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February 8, 2015 8:19 pm

Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

avatar by Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx / JNS.org

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Pictured here, the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia's Temple Sholom offers students project-based chugim (electives), an example cited by Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx for an innovative new model in Jewish education. Photo: Provided photo.

JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences.

The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also means making the necessary investments to further models that already have proved successful.

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On the ground, these new models resonate with today’s learners and their families. Such educational approaches build relationships between families, integrate technology, and move the learning outside of classroom walls. This is big change we’re talking about, and big change takes partnerships and collaboration across the Jewish community—partnerships with synagogue professionals and lay leaders, educational agencies, funders, and most importantly, parents.

Nancy Parkes, director of congregational learning at the Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., recently offered important recommendations to advance the congregational educational experience. We would like to call attention to two of her suggestions: “stop the negative narrative” and “be our partners.” Opting for part-time “supplementary” Jewish education has been a very good choice—indeed, the right choice—for thousands of families. But it’s time to tell a new story. One of experience, of possibility, of real impact. It’s time to work together.

Five Jewish education agencies from around the country—including New York, Cleveland, Houston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—are engaged in these important efforts through “Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Education,” created with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The stories coming out of our communities are inspiring real change that other communities can model and adapt.

One example of an innovative model is the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Sholom, whose premise is to offer students project-based chugim (electives). One parent comments, “My son retains so much more because teachers now focus on a few core areas for a longer period of time. And the fact that he can choose achug makes for a more personal experience and gives him a chance to explore a subject that he wants to.”

In San Francisco, Shalom Explorers is a vehicle for families to form neighborhood learning groups and customize individual lesson plans. Now in its second year, the initiative has expanded to multiple sites in the Bay Area. An Explorer parent says, “Shalom Explorers provides parents with an amazing toolkit of resources to bring great lesson plans to life. We were able to select the activities and content that worked for our group of families, and the children were able to learn in fun and exciting ways—through drama, art projects, outdoor activities, and more.”

These stories show that part-time Jewish education presents one of the greatest opportunities to engage, inspire, and connect with families. No longer are students learning prayers and stories simply to “check them off the list.” Instead, educators across the country are wrestling with how the learning experiences they offer can best support children and their families, and make a true difference in their lives. In those precious few hours of part-time programs, teachers are parents’ partners in raising children to become mensches.

With this understanding, more and more congregations around the country are trying new models to invigorate the educational experiences they offer. The Jewish community still must do more to help this change happen in a serious, sustainable manner. Fortunately, many are answering this call, and important changes are happening in Jewish education: learning experiences that involve the entire family, deepen connections to Israel, teach Hebrew in more meaningful and relevant ways, and bring the summer camp experience into our schools.

We see these changes in the Shinui-affiliated communities, and we invite others to be a part of this change—to help build today’s narrative of part-time Jewish education. Together, we can create and sustain major changes across the country.

Rabbi Phil Warmflash is executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia. Anna Marx is project director of Shinui.

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  • Nahum S

    A long, long time ago, I went to a congregational (Conservative) Hebrew school. I learned siddur, Humash, basic Hebrew and a bit of Jewish history. I went on to day school and eventually Yeshiva U.
    If teachers are qualified, warm and enthusiastic, even a supplementary school can teach some of the basics.
    I meet day school and “yeshiva” students who cannot read a pasuk correctly and cannot understand a simple sentence in Hebrew.
    The Jewish community must invest in quality enducation – on every level. Even for kids whose parents are not willing (or perhaps able) to send them to yeshiva.

  • I have been a Hebrew school teacher for 11 years. I do it certainly not for the money but in hopes that I inspire just a handful of kids each year to explore their Jewish religion, history and heritage far more deeply than what I can give them in just 5 hours of weekly instruction. I have lesson planned, have about eight different curricula under my belt, but all that knowledge goes mostly unappreciated. Parents don’t care. It is another extra-curricular activity to shuttle their kids to, they come late, are picked up early. And we are supposed to be the miracle workers to make them Jews.It is not about what I know, and have to pass on as a Jewish educator, but if my students are “happy” in my class, and most importantly, if the parents are happy. The parents themselves don’t even know how much there is to know. It is a losing battle, I am afraid.

  • As the director of the Jewish Journey Project, known as JJP, I commend all these attempts to rethink and shake up supplemental Jewish education. JJP is an initiative of JCC Manhattan in partnership with five synagogues in Manhattan. Our project is based on the four pillars of innovation, flexibility, collaboration and community. JJP offers over 40 courses each semester in five pathways: Torah, Ritual and Spirituality, Tikkun Olam, Hebrew, and Jewish Peoplehood. Students collect Jewish digital badges in an online passport. To learn more go to, http://www.jewishjourneyproject.org

  • Dan

    “Part-time Jewish education” sounds like a euphemism for the dreaded “Hebrew School,” in other words: unqualified instructors teaching unmotivated students about a religion that their parents don’t practice, all for the sake of a forced Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony that will soon be forgotten, and a heritage that will quickly be abandoned. For children to experience, and to cling to, the richness of Judaism, there is no substitute for full-time yeshiva education and a home that is grounded in Torah. Anything else is, at best, nothing more than managed assimilation.

    • judorebbe

      You nailed it, my friend. Absolutely 100% right.

      I am (was) a product of the 2-days-per-week (after public school let out) Hebrew Schools. Until I started seeing my fellow Hebrew School classmates assimilate, intermarry, and raise their children with virtually no attachment to Judaism.

  • judorebbe

    We have survived being reformed, being conserved, and being reconstructed. We will survive this nonsense, too.

  • judorebbe

    Finally, after 2,000 years, an improvement on Rabbis Hillel and Akiba … Warmflash and Marx.

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