By Susan Wyner

[This is the eighth in a weekly series of posts from a coalition of institutions across the continent devoted to nurturing the emerging transformation of congregational and part-time Jewish education. The series is curated by the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

David and Rachel jump out of their car at 4:00 p.m. and make a run for the synagogue’s school entrance. They march directly to the large room where learning takes place Monday through Thursday afternoons. Both students pick up their binders, which have been preloaded according to their personalized goals. They make a beeline to their respective tables and are greeted by their teachers and by students of diverse ages. David and a decoding buddy practice Hebrew in tandem at his table. Rachel joins a table where cards containing the words of a prayer are spread out and she and her teammates kneel together to organize them from memory. The room is not quiet, but the sound is the hum of learning. This is how Hebrew education happens at a creative school community in Boca Raton.

Cathy Berkowitz, the education director of the Mirochnik Religious School at B’nai Torah reports proudly, “We are in our fourth year of implementing this program, and appreciate the unintended positive outcomes of this new model.” This includes students in multi-grade classrooms who appreciate their community connection, and authentic professional development for teachers. Novice teachers get consistent training from master teachers who illustrate a variety of teaching strategies during authentic learning time. The most exciting outcomes that Cathy has seen are the enthusiasm of all stakeholders and the increased level of student progress, especially in the area of Hebrew decoding. Attendance has improved with the introduction of flexible scheduling, allowing families to choose the day of the week on which their children’s Jewish learning takes place.

Reports abound about the challenges of 21st century Jewish learning, but in my role as director for learning enrichment at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), I have the joy and privilege of visiting schools and speaking to educators throughout North America. The successful learning portrayed in this article is a small selection of effective models.

Temple Beth El in Rochester, New York, displays an experiential model. Education director Samara Sofian oversees a program that transfers successes from the camping world to an afterschool Jewish program, creating a warm and welcoming learning environment that is interactive and productive. Desks and traditional chairs have been replaced in many rooms by beanbag chairs, cushions, and group tables. Group leaders, assisted by teen counselors, take students to a variety of activities including traditional curricular options and electives, with an emphasis on authentic experiences. Art, music, cooking, and drama accent learning to enhance the study of holidays and prayer. The school is working with a specialist from Matan to assure that inclusion and the needs of students with special learning styles are addressed.

Inclusion has become a hallmark of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. Michelle Steinhart is the congregation’s director of inclusion and has seen Jewish education for students with special needs grow from one-on-one tutoring to its current inclusive approach. Four years ago, as the school became more experiential, self-contained special needs classes were closed so that all students could take advantage of multi-sensory learning in the congregational school. This allows children with varying abilities to reach their goals in inclusive classrooms. Working with Nancy Parkes, director of congregational learning, and the school’s faculty, Michelle reports that all students now thrive in an environment where diverse skills and talents can work and interact together. The congregation is currently working with USCJ’s Ruderman Inclusion program and Keshet so that inclusion reverberates throughout the entire congregational culture.

Another member of the USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Cohort is Beth El of the South Hills in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Amy Greenbaum provides a curriculum rich with multi-sensory learning. One transformative experience is the “Circle of Friends.” Students with special needs are supported by their neurotypical classmates to celebrate b’nei mitzvah and confirmation as life cycle successes, both socially and in practice. Their classmates report that they are now more comfortable approaching other children with diverse learning needs. One mother remarked, “I think it’s great! I’m proud of the program we are doing for my daughter. It is with the encouragement of the synagogue that she is becoming bat mitzvah.”

From my consultant’s perch, the schools where students flourish and progress share many benchmarks, which include:

  • The dynamic vision of the educational leader articulated and communicated consistently. This vision guides planning, hiring, resource selections, professional development, and school operations.
  • A partnership with parents that provides continuity and nurtures families on their Jewish journeys.
  • A culture that values all stakeholders with the goal to foster Jewish souls and develop Jewish identity. This includes a culture of inclusion for all learning styles and needs.
  • A robust and inviting early childhood program integrated into the synagogue community.
  • A pattern of communication established through transition points between each stage of a child’s life to assure an ongoing and sequenced learning process.
  • A curriculum that integrates subject matter to define authentic, purposeful, and dynamic modern life through a Jewish lens. This provides flexibility and choice while maintaining the integrity of the program.
  • The members of the clergy are co-planners, role models, and teachers who frequently interact with students, faculty, and parents.
  • Ongoing professional development for the faculty is encouraged, and resources that advance best practices are provided for both educational leaders and faculty.
  • A board or committee that provides policies, standards, and direction for the educational program.

Shomrei Torah in West Hills, California, embraces these benchmarks in a program that education director Adrianne Pasternak describes as learner-directed. It focuses on experiential learning which takes place both in the classroom and in a camp-like environment. Called “The Jewish Learning Community,” its mission is achieved through Jewish encounters in real time with excursion days and Shabbat retreats where students build relationships with peers from partnering schools. Shomrei Torah enjoys working with area Jewish schools to share resources, offer enhanced professional development, and share programming such as color wars, ruach sessions, and mixed- age activities. Students in third – seventh grades can choose their own Jewish adventures and select from a variety of learning labs including Hebrew Boot Camp, Bibliodrama, and Midrash and Manicures (yes, finger nails are painted to reflect the Torah reading)!

Our tradition teaches, “You are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). Congregational educators are doing holy work. It is challenging yet vital to create educational programs that engage and teach everyone to ensure Jewish continuity. The schools portrayed here continue to evaluate and adapt their programs as needed. I hope these models will inspire you in the challenging work ahead.

Susan Wyner is director of learning enrichment for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Prior to joining USCJ, she served as the education director of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, Ohio, a USCJ Framework for Excellence School.

The article is cross posted at eJewishPhilanthropy