A Response to The Redemption of Hebrew School

by Ana Fuchs

As the Executive Director of Jewish Kids Groups – a new independent Hebrew school movement piloting in Atlanta – I read with interest Paul Steinberg’s article “The Redemption of Hebrew School.” His insights about the value of Jewish education are brutally honest:

“In the hierarchy of devalued occupations, Hebrew school is a top contender.
It is a lot of hard work with little evidence of success and even less thanks.”

Steinberg says 70-75% of kids receiving a Jewish education do so through traditional synagogue-based Hebrew school. “Hebrew school needs more than a bit of luck to face its challenges,” he writes.

His assessment and critique of the Hebrew school landscape puts forth two alternatives to the traditional route: more technology or more camp-like fun.

I am writing to share that there is a new, small but growing model with the potential to transform supplemental education – the five-day-a-week Jewish afterschool program.

In July, The Covenant Foundation, assembled a think-tank of the leaders of pioneering five-day a week Jewish afterschool programs. The Foundation’s interest in the model reflects the fact that a handful of new “five-day” programs are being established across the country.

But, why now? What is the convergence of factors causing several distinct communities to launch independent Jewish afterschool programs in the same year? The communities aren’t new, the programs are new.

For example, as Jewish Kids Groups enters its third year, we are launching JKG Afterschool Community – a marriage of our stellar Hebrew school and a robust afterschool care program.

The need for this new model is a result of the fact that many of today’s Jewish families include two wage earners, and they desperately need afterschool care. They also want their Sundays back. With two working parents, every second of weekend time is precious. They yearn for more family time, for true rest, for Shabbat, even if that’s not the word they always use. Parents also want their kids to have Jewish friends.

Perhaps more significantly, so many families are not interested in the desiccated and deadening model of Jewish supplemental education that is merely a pathway to bar/bat mitzvah. They want relevant, dynamic, high quality Jewish education that teaches why it’s a privilege to be Jewish with a curriculum that is fun, serious, and joyful.

In Atlanta, the new model grew out of a strategic plan initiative where we engaged the community through focus groups and surveys. Two trends emerged: one expected and one not.

  1. Parents indicated a widespread desire for stellar Jewish supplemental education infused with the ruach of summer camp.
  2. Families have a powerful need for high-quality afterschool care.

Had anyone ever thought of this wild idea of merging Hebrew School and afterschool care? In fact, five-day-a-week Hebrew school is the way it used to be, though for different reasons. Many of our parents and grandparents attended cheder five days a week for Jewish education. This kind of daily supplemental schooling predated the 1950-era suburban congregational Hebrew School.

Building on the experiences of two newly established programs, Edah Community in Berkeley (founded in 2010) and the Jewish Enrichment Center in Chicago (founded in 2011), the JKG board approved our expansion from our Sunday program to a full five-day-a-week program. We learned that we were not alone. There were other new initiatives forming like Makom in Toronto, MoEd in Washington D.C., Sulam in Brookline, MA and Tamid and the Hebrew Immersion Afterschool Program in New York.

As Steinberg points out, “what make camps such a success is that it is a whole-life experience.” Like camp, JKG Afterschool Community is designed to be an immersive experience in which children attend up to five days a week to grow, learn, and play in a supportive atmosphere with their Jewish friends.

As a result of this level of immersion, JKG Afterschool Community is able to strike a balance between teaching content and building community. We have many families who participate Monday through Friday, which means their children learn and play with us for 15 hours a week (and hence, in finding the balance, we have a huge advantage over the 3 hours a week most children spend in traditional Sunday schools).

On any given day children in JKG Afterschool Community can be seen playing outside, creating crafts in the art shack, eating snack with friends, praying, learning about holidays, Israel, Teffilah or Torah using Hebrew Wizards curriculum, speaking Hebrew, reading in the library and playing games with friends. Mostly, you will see them happy.

Additionally, because of this nearly-full-time set up, we are able to attract, train, retain and fairly compensate high quality educators, or in Steinberg’s language textpeople.

From our Jewish Educational Gardner, Farmer Amy, to our Lead Experiential Educator, to our Jewish Drama Director, our team members comment that our “company culture” – which places value on collaboration, initiative and experimentation – is what they love most about JKG. Furthermore, our team members enjoy internal and external professional development opportunities (this year we are all going to LimmudAtl + SE together), access to healthcare, sick days and so much more!

We carefully select these “Textpeople” who don’t only provide substance, but guide children through a journey of Jewish education and identity by going on that journey with them, in a way that a static textbook can’t. That personal connection and dynamic experience enriches the learning process by inviting kids to “forget” that they are being taught by losing the traditional classroom experience and gaining friends and mentors who will stay with them in lifelong Jewish learning. Textbooks stay in the classroom. Relationships endure and stretch beyond the walls.

JKG also speaks to Steinberg’s point about how Jewish summer camp is positioned to be effective because “camp is self-selecting. Parents and kids choose camp and they are willing to freely spend thousands of dollars for this experience.” In this sense, JKG Afterschool Community is also self-selecting. Today’s parents have choices and they are choosing to attend the JKG Afterschool Care Program.

The convergence of social and economic factors makes this the perfect time to revisit the five-day-a-week Jewish afterschool model. First, as Steinberg makes clear, there is wide recognition that the traditional Jewish supplemental education system and even variations of the traditional supplemental education are ineffective. Second, with increasing numbers of families where both parents work, more and better afterschool care is necessary.

So, thank you again Paul Steinberg for your all too accurate assessment of the state of Hebrew schools. But colleagues, take note. In Atlanta and select cities across the nation, there is a new model in town!

Ana Fuchs is the Executive Director of Jewish Kids Groups, Atlanta’s Independent Hebrew School.