If You Build It, They Will Learn

JKGby Ana Fuchs and Eliana Leader

Traditional Hebrew schools are losing their effectiveness.

Nationwide, parents are opting out of sending their children. Some say it is because they don’t want their children to resent the experience the way they did while others claim that high-quality, joyful choices do not exist.

For whatever their reason, sixty-seven percent of Atlanta children who are being raised Jewish in intermarried households do not receive any formal Jewish education (2008 JFGA Demographic Study). We’re talking about 50,000 children in Intown Atlanta! The number of children not getting a Jewish education could fill the Braves stadium!

Anxious to know more about this demographic, JKG hosted a series of focus groups in October 2011. In just a few sessions, we discovered that,

    1. Both affiliated and unaffiliated families long for a high-quality Jewish education program that will actively support and engage their children on a Jewish journey.

This finding was expected and was more-or-less the hypothesis on which JKG had built a successful one-day-a-week program that had grown from 6-65 children between 2009-2011.

  1. There is significant interest in a five-day a week Jewish after school program that provides care, community, and content.
  2. There is a desire for a “third option” in Jewish education for families who cannot or do not send their children to Jewish day school, but for whom traditional Hebrew School is not substantial enough. Not unique to Atlanta, researchers report, “Rises in the level of childhood Jewish schooling are almost always associated with increases in adult Jewish identity years later. Day school alumni outscore supplementary school alumni, who in turn outrank Sunday school graduates” (Cohen and Kotler-Berkowitz, 2004).

In response to these focus groups and the understandings that resulted from them, research on best practices, and site visits to unique programs across the country, JKG created JKG Afterschool Community. The “newest and most innovative idea in Jewish education.”

JKG Afterschool Community combines a premium afterschool-care program (homework help, snack, hangout time) with a ridiculously cool Hebrew school (community gardening, team challenges, art, drama, music, Israeli games).

Our 2012 pilot program is six months old and is an inspiring, hamish, loving community where kids learn and play together up to 20 hours a week. Community member Barbara Horowitz said, “[the teaching approach] is so different, it’s a breath of fresh air!”

Children attend up to five afternoons a week, making their experience with Judaism and each other, truly immersive. JKG Mom, Rachel Silverman is happy to not have to shlep her kids to a program they don’t like on Sunday mornings and was quoted in the The Jewish Week, “[JKG is] the best of both worlds, and we got our Sundays back.”

Based on our experience with JKG Afterschool Community we posit that the future of Jewish education lies in a) diversifying the range of educational frameworks and b) creating premium programs that address the needs of the largest percentage of American Jews, the “unaffiliated Jews” (cue eye roll here).

Currently, two main education models exist: Day schools and synagogue-run Hebrew/Sunday schools.

We think there need to be more options, including our immersive after school model.

We learned many quick lessons while launching JKG Afterschool Community and have identified a number of our best practices, JKG:

  1. Places the school at the core of a larger community, comprised of affiliated and unaffiliated families.
  2. Creates a framework that combines services parents need (like after-school care, and a flexible program) with the rich content of an experiential Jewish education.
  3. Feels a lot like Jewish summer camp and is an immersive Jewish experience for children M-F after-school.

What are your “new” best practices? Do you agree or take issue with ours? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

AnaFuchs is Executive Director, and Eliana Leader, Lead Experiential and Family Educator at Jewish Kids Groups in Atlanta, GA.

This article first appeared on JESNA’s InnovationXchange.