By Dvora Goodman, Ed Segalowitz, and Natalie Walden, in partnership with Michael Miloff

[This is the seventh 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.]

Walk into Toronto’s Schwartz-Reisman Jewish Community Centre (JCC) on a Sunday morning and you will see over 450 parents and their children flowing into the building. The lobby is bustling with children wearing brightly colored t-shirts identifying them as students of one of the two JCC supplementary schools. You will hear English, Russian, Spanish, and Hebrew being spoken. As the children go off into their different classrooms, parents are still engaged in conversation. In the adjacent Jewish high school building, children are arriving to attend two other synagogue-affiliated programs.

Stay awhile and enter the rooms while sessions are in progress, and you will see highly engaged children, energetic teachers, and a wide variety of pedagogic techniques ranging from singing, conversing in Hebrew about how the children are feeling, practicing for a Hebrew puppet show, and working with reusable materials to demonstrate learning. Down the hall two- and three-year-old children and their parents are engaged in fun experiential activities connected to a theme from a PJ Library book.

Over five years ago, Toronto’s WOW! Initiative, part of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education’s supplementary school portfolio, set out with an ambitious goal to double the number of children enrolled in year-round Jewish educational programs outside of Jewish day schools. While Toronto has a high number of children who attend Jewish day schools at the elementary level, and an almost equal number who attend a Jewish educational program in the afternoon or on the weekend, around 30 percent do not currently attend any year-round Jewish educational program.

The WOW! Initiative was built on the principles of venture philanthropy and developmental evaluation with the support and commitment of a wonderfully generous philanthropic family partnering with the UJA Federation. WOW! targets its investments into compelling program innovations and vibrant educational leaders. It embraces rigorous evaluation processes by applying criteria intended to grow enrollment. It builds financially sustainable organizational programs and enhances educational quality.

Since its inception, WOW! has awarded more than $1.1 million in seed funding for either creating new programs or expanding existing programs to achieve these goals (increased enrollment, financial sustainability, and enhanced educational quality). Along with funding, WOW! programs have received support through coaching and extensive evaluation, including third-party site visits and parent surveys, geared toward helping the programs grow, thrive, and become self-sustaining. As a result, WOW! contributes to a broadened and robust landscape of Jewish learning programs throughout the city.

In June 2016, educators and other community leaders came together for an evening of celebrating WOW!’s achievements to date. As we took time to reflect back and look forward, we highlighted the elements that have led to Toronto’s broadened landscape:

  1.  Seed funding of new programs
    In order to achieve our goal of increasing the number of children engaged city-wide in year-round Jewish learning programs, we recognized the need to add to the landscape of what was being offered. Through WOW! funding, two new synagogue programs came to life and were sustained by WOW!. They each began with no students, and now they’re thriving with over 100 students each.
  2. Nurturing existing programs
    WOW! also recognized that existing programs have capacity to grow and become self-sustaining. With WOW!’s support, two of these have expanded and deepened their learning opportunities. One began in an educator’s basement with 10 children and has since transitioned to become part of the JCC. It is now thriving, with over 360 students enrolled. The educators now have the wonderful challenge of dealing with how to accommodate the growing waiting list of students who want to enroll. WOW! also promotes new ways to engage students in Jewish learning. For example, a Jewish learning program for high school students was able, with WOW! support, to create a public high school full-credit course for teens participating in the March of the Living. This experience deepened their knowledge of Holocaust history and prepared them for the trip, and also helped them process the experience afterward.
  3. Expanding our thinking around what constitutessupplementary school
    After the first round of WOW! funding, the committee received applications from non-traditional programs and recognized the need to expand its thinking and definition of what constitutes a supplementary school. In fact, the committee realized the need for a shift in language away from “supplementary school” and toward “Jewish learning programs.” The JCC’s toddler and parent program, which uses PJ Library books, currently reaches over 200 toddlers and parents each year in its 10-week programs. Our new teen philanthropy program, funded in partnership with the Jewish Teen Funders Network, provides high school students with an intense year-long Jewish learning experience through immersion in an authentic grant allocations cycle.
  4. Considering new models
    This past year the WOW! committee approved funding for two new programs in Toronto. The first offers students who live in the growing downtown Toronto Jewish community a five-day-a-week Hebrew immersion program. The second is a brand-new program and model developed by a local Jewish environmental organization, with learning taking place in a teaching garden May-June and September-October. This is not your traditional “supplementary school”!

Broadening the educational landscape requires taking risks with new ideas and approaches. It also involves shifting some of people’s long-held assumptions about how and where Jewish learning can and should take place. In our experience, this is the change that takes the most time and is the most difficult to implement. It is something that we continue to struggle with every time we have conversations with educators about potential projects and every time we sit with our lay leaders to review new proposals. We applaud and appreciate those who agree to innovate with us and engage in a bit of healthy risk-taking, which has led to successful results so far.

As we reflect on the past five years of WOW!, we have learned that there is a place for Jewish learning outside of the Jewish day school and traditional congregational school models. It is worth encouraging, and creating, programs outside of traditional frameworks so we can contribute to our thriving Jewish educational landscape. These models do not take away from other programs; rather they have helped the community realize the broad potential of high-quality Jewish learning environments. They also contribute to the multiple access and entry points needed in a large Jewish community like Toronto and have brought many children and parents into year-round Jewish learning in ways that they would have never otherwise considered.

We have recognized the potential and the strengths of a varied Jewish educational landscape and are committed to continuing to do our work to support the diverse programs in our community in the years to come.

Dvora Goodman is the WOW! consultant to UJA Federation of Greater Toronto at the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.
Ed Segalowitz is the director of special projects of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto at the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.
Natalie Walden is the manager of supplementary schools at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto at the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.
Michael Miloff is an independent evaluator who has worked with the WOW! Initiative since its beginning.

This article is cross posted at eJewishPhilanthropy