On an unseasonably hot Sunday afternoon in May, Karen and David Nathan are in their Princeton, N.J., backyard with their two children and four other families.
But instead of barbecuing or chatting, the parents are watching as the kids, ranging in age from 5 to 14, prepare to act out a story from the Talmud.
Justus Baird, a soft-spoken entrepreneur-turned-rabbi, passes out the short scripts and divides up the parts — which include Elijah the Prophet, God and Old Man with Two Myrtle Branches — among the 11 children.
“We’ll use the little tree over there for the cave,” Rabbi Baird says, pointing to a rhododendron tree.
With much jumping around and dramatic flair, the children perform a tale associated with the upcoming holiday of Lag b’Omer and are simultaneously delighted and horrified at the action-movie ending when the story’s Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kills two enemies with his superpower eyes.
Welcome to Yerusha (Hebrew for “inheritance”), which calls itself a “revolutionary approach to Hebrew school.”
At Yerusha, there are no carpools and no classrooms: instead, Jewish learning is a full-family affair, one that weaves together elements of independent minyanim, home tutoring, the scouts, summer camps — even karate.
While Yerusha’s families come together two hours each week for shared discussions and activities, each child progresses at his/her own pace, completing various requirements at home to advance from one rank to the next, earning badges along the way and receiving a different-colored yarmulke at each new level.
And the bar/bat mitzvah is celebrated not at age 13, but whenever a child achieves Bar/Bat Mitzah Rank, the fifth of 12 ranks.
“We want the bar/bat mitzvah to be about the acquisition of learning and not about a birthday,” Rabbi Baird, Yerusha’s creator, told The Jewish Week. “We also really want the bar/bat mitzvah to be a step along the way towards Jewish adult learning, rather than the culmination of youthful Jewish learning.”
The program is still very much in the pilot stage, having just completed its first year with a single cohort of five families. But Rabbi Baird and the parents co-chairing the effort, all of them unpaid, see it as something that can be replicated nationally, that can be used both inside and outside synagogues and that will appeal to a wide spectrum of Jewish families, including interfaith ones.
The project is one of many new approaches being tried amid a growing consensus that the old Hebrew school model — after-school, frontal learning, part-time teachers, heavy use of textbooks and worksheets — is not effective at engaging young Jews or their parents in the 21st century and that new, more experiential and individualized models need to be explored.
“A lot of experimentation is taking place in Jewish education, and that’s particularly the case in the supplemental school arena,” said Jack Wertheimer, a Jewish history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary who has done several studies on congregational schools and is the editor of the 2009 book “Learning and Community: Jewish Supplementary School in the 21st Century” (Brandeis University Press).
Upon hearing a brief description of Yerusha, Wertheimer praised the project’s focus on “trying to socialize learning as an ongoing activity, not as something that ends at age 13” as well as its individualized attention and sensitivity to different learning styles.
However, he cautioned that it is way too early to evaluate the project’s success. “We know nothing yet about the outcomes,” he said, particularly what knowledge or skills participants will emerge with.
Twenty years, even 10 years ago, Rabbi Baird would have seemed an unlikely figure for remaking Hebrew school.
Tall, thin and bald, with a red beard, Rabbi Baird, 37, was an engineering major at Houston’s Rice University, one who had been raised Christian, when he decided to convert to Judaism.
While in his 20s he co-founded Questia, at one point the world’s largest online library. (Unfortunately for him, he did not make any real money from the venture.)
“Through the process, I discovered that deep in my heart I’m not a businessman,” he said. “I don’t think about how to monetize everything. What I really love is bringing people together to do new things.”
He began dreaming up Yerusha a few years ago, while in rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Since converting, he’d noticed how “every one of my peers, except my wife [Rabbi Julie Roth, the executive director of Princeton’s Hillel], told me they’d hated Hebrew school.”
“You don’t learn to be Jewish by sitting at a desk,” he said. “Judaism is a way of life. I thought, can we find a way of Jewish learning done by living that taps into the family? How can we empower parents to pass on Jewish tradition to their children?”
And, as a former Boy Scout, his thoughts kept returning to scouting.
As in the scouts, Yerusha participants have regular retreats (four family Shabbatons per year), and parents are expected to do much of the work: everything from hosting meetings to teaching lessons to preparing snacks. As the children grow, they are expected to take on leadership roles as well.
Rabbi Baird, who also holds down a full-time job as director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary and is the father of 2-year-old twin boys, develops the curriculum and detailed lesson plans, attends most sessions and serves as a resource for the parents.
