Sunday With The Ark

Sunday With The Ark

For four years Lisa Amzallag’s son, Daniel, 11, attended a Hebrew school in Manhattan that met two days a week from 4 to 6 p.m. Two years ago she enrolled him in the Jewish Youth Connection, which meets Sundays for 22 hours.
The JYC experience has been much more rewarding for her son, Amzallag says.
"To me, there is no comparison between his learning in one year compared to his experience in the afternoon program," she said. "Not only that, his attitude is terrific."
Amzallag said she also sent her daughter, Arielle, 7, to the Jewish Youth Connection two years ago and that both "kids are very excited about it. They like going there, which is truly different from most Hebrew school experiences: including my own."
Amzallag said that for her son, the afternoon Hebrew school at her synagogue was a struggle.
"Afternoon schools get the kids at the worst time of the day because they are tired and their attention is not as sharp as it might be," she explained. "Because of that, the school reduces the amount of true learning by giving them art projects and other busy work for part of the time."
The Jewish Youth Connection, which began in September 1996 with four students, grew to 38 students in just two years. Next month the program expects to have 50 children, according to its executive director, Lori Feldstein.
"It was started as an alternative school to combat the negative attitudes of the afternoon Hebrew school experience," she said. "We wanted [youngsters] when they were fresh so they could have a good Jewish learning experience. We also found that there are many families who are not affiliated with any synagogue and we wanted to be able to offer them a Jewish learning opportunity."
The JYC meets at Kehilath Jeshurun, between Park and Lexington avenues at 85th Street. The space is donated by the Orthodox synagogue but JYC is not affiliated with any synagogue, school or Jewish denomination. As such, the JYC boasts that it is free to take the best educational methods and tools from across the Jewish spectrum.
Feldstein said the program is based on one in Bergen County, N.J. She said two Manhattan parents learned about it and helped to bring it here, believing "it would be a good program to bring in the unaffiliated."
A central component of the JYC is having Orthodox college students, many of them education majors, work with each student one on one to teach them Hebrew for 90 minutes each week. The tutors, called Big Brothers or Big Sisters, are paid $18 an hour and are usually school leaders, Feldstein said.
The rest of the morning is devoted to learning Jewish history, ethics and prayer.
"My son likes the learning, the prayers and going to shul," said Amzallag, "so they must be doing something right. He is on a tremendous learning curve and he is excited about what he is learning. … This is a very stimulating and substantive program."
She said the JYC is "not a bar mitzvah mill, where parents are dropping off kids and leaving them. There is also a family component here. They have family workshops for all the holidays. Sometimes they involve the children, at other times the rabbi conducts them just for the parents."
The JYC added a rabbi, Gary Poretsky, to its staff last year with the help of a two-year grant from the Fund for Jewish Education, which is part of the UJA-Federation of New York. Feldstein said parents last year began a fund-raising drive to retain the rabbi after the grant ends.
Feldstein said she was a principal at three afternoon Hebrew schools that held classes during the week and on Sundays. She said the JYC students have made stronger progress in their Hebrew and in prayers and "look forward to seeing their Big Brothers and Big Sisters."
"It’s an exciting time for them. They are not sitting in a class with 16 other kids, all of whom have different levels of Hebrew proficiency," she said. "And we are not dealing with discipline issues here because we don’t have to motivate [the students] to learn Hebrew.
"I’d match my kids to any kids in the five- and six-hour Hebrew schools. They are better readers and their vocabulary is better simply because they work one-on-one at their own level. And their Big Brothers and Big Sisters call them during the week to see how they are coming with their homework."
Not only has the school attracted the unaffiliated, but about one-third of the families are affiliated. The Amzallags, for instance, are members of Kehilath Jeshurun. There are students as well whose families are affiliated with Conservative and Reform congregations, and Amzallag said many of the congregations (even those with their own Hebrew schools) recognize JYC.
"We get people who are looking for something more meaningful and substantive and who think seriously about the Jewish experience they want their children to receive," said Feldstein. "They are very attracted to the mentoring idea because the students form relationships with college students to whom Judaism is important."
Tuition is $730 for second- through seventh-graders, $530 for kindergarten and first-graders, whose program does not include tutoring and is more music and game oriented.

For information about Jewish Youth Connection,
call (212) 794-1592.

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