By Ana Robbins and Neshama Littman
It all started when a parent complained to us, “My Jewish kid is picking his nose on the soccer field every day for $100 an hour. Is there something cool and Jewish he could do in the afternoons instead?”
This can’t be too hard, we thought. We’ll just pick up our friends’ kids from school, take the best parts of Jewish summer camp and bring them into the school year.
We started looking at the research around summer camp and thinking about our own experiences as kids, and we pulled out three pieces that felt especially compelling. The most impactful moments in those summers came from the strong relationships we built at camp, with other kids who became our best friends overnight, and with the counselors we idolized. Another element of Jewish summer camp we wanted to mimic is the hands-on, experiential nature of the learning that took place. Unlike the rest of the year, we didn’t learn by looking at a board, filling out a worksheet, or writing a report – we learned because we were immersed in playful community. That immersive nature meant that celebrating Shabbat wasn’t a departure from the rest of the world, it was the natural progression of time with the whole community. Having the luxury of long stretches of time is the third aspect of camp we wanted to invoke with our afterschool model. At camp, there’s time to make a side joke to your friend about what happened yesterday, there’s time to remember your friend’s dog’s name, there’s time to develop a relationship with the rituals that happen day after day.
Imagine if an immersive, home-based holiday like Sukkot could be celebrated at Jewish summer camp. What would it look like? We used this thought experiment to design the Jewish Kids Groups afterschool program 8 years ago, and it still guides our structure today. JKG is the first taste of home for our kids at the end of a long school day – when they are exhausted, hungry and need to get out some shpilkes.
From the moment the kids arrive, we want them to know that JKG after school is a place where they get to make their own choices about how they spend their time and energy. When they walk in the door, there’s a different activity happening at each shulchan (table) and each kid can peruse the tables to decide what they want their transitional activity to be that day – their choices range from trying to balance on a sensory surfboard, playing Guess Who with a friend, or getting a jump on their homework.
After this shulchanot time, the kids break into different levels of Ivrit (Hebrew) groups. Every lesson in Ivrit class consists entirely of games. One group might be playing Jenga with Hebrew phrases on each Jenga block, another group might be giving each other instructions on how to get to the airport using the key Hebrew words that they’re learning.
From there, we move to z’man kehillah (community time). This is a really exciting time of the day for kids, and is the secret ingredient that makes the afterschool community feel so special. At z’man kehillah, kids from Kindergarten through 5th grade sit together on the rug and take turns giving each other shout-outs for ways they’ve noticed their friends and counselors being kind to each other. That communal acknowledgement of kids’ social-emotional successes is a key time for each child to feel seen and appreciated, and to know unequivocally that they belong in this community.
Z’man kehillah is also the time when kids get to hear the peulot (activities) that they’ll be choosing from for the afternoon. For each peulah, the teacher has slipped in the learning objectives for that day, based around a longer unit, like Sukkot. Each teacher gives a really animated run-down of the peulah that they’ve created and are leading. For example, if the learning objective for that day is for kids to experience what goes in to building the walls of a sukkah, one teacher might say, “Hey y’all, I’m really into tie-dye, so for my peulah today, we’re going to be in the science room tie-dying sheets together to make the walls of the community sukkah we’re building.” Another teacher might say, “My group is baking graham crackers today, and then we’re going to use them to build our own sukkah in the kitchen.”
The kids then get to choose their activities. Like any human, they’re making their decision based on a variety of factors – which activity sounds like the most fun, which counselor do they love the most or need some time with, or where are their friends going. At the end, we come back together and the groups share their learning and experiences with each other – again, cultivating this community time.
(A huge shout out to our colleagues at Studio 70 in Berkeley, MoEd in DC, Makom in Philadelphia and Jewish Enrichment Center in Chicago, who are also piloting full-service Jewish afterschool programs.)
To hear the rest of the story, check out Judaism Unbound Episode 191: Jewish Kids Groups.
Ana Robbins is Executive Director and Neshama Littman is Sunday Families Director at Jewish Kids Group.