.
And the answer she came up with, as she put together what became the Jewish Journey Project, is that it doesn’t have to be.
Instead, the Jewish Journey Project envisions afterschool Jewish education as akin to other afterschool activities, such as music, drama, and art.
After four years, the Jewish Journey Program has 260 students and 40 different afterschool courses.
“We don’t call it a school. We call it a program,” Rabbi Forman-Jacobi said. “We try to meld in the modalities the students love, like cooking, arts, and drama.
“The word ‘journey’ conveys a sense of its ongoing, changing nature,” she said. “We want the kids to know they can connect based on their passions. We involve the parents and child in making a choice” of which courses to take. “It’s very significant. I have classes of children who want to be there because they’ve chosen the class.”
Now, that model of Jewish education is coming to Bergen County.
This fall, Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes is launching its own Jewish Journey program for its students — you should pardon the term — in grades 3 to 6, in conjunction with the New York program
“They will be able to engage in Judaism in away that will excite them,” said Sara Losch, director of lifelong learning at Barnert Temple.
The Barnert religious school’s new configuration is designed around flexibility. Students still will be required to take a Hebrew class — but now they can choose which night to take it. Other options include a course with the synagogue’s Rabbi Elyse Frishman that combines photography and theology, a cooking course focusing on holiday rituals, and a yoga course that promises to “explore Jewish values and teaching of the weekly Torah program as well as … prayer and kavanah (internal intention).”
The model of a journey, rather than a school, makes it easier to involve parents in the process. Ms. Losch meets with small groups of students and their parents to discuss their interests. During the year, there will be three three-hour classes for parents and children, focusing on Torah, avodah (spirituality and ritual), and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). “It’s the heart and core of what we’re learning,” she said.
The renovation of Barnert’s religious school comes in response to a change in recent years in how families were relating to the synagogue’s educational programs. “In the past, when children didn’t come to school because they had sports or something else taking priority, parents would apologize,” Ms. Losch said. “All of a sudden we weren’t getting the sorries.
“We were getting maybe 45 percent attendance on any given Sunday,” given all the other sports and family activities that all happen on Sunday. “On the weekday, we were getting 95 percent.”
This led Barnert to begin evaluating its religious school program. It hired a consultant and set up a committee of religious school parents. It discovered that parents really did want to be part of a Jewish community. They wanted their children to be Jewishly educated and to learn Hebrew.
But they also wanted flexibility.
This made the Jewish Journey program the perfect template for Barnert to adopt.
“A student who is now coming on Sunday and during the week can get courses done in one day with the new program,” Ms. Losch said. “On the other hand, students will be able to take as many courses as they want.”
The change is deeper than more flexible scheduling, however. It’s not just about letting children choose which hours they will come to religious school and which classes they will take. It’s about changing the focus from a specific curriculum to a broad exploration of Judaism.
And it’s about moving Judaism beyond the classroom.
Barnert began that shift this year with its TAG program. TAG stands for Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim.
Students are given a booklet listing Jewish things they can do, from taking part in their family seder to kissing a mezuzah to feeding their pets. When they do them, they write a short reflection — and they earn charms (called TAGlettes) they can wear on their wrists or hang on their walls.
“It’s an incentivization program,” Ms. Losch said. “The students are getting into it.
“We said to the children, ‘Did you know that feeding your dog in the evening is a Jewish commandment, a Jewish mitzvah? You’re doing a mitzvah at home. Putting up a mezuza or calling Grandma every week — we labeled them as Jewish and called them a mitzvah.
“We did a vacation package,” giving a charm for being Jewish on vacation.
“Families are surprised their children are really doing it,” she said.
Ms. Losch particularly liked a comment from one of her students: “I didn’t realize how many things I do are Jewish.”
The TAG program has an added bonus that encourages kids to take it seriously: It’s backed by prizes, offered by the family of Kathie Williams, a past president of the synagogue and chair of its Lifelong Learning Committee, who died of cancer in 2013. .
Students in third, fourth, and fifth grades can earn $360 for a Jewish experiential program. Ten students earned that this year. Sixth-graders can earn $3,600 toward a trip to Israel.
“The TAG program was the perfect transition into the Jewish Journey Program,” Ms. Losch said.