First in a three-part series on Hebrew schools offering choice and flexibility.
Timon Malloy dropped out of Hebrew school before his bar mitzvah and wasn’t planning on subjecting his 8-year-old twins to the same experience.
“The conventional wisdom is that kids don’t like Hebrew school, and my kids were like, ‘There’s no way we’re going to like it,’” he said.
Then he and his wife found out about the Jewish Journey Project (JJP), an innovative program completing its inaugural year.
With semester-long courses offered seven days a week, from “Torah in Stop-Motion Animation” to “Spirituality for the Questioning Kid,” along with weeklong “intensives” during school vacations, JJP is a far cry from the Hebrew school that Malloy, or most American Jewish adults, recalls.
With iTunes, digital streaming, smartphones, social media and other tech innovations having freed 21st-century families to customize seemingly everything in their lives and access it whenever and wherever they want, Hebrew schools are starting to adapt.
JJP, with its wide menu of choices, is a dramatic example. But it is one of several new emerging models — among them more flexible scheduling, alternative tracks in which kids can substitute online learning, family activities or camp-like retreats for weekday classroom hours and an overall emphasis on teaching values and practical life skills rather than holidays and facts. What these efforts share is a goal of making Jewish education more convenient, personalized and engaging to busy kids and their families. (These models will be examined in future installments of this series.)
JJP “stands on three legs: flexibility, innovation and collaboration,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt, who first dreamed up JJP three years ago while on a sabbatical from her job as executive director of the JCC in Manhattan.
A former congregational rabbi, Rabbi Levitt had long been frustrated with what she called the “failure” of the Hebrew school model. Two years ago, she convened a team of synagogues and Jewish educational leaders to transform a concept paper she’d drafted into an actual program. In September, JJP launched with 204 students, the majority registered through partner synagogues, each of which sets their own tuition and required course load. At some, like Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, children in certain grades can choose either JJP or the synagogue’s existing Hebrew school program. At others, like Society for the Advancement of Judaism, JJP has replaced the Hebrew school altogether in certain grades. In order to balance all the choice and individualism with a sense of community, kids are also required to attend regular meet-ups at their synagogue (or, for those who register through the JCC, at the JCC) to come together with a consistent group for prayer, learning or other activities.
Classes take place in synagogues, at the JCC and at a variety of other Manhattan locations — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Krav Maga New York, an Upper West Side facility promoting an Israeli form of self-defense and hand-to-hand combat.
So far JJP is getting good reviews from the families, synagogues and teachers involved, with all the participating institutions planning to continue or expand their involvement next year.
“By and large people were very happy,” said Ivy Schreiber, education director at B’nai Jeshurun, where half of the fourth and fifth graders opted to try JJP this year.
“The kids were very excited about the courses they selected,” she said.
Congregation Habonim piloted JJP with its sixth and seventh graders this year and is planning to enroll its fourth and fifth graders in the program next year, while making it optional for third graders.
“We’ve been very pleased with it,” said Rabbi Laurie Phillips, Habonim’s education director. “It’s allowing more choice, a chance to meet other kids and sign up for courses with friends who go to different religious schools.”
While BJ’s parents were initially concerned that the course load (three per year plus meet-ups and attendance at junior congregation) would be too onerous, “we actually found all our families met the requirements without any questions, and the majority actually took more courses” than required, Schreiber said.
“We had plenty of students taking four or five courses,” she added, noting that the flexible scheduling and choice “speaks to a lot of families.”
Rabbi Phillips said about a third of her students took more JJP classes than required.
Claudia Rader, a member of SAJ, said that the course options were so intriguing that her seventh-grade daughter and fifth-grade son had trouble limiting themselves to the number they actually had time to attend.
Among the courses they settled on were “Gangsters and Divas: Jewish Values in the Media,” “Talmudic Stories in Lego Stop-Motion Animation,” “Jewish Architecture” and “The Joseph Narrative Through Printmaking.”
“What’s so inspired about JJP and the people who designed it is they’ve come up with innovative, attractive ways to present the material,” Rader said, noting that her children found their courses “provocative, interesting, stimulating and fun.”
Malloy, whose family belongs to Temple Emanu-El, said that not only do his children enjoy their JJP classes, but that he also has been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the required programming at Emanu-El.
In addition to offering families more freedom, the JJP structure has created new opportunities for part-time teachers — particularly artists, musicians and entrepreneurs — who want to design their own courses and maybe also promote their own programs.
