Greenwich, Conn. — It’s a sunny, crisp Sunday morning in October, and inside the auditorium of the stately Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich building, about 50 kids, many wearing red hoodies and soccer shirts of various colors emblazoned with the words “Hebrew Wizards,” are sitting cross-legged on a large, brightly colored rug, singing “It is A Tree of Life,” a folk version of the song “Eitz Chaim.”
Ranging in age from 5 to 18, the “Wizards” are participants in a Hebrew school where the promise of gold coins (redeemable for candy and prizes) and opportunities to compete in contests and “color wars” motivates children to master and then teach hundreds of “Wizard Boards.”
Founded six years ago by Deborah Tarasow Salomon, a former Wall Street investment manager who single-handedly developed the curriculum, Hebrew Wizards enrolls 85 children and has become a full-fledged (albeit building-less) congregation, with holiday and monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services. More than 60 “wizards” have had a “Wizards B Mitzvah” so far, and 30 participate in the teen program.
Although little known outside Greenwich, whose growing Jewish community also has five other congregations, Hebrew Wizards is starting to attract national attention.
Salomon recently began marketing pieces of her curriculum through a series of apps (sold on iTunes) called “Wanna Be a Wizard?” She has also presented on the program at the past two NewCAJE conferences for Jewish educators, is touring the country (with help from the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education, a national group that seeks to advocate for and improve “complementary Jewish education”) and has even publicized the Hebrew Wizards approach on YouTube, producing “Bar Mitzvah Blues,” a video that parodies the miseries of old-style Hebrew school.
Hebrew Wizards is hardly the only “fun” Hebrew school out there.
Indeed, the world of part-time (also known as supplemental or complementary) Jewish education is at a time of ferment and experimentation, as Jewish institutions increasingly recognize that, for many families, Jewish education has become optional and must compete for time and attention with other appealing pursuits.
Numerous efforts to re-envision Hebrew school have emerged in the past decade, including, in New York, the Jewish Education Project-run LOMED and Coalition of Innovative Congregations, along with a still-being-planned collaborative effort, in which kids pick and choose from a menu of Jewish activities and courses offered by a variety of institutions.
Other recent innovations have included a family-based pilot program in which parents volunteer as teachers and children earn badges as they progress; home-based study groups coordinated by private tutors; and the Storahtelling theater/educational group’s Raising the Bar, in which families develop a personalized theatrical interpretation of the bar/bat mitzvah child’s Torah portion.
“What’s really important for us to realize is that the Jewish community has entered into a free-market economy,” observes Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, who recently met with Salomon and observed Hebrew Wizards. “Jewish institutions are now competing, if you will, with programs that are not necessarily sponsored by or supported by the organized Jewish community, and Hebrew Wizards is an example of the growing number of projects like this.”
At the center of Hebrew Wizards’ curriculum are hundreds of “Wizard Boards,” colorful, laminated posters that each contain the key facts about a specific topic, in categories ranging from Hebrew, Jewish history, prayers and holidays to the contents of various chapters of the Bible. Produced by Salomon with assistance from a graphic designer, the copyrighted boards are illustrated with whimsical cartoon figures.
Once a student demonstrates proficiency with a board, he or she reviews the material by teaching it to another, usually younger, student.
Salomon emphasizes that “wizards” is not a reference to magic or the Harry Potter books, but rather is supposed to be about “being the best you can be at something” and “finding the wizard within you.”
Known to students and their parents alike as “Morah [teacher] Deborah,” Salomon — who is Hebrew Wizards’ founder, director and “spiritual leader” (and performs all these roles sans paycheck) — has no formal training in Jewish education. However, she grew up in an observant Conservative home with two parents who worked as Jewish educators (her father was a rabbi) and has studied privately as an adult.
The idea for Hebrew Wizards began germinating in the late ‘90s as Salomon — reeling from her younger brother’s long struggle with brain cancer (he died in 2002) — decided she wanted to leave finance for a more spiritually satisfying career.
In the eight years before launching Wizards in 2005, she “piloted” much of its components while teaching part time at the religious school of Temple Sholom, where she was a member. She approached the Conservative synagogue about transforming its entire Hebrew school into something like Hebrew Wizards, but, she says, “it became evident that the best way to do what I wanted was to leave and create something on my own.”
