How the Creation of “Tracks” Re-invigorated our Religious School

Video: The Temple Isaiah Shira Class of 2014 year end project

By Rabbi Nicki Greninger

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that “Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching. Some seem to know their Torahs very early in life and speak and sing them in a myriad of ways. Others spend their whole lives stammering, shaping, and rehearsing them. Some are long, some short. Some are intricate and poetic, others are only a few words, and still others can only be spoken through gesture and example. But every soul has a Torah.”

At Temple Isaiah, our educational mission is to provide our families with tools to understand the Jewish past, connect to the Jewish present, and become an integral part of the Jewish future. In order to do that, however, we need to help people discover and connect to their individual “Torahs,” learning how each unique Torah is part of the larger fabric of our synagogue community as well as the Jewish people at large.

Over the last six years, we have made changes in our Religious School (which is now called “JQuest”) that reflect our understanding that people have unique “Torahs” – that like adults, children learn in a wide variety of ways. We believe that one of the lingering problems with Religious School is its design which mirrors public schools in a one-size-fits-all, grade-by-grade structure. This contradicts evidence that people connect to Jewish life in countless ways, with different passions and interests. Adults who lead meaningful Jewish lives may love to sing in the choir, or study Talmud, or develop their spirituality through Jewish experiences in nature. A one-size-fits-all educational program fails to engender a love of lifelong Jewish learning by limiting the ability to choose what kind of Jewish life fits a person’s unique “Torah.” In order to address this problem, we created a new system of learning tracks, in which we offer a variety of paths of Jewish learning to match the various learning styles and passions of the children in our community.

By hoping to break the one-size-fits-all approach, we began making changes within our congregational school in 2009. There was no grand plan at the outset of this process; rather, we had a desire to offer new opportunities for our families to make Jewish learning what we know it can be – meaningful, inspirational, fun, and an experience that could translate into lifelong Jewish engagement. We first decided to offer students a chance to learn about Judaism through the lens of music, calling this new track “Shira.” Designed by myself (the education director) and our cantor (Cantor Leigh Korn), Shira was an optional program for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students in lieu of their ‘regular’ Religious School classes. Hebrew and tefillah remained part of the curriculum for everyone, and all the rest of our classes remained the same. The Shira track was the only new addition in 2009.

Enrollment in Shira exceeded expectations – so much so that we had to add teachers and alter the curriculum to accommodate a larger group of kids, and we nevertheless had a wait list of students hoping to get into it. The enjoyment of the children in Shira was palpable, and the new life that it breathed into our educational program was exciting. From learning ancient hymns to nusach to modern Israeli music, Shira was a vehicle through which many of our students developed a deep love of Judaism. While the success of the track seems inevitable now, at the time we honestly did not know how it would be received. We simply felt that children would like to try a different way of learning and connecting to Jewish life.

We took this information and went to parents with a simple question: Do you want more tracks? The answer was a resounding “Yes!” And so, since that time, we’ve added more tracks, such Omanut (art), Y’tzira (creation / storytelling), Teva (nature), Bonim (builders), and more. In some cases, Temple Isaiah conceptualized a track to offer and then sought out the right educator to teach it. In other instances, an educator in our community had a certain expertise, around which we created a track. Whether building a sukkah in Bonim or mimicking Israeli artist Yaakov Agama’s distinct 3-D style in Omanut, kids in all the tracks are immersed in deep Jewish learning. All 3rd and 4th grade tracks focus on the curricular themes of God, Torah, and Israel; all 5th & 6th grade tracks include an emphasis on Jewish history and ethics. All our tracks include prayer and Hebrew learning as well.

“JQuest empowers my sons to explore their interests and connect Judaism to so many parts of their lives,” says Angie Corritone, mother to Robert, 12, and Joey, 10. “The tracks offer them opportunities that some students may not have access to in public school, like art and cooking. And when Joey brought home his art project replicating an Israeli artist, it made our house more Jewish. That’s very powerful for him to see. JQuest has built confidence in both my sons, showing them they can be leaders in the Jewish world and that they can connect art, friends, teachers, and Judaism all together.” Dan Myers, father of Jake, 13, and Josh, 10, noted that in the tracks, “children are more relaxed, inspired and comfortable; they connect more with people and the subject matter” than they did in the ‘regular’ Religious School classes of the past. We surveyed the students this spring (May 2015) to find out how they feel about the JQuest tracks, and we heard overwhelmingly positive feedback: “I love my track. It is my favorite time of the day. The best!” exclaimed one third grade girl, while a fifth-grade boy described his track as “beyond amazing.”

The new name “JQuest” reflects the lifelong journey that is Jewish learning. We hope that our tracks show students that their strengths and interests in life connect to Judaism, and that they can live meaningful Jewish lives through a variety of modalities well past the time that “Religious School” is finished. If you love Jewish music, you can connect to Judaism through music for the rest of your life – in college, young adulthood, and beyond. At the same time, this model has emphasized that although each of us may find different ways “in” to Jewish life, we are nevertheless part of one big community. As we created the various tracks, we intentionally kept all our programs on the same days and times so that the community would be together regularly for tefillah as well as other JQuest-wide events.

I would encourage other congregations to consider their own version of JQuest tracks, a model I recently shared with communities around the country participating in Shinui: The Network for Innovation in part-Time Jewish Education. As I noted with fellow educators and leaders in Shinui, JQuest is built around the simple yet profound educational concept that different learners learn differently – as well as the recognition that Jews find meaning in Jewish life in different ways. Therefore, where possible, Jewish learning should be as varied as Jewish life. We can turn youth on to our traditions and practices by connecting them in deeply personal ways. In the process, they learn in enjoyable settings that are relevant to them. They create Jewish community and – through meaningful experiences  – understand that Jewish life and learning doesn’t stop at the congregational walls. That’s only the beginning.

Rabbi Nicki Greninger is Director of Education at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. She shared this Tracks model through Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, whose partner agencies are The Jewish Education Project (New York), the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Jewish Learning Venture (Philadelphia), and Jewish LearningWorks (San Francisco Bay Area). Shinui is funded by the Covenant Foundation.