By Beth Ellen Young

Two years ago, Temple Judea in Coral Gables, FL made a dramatic shift in our K-6 religious education program. We were running a very good religious school, but we were not seeing the results we wanted in the areas of community building, positivity, or skill development. Convinced we needed a new paradigm, we launched J-PLEx: The Jewish Play and Learning Experience, and used a summer camp model to frame our Sunday morning experience. Now, two years in, we are able to articulate the guiding principles that are driving our work and leading to the beneficial outcomes for our students and congregation alike:

  1. Diverse role models create more opportunities for connection
    Our faculty is divided into counselors and specialists. The counselors are tasked with building relationships with each child in their cabin (class) and creating community in the group. Specialists are content experts and craft active learning experiences for the kids in the areas of Limmud (Jewish Studies), Chug Ivrit (Hebrew), or Tarbut (Jewish Culture). With this staffing we can bring in an energetic college student who wants to learn more about Judaism as a counselor or a gifted chef as a specialist. This widens our hiring pool and brings more positive role models to our learners.
  2. Movement creates energy and combats boredom
    The Sunday morning schedule moves quickly! After 15 minutes of cabin time, the counselors are on the move taking their group to four specialists each day. Specialists have 30 minutes to offer an impactful hands-on learning opportunity. This pace creates a positive energy as learners excitedly dive into a task before moving to the next one. This schedule has also led to a dramatic decrease in behavior issues, as children are not in any room for longer than 30 minutes, and do not have much time to get distracted or bored.
  3. Active experiences lead to positive memories
    The half-hour learning blocks allow us to think about things in terms of experiences rather than lessons. This variety equals a better chance of finding something that appeals to and engages each learner leading to a positive experience in the moment. We also collect lots of documentation – pictures, videos, examples of student work – that are curated into photo books presented at Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, Kabbalat Torah ceremonies (12th grade), or other important milestones in our congregation. In this way we are preserving the positive memories beyond the experience of the moment, and further building the child’s positive Jewish identity.
  4. Changing the terminology can change the mindset
    We have introduced a lot of new vocabulary to our educational program: counselor, specialist, Limmud, Tarbut. And we have also consciously eliminated a lot of terminology: school, teachers, students. Some of the vocabulary has stuck and some has not (it’s hard to call a “class” a “cabin” when it meets in a room with four walls), however the words we use are helping learners get excited about being here on Sunday. A kindergarten parent shared that his son wasn’t excited about coming to “school,” but once he learned he was going to J-PLEx his attitude changed dramatically.
  5. Camp experience year-round supports the summer camp experience
    Over the past decade our congregation has worked hard to increase the number of children participating in URJ summer camp experiences. With this comes the challenge of children who love being Jewish at camp but do not feel connected to their home community or congregation. Through the use of this model, students who love camp also feel at home in the J-PLEx learning environment. We are also able to give children a taste of what camp can be, leading to more youth from our congregation participating in Jewish summer camping.

What else have we learned in the process?
The reality is that “camp” does not mean the same thing to everybody. For us it means quality experiential education. However, some parents equate camp with keeping kids busy or doing things that are purely for fun. Going into this year we are working toward clearer and more frequent communication with parents to demonstrate not only what we are doing, but also why we are doing it. We will be providing more prompts for parents to engage in conversation with their children about the day’s learning. And we will keep sending smiling pictures of kids having fun!

Beth Ellen Young is in her tenth year as the Director of Education at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, FL and recently graduated from the M2 Senior Educators Cohort in Experiential Jewish Education. She grew up at URJ Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute and has served on faculty at URJ Camp Coleman for the past 7 years.

This post was originally published as part of the Journal for Youth Engagement by Michelle Abraham and the Union for Reform Judaism