While the first “handful” of families consisted of people Salomon recruited from Temple Sholom (that synagogue remains Greenwich’s largest, enrolling more than 300 in its religious school), Hebrew Wizards also began attracting unaffiliated families. Salomon says 45 percent of Wizards’ families are intermarried.
“There were so many people that had no place to go,” she says. “We fill a niche in the marketplace that had gone begging. People who said, ‘I’m intermarried, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, I’m a modern Jew. Where should I go?’ This is the answer. It’s a relaxed, camp-like, very nurturing atmosphere.”
Asked to comment on Hebrew Wizards, Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz said the program is “a part of the tapestry that makes up the vibrant Jewish life of Greenwich.”
Wearing a red Hebrew Wizards hoodie, cargo pants and boots, and a lot of silver jewelry, the auburn-curled Salomon, is a bundle of energy as she circulates, fielding questions from teens, dispensing Band-Aids from her pockets and breaking into lessons in-progress to share her own spin on the material as well as tips for remembering things.
Visiting a class of “Mini Wizards” (4- and 5-year-olds) who are learning the Sheheyanu blessing, she looks on approvingly as the teacher suggests the children — who are cuddling Pillow Pets (each Mini Wizard is given the toy to play with while at Hebrew Wizards and will get to take it home at the end of the year as a sort of prize) — pantomime using a key to unlock something as they say “key-a-manu.”
“For the higiyanu part, I like to think of it as higgity piggity,” Salomon adds, wiggling and jumping.
Back in the auditorium, several older children are leaning against a covered piano as they write “I’m Sorry” poems in honor of Yom Kippur. In another corner, a group tries on costumes from an enormous wooden crate of props and supplies, as they brainstorm a play about the Book of Jonah.
Around the room, banners, posters and games serve as reminders of past Color Wars — the periodic events where teams compete in such areas as Hebrew speed-reading, putting the words of the V’Ahavta prayer in the correct order and producing cheers, Wizard Boards and songs on a specific Jewish theme.
Like her namesake, the biblical prophetess Deborah, Salomon is a charismatic figure. And her personality is deeply intertwined with Hebrew Wizards.
She operates much of the program out of her house, where she stores supplies and frequently hosts Wizards events, including Shabbat dinners and Passover seders.
Her two younger daughters (a third daughter is a sophomore in college) participate in the program, and her husband, Robert “Buster” Salomon serves as its chief administrator and photographer.
Salomon also appears to be Wizards’ primary decision-maker for now. Asked if Hebrew Wizards has a board, she said she is “building” an “advisory board,” but declined to name its members so far.
Whether Hebrew Wizards could be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen. Not all educators will like the Wizard Board emphasis on memorization of facts, or “rote learning,” as JOI’s Rabbi Olitzky describes it.
In addition, it is “a model driven by charismatic leadership,” Rabbi Olitzky observes, noting that programs dependent on a passionate founder or leader can struggle in other venues.
Finances could also prove challenging. Even with Salomon forgoing a paycheck, the program, which charges an average of $1,800 annually per student and is subsidized by two anonymous donors, ends up in the red each year, Salomon says, noting that she is pursuing more philanthropic support.
But parents and children in the program offer high praise for Salomon and Wizards.
Tobi Serra, who has a daughter in fifth grade and a son in second grade, has been coming to Hebrew Wizards for three years, attracted by its inclusiveness (her husband is not Jewish) and the “unorthodox” approach.
“It’s been a good fit, there’s never been a complaint from my children,” she says. “They make it fun.”
Adds her daughter, Eva: “It’s not just sit down and read a book. We get coins and then we can trade them in for prizes.”
Jordana Adler, a senior at Greenwich High School, is in the teen program, serving as an assistant teacher. She has been coming to Hebrew Wizards since it began and was the first participant to observe her bat mitzvah there.
“My bat mitzvah was so beautiful,” she reflects. “It wasn’t that long, just an hour and a half, and everyone enjoyed it. I understood what I was doing, I wasn’t just saying random prayers.”
Carol Kahn and her 5-year-old daughter, Izzie, just joined Hebrew Wizards this year, and she says they already feel ensconced in the community.
Widowed in January, Kahn says Hebrew Wizards “has such a spiritual element that I can relate to and so badly need, and Izzy loves coming here. She sings, practices her prayers — it’s wonderful to see … We have a hole in our collective hearts, and this is helping.”