Philadelphia — A project hailed as the “most exciting Jewish educational idea in a generation,” one that would mark a radical departure from the way young children are taught, was unveiled here this week by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“If it works, it would effect a systemic change in the entire educational system,” said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch at the annual convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
The project involves the development of an early childhood curriculum for nursery and kindergarten children that would “saturate the youngsters in Jewish vocabulary, music and ritual and teach them Hebrew vocabulary,” Rabbi Schorsch explained. “These early years — ages 3, 4 and 5 — are when children are sponges and their parents are most receptive to making their homes Jewish.”
Such an approach to early childhood education would be a radical change from what is happening now, he said, because most synagogue-operated nursery and kindergarten programs have an “abysmal absence of Jewish content. And many of the teachers are not Jewish. The teachers need to be certified — and they are highly certified — but they are Jewishly without knowledge. … Nobody has paid attention to Jewish content and to the potential of early childhood by saturating them with Jewish knowledge.”
To overcome that, a two-year pilot project run by the seminary’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education is training 80 early childhood teachers and administrators, “giving them an intensive exposure to Jewish knowledge and practice,” Rabbi Schorsch said.
“We are also helping them to translate that knowledge into a curriculum. The material is introduced in a systematic way to maximize repetition and development. If teachers throw out Hebrew vocabulary, they must come back to it and interlace it into the other things they are doing,” he said.
Rabbi Schorsch made his comments at a convention that celebrated the 100th birthday of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,500 Conservative rabbis worldwide. About one-third of them were at the convention at the Wyndham Hotel that marked the anniversary, reflected on the past and discussed the future.
Rabbi Schorsch said the pilot program, which will be completed in June with a trip to Israel for all of the participants, has proven so successful that it will be duplicated beginning in September in Detroit.
The 80 participants are from four synagogues, two in New York and two in New Jersey. One of them is Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J., whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Alan Silverstein, said the program has given his early childhood teachers “a motivation to gain” more Jewish background.
“I wouldn’t say there had been an abysmal absence of Yiddishkeit before, but my faculty did not have much Judaic background,” he said. “So the rabbi, the principal, the nursery school director and the cantor had to supplement more than we should have had to.”
Rabbi Silverstein said that by having the nursery school faculty study Judaism with a seminary instructor, it was hoped they would “become inspired and engaged in Jewish learning and transmit that to the children.” He said that indeed did happen after one of the faculty members lost her husband and her colleagues were able to “refer to the sources about how to respond as a Jew and teach the proper response to the children and their parents.”
The program proved such a success, said Rabbi Silverstein, that his congregation’s Talmud Torah faculty asked for it, too. The congregation has arranged to hire an instructor for them in the fall.
The program the Davidson Graduate School will launch in the fall is being conducted in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, which heard about the pilot project and asked to duplicate it. It will train between 150 and 200 early childhood teachers and administrators for two years at three Conservative and three Reform congregations, as well as the local Jewish community center.
Asked about the participation of Reform congregations, Rabbi Schorsch replied: “You can’t be ideological with preschool kids.”
Harlene Appelman, director of the Detroit federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, which is coordinating the program, said alliance members learned of the pilot project while visiting the Graduate School for Jewish Education, which Davidson helped to fund.
“He lives in our community and we follow his work closely,” she said.
When she learned of the pilot project, Davidson said the federation decided to invest about $200,000 annually in the program. The money will be used to pay participants $1,000 a year and take them to Israel at the end of two years.
“If we are going to affect the … afternoon schools, we have to start at the beginning,” she said. “Most of our staff is Jewish. There are a handful of gentile teachers, but they too are involved in creating a Jewish culture in the schools.”
She said the non-Jewish teachers would also go through the training program, so they can properly teach the preschoolers and help create a “Jewish culture in the school.”
Rabbi Schorsch said he considered Jewish education to be the “long-term response to assimilation.” At the convention, Rabbi Aaron Landes of Elkins Park, Pa., said he is working with major philanthropists to create the Limud Foundation to provide scholarship programs for needy youngsters in greater Philadelphia who want to attend a Jewish day school.
Rabbi Landes said the program would provide incentive scholarships to encourage youngsters now attending elite private schools or Christian-sponsored schools to attend Jewish day schools.
Similarly, he said the foundation would provide subsidies for families wishing to send their children to Jewish summer camps, such as the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah.
“We hope the money will change the family’s thinking and get them to look at Jewish day schools,” said Rabbi Landes, who added that he would duplicate the project in New York if philanthropists there contributed to the foundation.
He cited studies showing that eight out of 10 youngsters who received six years or more of intensive Jewish education married Jews. That figure improved to nine out of 10 if they supplemented that background with a meaningful trip to Israel.
On the other hand, those with three or fewer years of Jewish education had a seven out of 10 chance of marrying a non-Jew.
“I want to break the barrier to post-bar and bat mitzvah education,” Rabbi Landes said. “Only 15 percent of Jewish children in the Conservative and Reform movements continue beyond their bar or bat mitzvah.”
He said he has been able to enroll 85 percent of his congregation’s post-bar and bat mitzvah youngsters — about 300 in all — in the congregational Hebrew high school, in Jewish day schools and in the countywide Hebrew high school at Gratz College.
“I created an intellectual atmosphere in my congregation that these are our expectations — that no one drops out after their bar and bat mitzvah,” he explained, adding that he hopes the foundation will help extend that mind-set to other congregations.