6 Things to Know About Religious School Education in the Reform Movement

By Lisa Langer

When kids today talk about religious school, odds are, their experiences are quite different from the way you remember religious school – and we have the data to prove it!

Last fall, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) invited educators, clergy, and lay leaders in our congregations to participate in a census about supplementary education learning models used in their religious schools. We wanted to create a comprehensive snapshot of current innovations in the Reform Movement’s congregational K-6 supplementary education programs. We received feedback from 218 congregations of varying sizes and geographic locations.

Here are six findings based on responses from the congregations that participated in the URJ Census on Supplementary Education Learning Models.

1. Structure and Curricular Models

Among them, the congregations employ 13 different learning models. Ten are structural and pertain to the way learning is configured, which considers such factors as how time is used, the setting, the learners, and how planning decisions meet goals. Examples of structural models include: after-school/child care programs, camp-style, community-building, choice-based learning, family learning, intergenerational-learning, home-based learning, distance/online learning, Shabbat-centered learning, and conventional learning (which meets weekly on Sunday mornings).

Three models are curricular and relate to approaches that may be employed in any of the structural settings. The curricular models identified in the census include alternative Hebrew, project-based learning, and service learning.

2. Incremental vs. Radical Change

Although we were able to identify 94 congregations that are transforming their educational offerings in radical ways, the remainder of the congregations who responded to the census showed evidence of making incremental changes. Several congregations explicitly stated that they see their schools innovating within the structure of the conventional model.

According to one educator, “People think that because it is a conventional model [meaning it meets weekly on Sunday mornings], what happens inside is ‘conventional’ or old school, but what we are doing within the time and within the classrooms involves exciting projects, material, and experiences.”

3. Vision and Goals of Jewish Learning

Congregations are articulating visions for Jewish learning and goals, or are working to create them, for K-6 learners and their families. More than 50% of respondents shared all or part of their formal vision statements and goals, including, in many cases, social/emotional goals. According to one congregation: “We are striving to (re)imagine and create a fun, nurturing and dynamic center of living Judaism, with multiple opportunities for authentic Jewish study, practice, and observance.”

Others seek to create a sense of belonging to a Jewish community, build a Jewish connection to their peers, and help students discover joy and excitement in their learning. Building Jewish identity and a knowledge base of holidays, Torah, and mitzvot remains a major focus, as does Hebrew prayer literacy for b’nai mitzvah.

4. Hebrew

The latest trend in Hebrew education has been to use methodologies in which students learn Hebrew through hearing it and responding to commands. With this approach, the process of learning to actually read Hebrew is ideally delayed several years until students actually need to have those skills. Although many congregations use these sound-to-print methodologies to teach Hebrew, they have not fully transformed the way they approach Hebrew education. With few exceptions, sound-to-print methodologies appear to be additive and not a replacement for instruction in decoding and reading. Of the approximately 50 congregations reporting they use sound-to-print curricula, more than half of them still introduce decoding and reading in grades three or four.

5. Growing Awareness of Learners with Disabilities

Congregations are hiring inclusion specialists to address the needs of learners with disabilities. We do not know exactly how many congregations have designated inclusions specialists, but we believe this is a trend to watch.

6. Hebrew and Judaica Integration vs. Separation

The debate about whether to integrate or separate Hebrew and Judaica learning continues. Integrated curricula enable schools to offer a holistic education and create stronger relationships between teachers and students. On the other hand, using new models may create a need to segment the curriculum and hire appropriate teachers to teach specific subjects or use certain teaching methodologies.

These findings and general observations not only deepen our understanding of the landscape of congregational supplementary education in the Reform Movement, but also highlight the issues and challenges congregations face when innovating. The census also makes it strikingly clear that meaningful educational innovation is happening in a growing number of URJ congregations. It is our hope that this body of work will inspire congregational leaders to begin or continue to experiment with K-6 supplementary education in their own communities.

Lisa Langer, RJE, is director of URJ congregational education initiatives.