Houston — In one second-floor classroom of Congregation Emanu El, a young Chabad rabbi is teaching a class on Jewish values. Down the hall, a newspaper editor from a Reform family is leading a civics discussion. In another classroom, a Reconstructionist rabbi and her students are talking about basic Jewish principles.
More remarkable than the diversity of the teachers at the largest Reform religious school in Houston is the makeup of the students. All are high school-aged. All are in religious school because they want to be there.
At a time when overall registration in supplementary Jewish schools is declining, when teens drop out of religious education en masse after their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, when soccer and gymnastics practice increasingly out-prioritize Hebrew school for Jewish families, Congregation Emanu El’s religious school was recognized last year for bucking the trend. Ninety-two percent of the school’s students opted to continue their religious education, the highest retention rate of any supplementary school in a major Reform congregation, a figure the school has maintained for almost a decade.
Most of the students who stay in the congregation’s religious school past seventh grade — the typical bar/bat mitzvah year — stay through graduation in 12th grade, Congregation Emanu El educators say.
“The children are happy to be here. They get here early,” says Marna Meyer, the school’s director.
An educational consultant from the Union for Reform Judaism visited the school last year to study why Congregation Emanu El was succeeding when most other schools are failing.
This is what Eli Schaap found: inspired leadership, a curriculum developed in-house, involvement of the congregation’s professional staff and parents of religious school students, a culture where students feel comfortable and an emphasis on retention.
The last item is probably the key, says Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning.
Representatives of several dozen successful Reform educational programs were to meet for three days this week at a “Reach High” conference on “the next generation of Jewish learning and living” at the Hilton Newark Airport, and preliminary reports from the participants indicated that the common denominator among the schools that managed to retain their students beyond seventh grade is a conscious emphasis on retention, Rabbi Katzew says. “They display a culture … based on a widespread agreement that retention is an important goal.”
The size or affluence of a synagogue plays little role in determining the retention rate, Rabbi Katzew says. Several local religious schools with higher dropout rates “pay [teachers] much more than I do,” Meyer says.
“Anyone can do these things. Somebody has to want to do it,” says Lisa Stone, upper school principal at Congregation Emanu El.
“In each school” that boasts a high retention rate, “there is a charismatic adult” — a principal, a teacher, a rabbi — “who loves the kids and is willing to accept them for what they are,” Rabbi Katzew says.
Those are the type of teachers Meyer hires.
At afternoon worship services, at eighth-grade meals that precede the evening’s 90 minutes of learning, at breaks between classes, the students crowd around the teachers and around Meyer.
She loads her seventh grade classes — the year when students decide whether or not to continue with their religious education — with her best teachers. “That’s the year you have to keep them,” she says. “If they don’t enjoy this year, they won’t come back the next year.”
“There’s no secret,” no silver bullet, beyond adherence to basic pedagogic principles, says Meyer, a native of South Africa who has served as religious school director for nine years and reshaped the education according to her traditional, but progressive, views.
“We give them good education,” she says.
That means an education with no report cards (periodic progress reports include no grades), no intensive Hebrew past seventh grade (the kids simply aren’t interested), no homework and no reading in class.
Out is rote learning.
In are classroom discussions, guest speakers and entertainers, field trips, teachers’ assistant jobs on Sunday mornings. And hot topics such as kabbalah, sexuality and teenage suicide.
Each year Meyer picks a year’s theme for the school. This year’s theme, as a parking garage is constructed next door, is “Building a Community.”
For most of the children in the Congregation Emanu El religious school, “this is the only Jewish education they are getting,” she says. “I want them to love to be Jewish.”
At first glance, on a recent evening, Congregation Emanu El’s religious school looks like any synagogue-sponsored supplementary school, with groups of casually dressed teens milling in the halls, and Hebrew charts posted on the classroom walls.
Meyer points out the differences.
“They may be having a fun time, but they’re learning,” she says. “There is a dress code — no short shorts, no spaghetti straps. If they come in straps, they are sent home. No miniskirts. They know.”
This year’s high school class includes about a half-dozen students who attend full-time Jewish day schools in Houston.
“We do Jewish stuff together,” says one eighth grader, seated with her classmates around a table for dinner before the evening’s classes start. “I haven’t missed a week yet.”