Adam Berger, a Yerusha co-founder, said he “didn’t know how it was going to work out with parents leading sessions,” but that “once parents did it once and saw how to do it, it was easier than people thought and it works out really well.”
Berger’s three sons, age 14, 10 and 6, “really like going and they enjoy it,” he said, adding, “I don’t think I’ve heard from them once, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go this week?!’ For them it’s a time to hang out with friends and do activities. It’s not like going to school.”
Pam Edelman, the other co-founder, said her 6-year-old daughter and sons age 8, 11 and 14 “adore” Yerusha.
“My oldest loves leading the davening,” she said. “My next kid is not necessarily into prayer but loves studying and debating what this all means. And my third is tormented that he’s not in the older group and can’t be a leader yet, can’t sleep over yet [at the Shabbatonim]. He can’t wait!”
Parents also praise the program’s family-friendly scheduling.
For Susan Ackerman, a divorced mother whose 12-year-old son spends every other weekend at his father’s house, Yerusha, which doesn’t meet until late in the day, after he’s returned home, is a huge improvement over the Sunday-morning programs many temples offer.
Previously enrolled in one such school, her son “missed so much it wasn’t fair to him or the class, and he never really connected to it.”
For Karen Nathan, whose 9-year-old son Eli attended two different Hebrew schools before the family discovered Yerusha, it’s a relief to find a program he enjoys.
While Eli learned a lot at Hebrew school, he complained it was boring, with too many rules and worksheets.
“His favorite part was the doughnut I’d buy him on the way home,” Nathan said. “Almost every week he tells me how much better it is at Yerusha.”
Explained Eli, “I like that it can be at your house and that it’s not one class for each grade, that you get to be with kids who are older and younger.”
He has achieved Yerusha’s Camel rank (its third) so far and is busily working to get to the next level, Leopard.
“The projects are fun,” he said. “I made a movie for Passover about the plagues. I’ve learned songs and discussed essays. You can choose which projects to do.”
Each rank has a detailed list of requirements, but allows for a fair amount of choice as well. Among the requirements for Camel rank are learning two songs from the Yerusha song list, discussing an ethic from Yerusha’s Jewish values list and visiting someone who is sick.
Children also choose from a list of Shabbat, holiday and Bible activities to complete, such as making a set of candles and learning the appropriate blessings, or attending services at a synagogue.
Synagogues, which have traditionally been highly dependent on their religious schools and bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies for bringing in a steady supply of dues-paying members, are a somewhat sensitive point for Yerusha.
The program’s organizers and participants are quick to emphasize that, while they are operating independently of the numerous congregations in the Princeton-West Windsor area, they are not anti-shul.
“I don’t want Yerusha to be portrayed as an opposing thing,” said Edelman, who is also co-founder of a local independent minyan. “It’s about creating another choice, in the same way the independent minyans do.”
The Nathans, who have belonged to a Conservative synagogue since before their children were born, continue to affiliate.
The Bergers also belong to a synagogue, where the older children used to attend Hebrew school.
“There’s a model that’s very appealing to a large number of Jewish parents where you go, drop your kid off at Hebrew school and they train the kid in how to do the prayers, how to lead a part of the service — and that’s fine. I’m not here to disparage that,” Berger said. “But we wanted something a little different … and with parents and kids together as part of a group it really forms a nice community, where all the kids are learning together and really enjoy it.”
Rabbi Baird said he hopes that some synagogues eventually will incorporate the Yerusha model, or at least aspects of it, into their religious schools.
“The reason we didn’t want to launch initially in a synagogue setting is because of the level of innovation we wanted to be able to experiment with,” he explained. “We wanted an open playing field to do trial-and-error work, and in a synagogue setting there would be a number of pressures that would make it difficult to experiment at that level.”
On this muggy May afternoon, the Yerushans come inside the Nathans’ air-conditioned house after the Shimon Bar Yochai skit. The older kids head to the dining room to review Hebrew vocabulary, while the younger ones sprawl on couches in the den and try to make sense of the Talmudic story they’ve just learned.
Rabbi Baird, who everyone calls “Rabbi Justus,” suggests they think of the burning eyes not literally, but as a metaphor for giving someone a wounding look.
Brainstorming what the lesson might be, one child says, “Never make a rabbi with superpower eyes mad at you,” while another suggests, “Be careful where you look! Don’t tattletale.”
As they wrap up the discussion, the sounds of the older kids chanting the Ahavta prayer drift in from the living room.
Reading from homemade prayer books that contain Hebrew, English and transliteration, the small group in the living room faces an upright piano and a “Henry Irving and his Orchestra” banner, rather than a bima or ark, but they are clearly engrossed in the worship regardless.
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