A Community Day School for the Whole Community

A young girl puts thought into her matzoh cover design. Photo from SmallCity@Senesh; courtesy The Covenant Foundation
A young girl puts thought into her matzoh cover design. Photo from SmallCity@Senesh; courtesy The Covenant Foundation

by Nicole Nash

Can a day school become more than just a learning community for the K-8 families and students it serves?

In 2007, Hannah Senesh Community Day School opened a new building in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, traditionally an Italian neighborhood with little Jewish life. Since then, the demographics of the neighborhood have shifted markedly, from older first generation Italians to young middle to upper-middle class families with babies, including many Jews. And according to data findings by the New York Federation’s “Early Jewish Engagement Study,” many of these families are searching for increased Jewish engagement.

This burgeoning need opened up an opportunity for us to become a hub of Jewish life in the area. We created SmallCity@Senesh, a project that invites members of the greater Brownstone Brooklyn community to experience Jewish education in a variety of ways, engaging many different learners, including adults, teens, and families with young children, in informal Jewish education.

Starting with a grant from UJA Federation-NY, Senesh kicked off community programming in 2011 with Sundays@Senesh, a Sunday morning playspace for babies and toddlers in our school’s spacious and sunny gymnasium. Exhausted parents and energetic children could escape the confines of small apartments during the cold winter months to enjoy bagels and coffee, share play equipment and even engage in some grown-up conversation in our large gym. As our gym filled with the sounds of happy kids every Sunday morning throughout the winter, we learned that these young parents were thrilled to be able to socialize with other young families in a warm, friendly, and Jewish environment.

To build on this program’s success, we conducted research through online surveys, informal conversation, and focus groups, and learned that the parents were interested in more Jewishly focused programming. They were eager to be a part of holiday programming that included Jewish and Israeli music, holiday related performances, and art activities led by Senesh teachers. Large numbers of families attended this holiday programming. We kept track of sign in information, and discovered that people were coming from far and wide, not just from the immediate neighborhood.

Then we did more research and realized that we could open up programming to different age groups. We had discussions with various stakeholders and the idea was easily accepted by our leadership as a wonderful way to serve a need and raise the school’s profile in the community. We applied for a grant from The Covenant Foundation and SmallCity@Senesh was born.

As we embarked on program development our mantras were “quality” and “mission clarity.” We made sure each program was as excellent as possible and involved our best staff in planning and running it, and we partnered with the sharpest, smartest, best run community organizations. Mission clarity means that all programming should share a common theme. For us as a school, the common theme is open, non-judgmental, joyous Jewish education that can be delivered and received by a diverse group of constituents.

We aimed to create conversations that lead to connections and community building. Having clarity about mission is the key to staying focused and making it clear that you are offering something new and unique.

The foundation support has enabled us to launch quality community programming and attract many participants to these programs. But providing programming does not mean providing free programming. A budget for every program needs to reflect a path towards sustainability. We are not in the business of making money in this arena, but we want a program that will exist in three years. The school charges for programming, perhaps less than some for-profit outfits in the neighborhood, but enough to manage the program responsibly both now and in the future.

In creating a program it is important to stay true to your vision of what you are and what you want to become. What we have learned is that Jewish programming is not a zero-sum game. The market is vast (at least in Brooklyn), and embarking on an effort to reach out and open doors only adds to enhancing Jewish life in the larger community. There are many different ways to be a Jew: synagogue, meditation, theater and song, learning, communal work. SmallCity@Senesh offers new paths into Jewish life for a people who have varying personal relationships with Judaism.

For families, our holiday programming allows young children and their parents to interact with art, music, storytelling and movement as a way to explore holidays and develop their Jewish identity. For teenagers we offer Kehilah, a Jewish community high school program that meets on Sunday evenings and includes Senesh alumni, other day school educated teens, and Jewish teens from a public school background. Adults from all over the borough attend Jewish meditation classes and Israeli dancing on Wednesday evenings.

Our internal team continues to think of other populations and to brainstorm ways to reach them. In my opinion, this should be the goal of Jewish outreach of any kind: bring people in on their terms, connect them to a Judaism they can appreciate, and give them some skills and resources to begin creating their own Jewish narrative.

Not every community has as much need for Jewish programming as our corner of Brooklyn. Nonetheless, every day school is rich in resources that can benefit the larger community. Here are five things to consider about providing community programming.

Market research. Before you begin developing a program, learn about your target market and what it needs. Does your community have a large number of young families with children, empty nesters, elders, Russians, and/or Israelis? When you have learned what segment in your community is most interested in programming, begin to collect emails or phone numbers. After this, do the research through many different vehicles: focus groups, online surveys or phone call interviews. Ask your market what they want in the way of programming, what times of the week work best for them to go to a program, how much they would be willing to pay, and if they’d prefer drop-in or to register for a handful of classes.

Program Development. Once you have established your market and its needs, you can start to build the program. The program should be high quality and mission consistent. Hold brainstorming sessions with as many different people as possible so that you can collect creative ideas about what your program can be. Be realistic about the gap between what your market might say they want, and what they are able to commit to.

Marketing outreach. Know how your market finds out about programs and be vigorous about reaching them there. This means making sure you regularly list on neighborhood listservs if that is how they get their information, or put listings in local newspapers if that is their preference. If you are working with elders, you might need to have a phone bank once a week to remind them to come to programs. This takes work and planning, but outreach and marketing is key to getting the attention you need.

Sustainability. Only do programming that you can financially sustain. Even if you are using your programming as a way to drive attention to your school, there is no reason to lose an exceptional amount of money for the long term. You might decide to lose money to build a program that you know can be successful after a few months, but that should be a strategic decision. Otherwise, charge more and find a less expensive teacher.

Be reflective and be flexible. Be prepared to drop something if it isn’t working. If after much marketing and effort a program is losing more money than you would have expected, move on and try something else. This is an important part of program refining; there is no reason to commit to a program that isn’t doing anything for the community you serve.

Day schools are hubs of talent and resources that have the capacity to enrich the lives of many more people than are usually found within their walls. Community day schools in particular are adept at serving the full range of Jews that exist in our neighborhoods. Seeing ourselves as part of a living and growing Jewish ecosystem can enrich both our schools and our communities.

Nicole Nash is the head of school at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn. She can be reached at nnash@hannahsenesh.org.

This article originally appeared in HaYidion, RAVSAK’s journal of Jewish education. Reprinted with permission.