During the 2016-17 academic year, religious school for one Jewish family on the Upper West Side was their living room table.
One afternoon a week, Kayla Kirshenbaum, assistant director of education at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Religious School, would meet for three hours with Malcolm and Ethan Furman, then in sixth and third grade, respectively. For three hours they would study such subjects as Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish holidays, the standard curriculum of the congregation’s religious school — the same subjects, the same texts as students who attended classes in the Stephen Wise classrooms were experiencing.
The classes in which the Furman children — and children in eight other local Jewish families — were participating were part of Portals, a pilot educational program that began at the synagogue a year ago, suggested by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the Stephen Wise spiritual leader for 13 years. Portals brings experienced teachers to the homes of synagogue members whose children might be too overloaded with extracurricular activities and homework from their public and private schools to regularly come to classes at the synagogue.
The program is regular religious school education — not remedial tutorial, Rabbi Hirsch said.
“Lessons can be tailored to your child’s strengths and interests,” according to a Portals mission statement. “Upon completion of their sixth-grade year, students can work directly with our clergy and staff to prepare for a bar/bat mitzvah” at the synagogue.
So the synagogue comes to the students, sometimes on different days each week.
No Jewish child should sacrifice his or her Jewish education just because of time constraints, Rabbi Hirsch said. “There is an imperative to bring disconnected Jews back to synagogues. We are reorienting and expanding our approach so that we can embrace all Jewish families that want to be part of our community.”
While the great majority of synagogues’ supplementary religious school programs continue to be held in traditional classroom settings, a growing number of congregations and other communal Jewish organizations have begun in recent years to experiment with home-based programs like Portals. Other examples include the Hebrew Learning Circles in Nyack, the Hebrew Home Study program offered by the Metropolitan Synagogue of mid-Manhattan and the Jewish Education Project in Westchester.
“This is definitely one variant on a larger theme of providing options beyond the traditional religious school model for families seeking alternatives,” Jonathan Woocher, the late Jewish education expert, told The Jewish Week earlier this year. “It’s a revival of an old model” that sent teachers (melamdim) to families’ homes.
Rabbi Hirsch called Portals’ initial year a success. “The first year exceeded our expectations,” he said. “Our initial goal was to attract families that were not affiliated with the Jewish community. We wanted to assure them that it is never too late to study Judaism and to engage the Jewish community. We were gratified to see that several families did, indeed, join us. The students are excelling and enjoying their studies. We expect that many more new families will join us in our second year.
“But what really surprised us was the number of families already part of the Stephen Wise community that chose Portals for their children,” Rabbi Hirsch said. “Many families have chosen this more personalized portal to Jewish education and Jewish identity. I am convinced that the future of Jewish education in America must offer the broadest possible range of options. One-size-fits-all Judaism cannot succeed in 21st-century America, let alone in New York City. We must meet the families where they are.”
Judy Furman, the mother of Malcolm and Ethan, said the Furman parents and kids were also pleased. She called Portals “a wonderful experience. The kids don’t tire at all. They love learning Hebrew.” “We connect with Kirshenbaum,” said Malcolm. “We’ve learned a lot.” “You’re getting one-on-one teaching … not one-on-13,” said Ethan. “It’s fun most of the time.”
Tuition for the Portals classes, offered throughout Manhattan for children in kindergarten through seventh grade, is slightly higher than for those attending classes in the synagogue’s classrooms because of the teachers’ travel and other, additional expenses.
Ethan said he looks forward to studying with Kirshenbaum during the 2017-18 school year. “I want to learn more Hebrew.”