Luna 1

Lessons my toy rocket and an Israeli NGO taught me: How to get teens excited about Hebrew school

I need to fess up. I’ve always enjoyed my time out of school more than in – and that is especially true of Hebrew school. I believe most of my friends would have agreed. Not that we were delinquents. We showed up to Hebrew school three days a week; we just enjoyed it less and less with each passing year.

The fact that I ended up pursuing a serious Jewish education is perhaps a small miracle. That miracle took the form of a miniature rocket.  

Back in sixth grade I built a CO2-powered rocket, lovingly shaped from a piece of balsa wood. After successfully flying it around my neighborhood, I submitted it to the school science fair at P.S. 26 in the Bronx. I named my little wonder the “Luna 1.”

Luna 1 had a red painted base with two dramatic lightning bolts etched on its side. It rode on a string along my crudely constructed five-foot long wooden monorail.      

Every time I tested the rocket at home, it performed as expected, starting at one end of the track, stopping when it reached the second post.

The day before the fair, my teacher, Mrs. Barrett, asked me to demo it for the class. It was at that moment that my Flash Gordon creation decided to misbehave.  

All I remember was Mrs. Barrett’s scream after I punctured the CO2 capsule that launched my baby.

“Duck, children,” she shouted.

Everyone dropped under their desks, as we were taught to do during our Cold War air raid drills. 

This, as my rocket-turned-missile unexpectedly busted free of its monorail string. Thankfully, my pre-SpaceX wonder ever so elegantly flew in a counterclockwise circle around the room, safely landing near my feet at the teacher’s desk.  

Proud as I was of my projectile’s circumnavigation, Luna 1 flew no more in P.S. 26. 

As I grew older, going from junior high through high school, the classroom became a place to endure. Thankfully, my first rocket experiments continued to excite me. Luna 1 led to other hobbies, which, in turn, took me to the library to learn about science, history and the world around me.  

What does this tale have to do with our Hebrew schools? Plenty. 

We need to show our teens how to connect Judaism’s general principals with the real world.  If we are going to reverse the 86-percent post-bar/bat mitzvah Hebrew school dropout rate, we need to show teenagers how Judaism relates to the world around them. Just as Rashi and Maimonides applied Jewish law and philosophy to their business and science worlds, so too can our teens.  

Over the past year, I have had a series of conversations with Shula Recanati, Chairperson of Tel Aviv-based NGO, Educating for Excellence (E4E) and her organization’s CEO, Nimrod Dotan. I was interested in E4E’s approach to attract and engage bright but disadvantaged children from the fringes of Israeli society. 

As my rocket did for me, E4E’s approach excites kids outside the classroom to pursue knowledge and engage with the world.  

Starting in third grade, E4E services Jewish Israeli, Arab, and Bedouin kids, as well as children of immigrant families from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.  It is a well-structured, afterschool program operating out of 47 centers in 19 municipalities, servicing 120 schools all around Israel.  

E4E’s 20-year track record is impressive.  Its graduates have become doctors, military leaders, scientists, and other contributing members of society.

“Our program is diversified and tailored to each school district and its population,” Ms. Recanati began.

“We want to prepare these kids to integrate into the 21st century labor market, to be agile and adaptive and ready to cope with all the challenges.”

Hers is a very practical offering.   

“The program has less to do with learning materials and more to do with how to learn and how to work with teams, how to empower yourself. We don’t teach math. We teach mathematical thinking.”

For instance, during the year her students will visit an architectural and design studio that will help them grasp geometry that, which in turn, will help them learn and apply the math they are studying in school.

The organization’s educational model is a practical one and is built on four pillars: (1) Experiential learning activities; (2) leadership and community outreach; (3) personal and collective empowerment; and (4) cultural enrichment.

Today, E4E’s excellence centers serve over 4,000 students with each child spending three to four afternoons a week at the facility.  Each center is directed by a professional educator and staffed with approximately 20 instructors.  University students, receiving a stipend from E4E, are the chief instructors and mentors for the children. 

A program like this requires a sizeable amount of time for ongoing teacher training. In E4E’s case, it invests up to 20 percent of an instructor’s time to train these 800 university students and 200 other volunteers on curriculum and teaching methods.   

I imagine that at this point you are thinking, “How can my small Hebrew school consider such an undertaking?” Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenge, please read further to see which ideas you and your local federation can graft onto your existing programs. Let’s explore how E4E has built its educational rocket.

As a former partner in an Israeli private equity firm with a PhD in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, Recanati regularly benchmarks E4E against a half-dozen Israeli and US organizations doing similar work. What she has learned has allowed her to scale E4E, as well as improve results for her students. 

Nimrod Dotan, E4E’s CEO, pointed out that while Israeli kids do not attend Hebrew school, they do enroll in various types of chuggim, after-school programs based on various ideological, religious, and educational themes. He underscored the fact that Israel suffers from a similar drop-out dynamic with their teens. Just as American Jewish kids drop out of after-school religious education as they enter high school, so, too, do many Israeli children of the same age leave their chuggim.   

Retention is critical for E4E’s population, where nearly 40-percent of its students are high school age. That is why he underscores the need to make the program attractive and practical. Each year – including during the pandemic – E4E offers 10-day student internships at Google, Intel, and Wix to excite and retain them.  

Dotan comments that when it comes to strengthening Jewish identity and pursuing certain standards of educational excellence, E4E’s formula could be adapted to the American Jewish educational landscape.  

While most of our Hebrew school students are not disadvantaged, I believe the model that E4E has built could help us rethink how we provide Jewish afterschool education.  

E4E gives its students a real-world laboratory.  

Why can’t we learn from E4E’s approach and teach our savvy teens about Judaism’s substance by exploring its lessons in ways to which they can relate?  

  • For example, they can examine the Talmud’s arguments on issues, such as discrimination, competition, intellectual property. They can then intern with a lawyer (perhaps from your congregation) who specializes in one of those areas. 
  • Steep them in Maimonides’ views of the universe and science; then match them with physicists and philosophers who will also strike a 10-day internship learning contract with these students (Don’t know a local physicist? No problem. If Zoom has taught us nothing else, it’s that we can instantly connect with experts from around the world).  
  • Engross them in the writings of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (aka, the Chafetz Chaim) and his writings about the dangers of gossip, followed up by an internship with a social media company.

As with the motivation my little Luna 1 rocket gave me, E4E is likewise telling its Israeli students when you are excited by what you learn you can find a trajectory that will help launch you into a productive life.  The principles and ideas of Judaism offer a similar and exciting offering for American Jewish children. In order for our teens absorb these ideas, we need to retain them for just a few more years.  To do that we need to make that Jewish connection in a very substantive and realistic way.  10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

Leonard Fuld is founder of The Intelligent Nonprofit. His blog, The Petulant Pushke, offers arguably humorous observations about the American Jewish nonprofit scene…its competition, its emotions, its aspirations, its irrationality, its hopes, and its stakeholders.