“It’s fun. You get to hang out with your friends and discuss Jewish stuff,” adds another girl.
This, Meyer says, is what she envisioned when she came to Congregation Emanu El, hiring teachers who shared her vision and designing a curriculum that challenged the students.
Congregation Emanu El’s success, while rare, is not unique. In recent years, individual religious schools and national organizations have developed innovative programs to retain and educate the students at supplementary schools. In the U.S., the majority of Jewish children from non-Orthodox backgrounds who receive a Jewish education do it at supplementary schools, not day schools.
Total enrollment today: about 230,000, in some 2,000 schools.
“Students are clustered in the grades leading up to bar/bat mitzvah. After grade seven, enrollment drops precipitously,” Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America reported in “A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools,” a study released last year by the Avi Chai foundation. “The drop-out phenomenon after bar/bat Mitzvah is dramatic. More than one-third of students drop out after grade seven and then the rate of decline accelerates so that by grade 12 only one-seventh of the number of seventh graders is still enrolled.”
For several generations, Hebrew school has been fodder for jokes and the stuff of former students’ horror stories. For years, the teachers were Holocaust survivors or Israeli expats, few of them qualified educators.
“Once the overwhelmingly dominant form of Jewish education in the United States, it suffered from severe criticism in the last quarter of the twentieth [century] for its lack of focus, mediocre programs, and failure to educate and positively engage the large number of students enrolled in its schools,” Wertheimer wrote in “Schools That Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Supplementary Schools,” a recent Avi Chai study.
“Supplementary high school programs … are attracting new interest,” Wertheimer wrote in “Recent Trends in Supplementary Jewish Education,” an Avi Chai study released last year. “Educators and parents have become convinced of the critical importance of continued Jewish education through the high school years, especially as they are mindful of the role peer groups play during adolescence.”
“When kids drop out of their Jewish education at age 13, their mindset of things Jewish is a childish mindset, at a seventh-grade level,” Wertheimer says in an interview. “Literacy is a major component of Jewish living.”
Among new innovations:
*The Reform movement has introduced “alternate doors” to religious education that feature informal education outside of classrooms.
* The Conservative movement’s Project Etgar is developing a new curriculum for its member schools.
* Six-year-old NESS (Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools), which began in Philadelphia, conducts professional development training sessions for Jewish educators in several cities, reversing the post-b’nai mitzvah dropout rate.
* Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, Pa., gives its religious school students in grades eight through 12 high school credits or pay for serving as counselors between their bar/bat mitzvah and the end of high school.
* Beth Israel in San Diego developed a two-year post-bar/bat mitzvah program to train religious school teachers.
* Temple B’nai Jeshurun of Des Moines, Iowa, offers incentives like community-subsidized trips to Israel and Washington, D.C.
* To prepare for their SAT exams, students at Temple Sholom near San Francisco include vocabulary words from each week’s Torah portion in their vocabulary review.
* At Valley Beth Shalom in a Los Angeles suburb, episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are screened to prompt discussions of Jewish ethical issues.
The goal of such programs is to attract the teens through activities they already consider important, then introduce “soft sell” Jewish content, says Rabbi David Wirtschafter, associate rabbi of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, Calif. “We’re not going to throw hard-core Bible or Talmud or history studies at them. The first step is getting them back in the door.”
Smaller Jewish communities, which offer few outside connections to Jewish life, tend to be the home of religious schools with higher retention rates; most of the innovative educational programs, it is apparent, are taking place outside of New York City, even though it is the nation’s biggest Jewish community.
Here, Wertheimer wrote in his 2008 study, the need is greatest. “The most rapid drop out after grade seven occurs in the New York area.”
In Houston, Meyer points to last week’s high school graduation at Congregation Emanu El as proof of success. The 29 graduates led Saturday morning worship services, which took place, for logistical reasons, three weeks before the end of religious school classes.
Meyer, in her remarks at the religious service/graduation ceremony, reminded the students of their remaining attendance obligations.
“We’ll be there,” all declared, she says.
This graduation-before-the-end-of-classes anomaly has happened before, Meyer says.
All the students in past years showed up.
“The kids come back. The kids want to be here,” she says. “They’ll be here” the next three weeks. “I promise you.”