“It’s Not School, It’s Jewish After School. And it’s Awesome!”

Courtesy Jewish Kids Groups

By Ana Robbins

The Nitzan Network is reinventing Jewish after-school learning experiences, providing hundreds of young people with the building blocks to grow and explore the world through a Jewish lense.

In Atlanta, Berkeley, Boston, Chicago, DC, Philadelphia, and Toronto – we’re seeing it – the movement to renew Jewish learning after school is growing: now serving over 400 kids and their families annually nationwide. These programs, which have come together to form the Nitzan Network, offer students and parents a revolutionary childcare option during the week. Combining the services of after-school childcare with experiential Jewish education, families can relax knowing that their children are having fun while building their Jewish identity.

Distinct from Jewish Day School and different than traditional religious or Sunday school, Jewish After-School Programs offer many Jewish families exactly what they need: after-school childcare that includes transportation from school, homework help, and snack while providing Jewish learning and community on a regular basis. The programs are flexible: students can enroll for as few as two or as many as five days a week to accommodate other extracurriculars. School closed for Presidents Day, a teacher work day or Spring break? No worries! The programs in the network have full day, action-packed camp days that expand on many of the lessons and values featured in their daily programs.

Courtesy Jewish Kids Groups

The after-school programs in Nitzan offer highly immersive, content-rich, relationship-focused experiences that are rooted in Judaism and a connected community. Children who participate explore Jewish texts and hone their Hebrew language skills. They learn about tradition, practice, holidays, geography and history. They develop positive Jewish identities.

Because Jewish after school has so many more contact hours than a traditional Sunday school it is designed for kids to be able to learn in fun and creative ways, “we have different ways we do Ivrit [Hebrew]. They’re always really creative and fun. One way … is that we had these jars where we had 10 jars that had exercises. They got progressively harder. My friend and I were way ahead of all the people… We were pushing each other to see who could finish first. It was really fun because even though we were really competitive, we still helped each other to finish.”

Another benefit of added contact hours? Fostering meaningful relationships. One educator remarked, “We get to know our children really, really well. They tell us about so much of their lives – we know the names of their stuffed animals, their grandparents, and their best friends from school. One child came to me during the winter, upset about how everything in stores and at school was about Christmas. It was an opportunity for her to feel comfortable discussing something that was bothering her, with a safe Jewish grown-up. We create an environment where our children feel safe, whole, and recognized for who they are and what they care about.”

Parents say that Jewish after-school “is the best thing going in Jewish education. Unbelievable curriculum, pedagogy, faculty” and makes it possible for their kids to form deep connections to Jewish role models and peers, “With instructors and fellow students from Russian and African backgrounds, he has also built relationships across the diversity of contemporary Judaism that few American communities could match or model.”

Courtesy Jewish Kids Groups

Students appreciate that because Jewish after school is so immersive it becomes an important part of who they are and they can truly let loose and be themselves. “[We] laugh a lot… we are happy as a community together. This one time during snack time one of the people in my group said something funny, I started laughing and couldn’t stop. I had to leave to get water. BTW that has happened many times..”

Another student commented, that “we (the kids) can have our own ideas and not have them be spoon-fed to us, but we can also hear other ideas.”

An educator sums up the effect the new programming has had on classroom culture: “There’s so much kavod [dignity, honor, appreciation] here – where I grew up, there wasn’t kavod for subject matter, peers, or teachers … building our compassionate community is the … foundation of the learning we do together.”

Jewish after school does more than just make life better for families. Educators say this type of program makes it possible to “respect the intellectual capacities of children and work with them to help them figure out what they think and believe. Questions become an opportunity to learn, explore, and create new ideas, and drive the topics of learning and exploration. The curriculum adapts and responds to the interests of the children here, and who they are.”

Quite simply, Jewish After-School is a game changer for parents, students and educators.

With 7 locations and growing all the time, the Nitzan Network of after-school programs is sure to continue transforming Jewish learning after school! Keep your eye on this innovative movement dedicated to renewing Jewish learning afterschool by following us at nitzan.org.

Ana Robbins is Executive Director of Jewish Kids Groups (Atlanta).