That has been the case for Jory Stillman, who teaches “Shalom Kids Yoga” at JJP and also runs a startup that offers kids’ workshops, birthday parties and professional development teaching Bible stories through yoga poses and other physical activities.
“It’s been fun and exciting to work with [JJP students] because they’re so fresh and curious,” she said, adding, “I think [the JJP model] is going to be the wave of the future, at least in the progressive Jewish community.”
Amy Fechter has also enjoyed teaching at JJP — and has found it useful in helping her further develop her “Strategic Hebrew” immersion approach to teaching conversational Hebrew.
Fechter’s classes, which she offers through JJP and other venues (she will be piloting a week-long Hebrew immersion camp this summer at Congregation Rodeph Sholom), focus on vocabulary needed for specific tasks or interests, like shopping, cooking and ordering in a restaurant.
JJP “allows teachers to tap into their inner creativity and come up with something that’s the best they have to offer,” she said. In planning courses, the focus is on “what will capture students’ interest and what do teachers want to teach.”
Just as Strategic Hebrew emphasizes learning by doing, rather than sitting in a classroom memorizing vocabulary, JJP’s overall approach, Rabbi Levitt said, emphasizes “competencies” over “hours spent in class.”
While Fechter’s classes teach modern Israeli Hebrew, some educators and parents worry that the nuts and bolts of Hebrew decoding and being able to read a prayer book can get overlooked in the choice-based JJP model.
“The Hebrew piece was the biggest challenge,” said B’nai Jeshurun’s Schreiber. “We went from four hours of seeing kids to two hours [when they come for meet-up], and we can’t do everything we used to do in four hours.”
From now on, BJ will require those who opt for JJP to take its “Homepage Hebrew,” in which kids meet online with a Hebrew tutor, using a platform with not just videoconferencing but screen-sharing and other features.
Rader, the SAJ member and mother of two, also found Hebrew to be a problem this year and is considering requiring her son to take “Homepage Hebrew” next year.
“If you’re a boy and have a choice between stop-motion animation and Hebrew, you’re going to go for the much more attractive and interesting classes,” she said.
One of the many hopes of JJP is that, in allowing children to choose their own courses and schedules, they will actually want to show up and, as Rabbi Levitt put it, “won’t make the distinction between what they love and Judaism.”
Strategic Hebrew teacher Fechter said that she has found her students are a “self-selecting group” who are motivated to learn.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened in every JJP class, Rader said, noting that some still grapple with discipline problems.
“JJP’s ambition is to create a setting where that never happens, where Hebrew school is always the place you want to be,” she said. “Ninety percent of the time they are successful, but unfortunately there are still times when a class can be hard to herd.”
Another challenge according to Saul Kaiserman, education director at Temple Emanu-El, one of the partner synagogues: ensuring that JJP be more than merely “a well-run religious school with sexy marketing.”
“The structure is secondary in all this,” he told The Jewish Week. “What’s critical is having interesting and engaging lessons and building relationships.”
While acknowledging that structure and convenience are not the only elements needed for success, they are significant, Rabbi Levitt said.
For example, she noted, she has been pleasantly surprised to discover that “Saturday night turns out to be a great night for JJP. Ten-year-olds have nowhere to go, parents want to go out, and kids are wide awake: unlike 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, when normative Hebrew school happens, 7 on a Saturday night is a great time to learn Hebrew and connect.”
“In the notion that God lives in the details, these structural things are important,” she said.
Next in the series: A startup offers a flexible “blended-learning” curriculum for Hebrew schools.
Jewish Journey Project Basics
* 2012-’13 Enrollment: 204
*Participating synagogues: Central Synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Congregation Habonim, Temple Emanu-El of NYC, East End Temple, Society for the Advancement of Judaism
*Sample courses for next year: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (preparing to stage the musical in Hebrew); “Food Craft: The Jewish Culinary Tradition”; “Mixed-Media Jewish Calendar”; “Create Your Own Digital Siddur”
*How it works: Children register through the JCC in Manhattan or participating synagogues and, with the help of an adviser, choose courses — offered at various locations around Manhattan — in five “pathways” (Hebrew, Spirituality & Ritual, Jewish Peoplehood, Tikkun Olam, Torah). They also participate in regular “meet-ups,” with other kids from their institution. Each synagogue sets its own tuition and requirements.