By Rabbi Janice Elster
Why would a congregation with a “successful” program, by most common measures “blow up” it’s Hebrew school and do something different? Because we live in a different time from when the Sunday school model was created and it is no longer enough. The old model of Sunday school is no longer one that will build lasting Jewish identities into the future. We need a new paradigm, not just Band-Aid solutions. We have to focus on meaning and connection, not conveying information. We must involve families. We must make everything we do experiential and hands-on and we must question the Sunday time frame. We have to do more with less time and resources. We have to make being Jewish compelling and relevant for our families today.
In the fall Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario will be beginning its third year of a completely revamped supplementary Jewish education program. I was brought in three years ago to enact the wishes of the leadership, mainly to rethink our traditional Hebrew school and to center the program around Shabbat and give it more meaning and impact. I want to share with you what I have learned through this process are some of the key components to leading change and creating a supplementary Jewish educational program that is deeply impactful and builds Jewish identity and connection.
You will notice I avoid the word school, always. We are not providing a “school” experience in the traditional sense. Our program is fun, experiential and engaging, not usually what parents or kids associate with school. Language matters, especially when you want people to think differently about your program. Our Shabbat program is called Shabbat Do ‘N Learn and our Hebrew language learning weekday program is called Hebrew Connections. While we have made major changes to our Hebrew program, in this piece I am focusing on the change from a traditional Sunday school to Shabbat Do ‘N Learn, the Judaic part of our program that aims to teach Jewish values, Bible stories and holidays.
Change is Hard
It is not easy to make a major change in a short amount of time. I had to go into this process resolute and passionate. There were a lot of people to convince. Crucial to success is having supporters. In my case, the decision to change the program was already made before I came in, but this did not mean that everyone was sold on the concept. If you want to begin a change process, make sure that you are thinking about all of your constituents (clergy, senior lay people, current school leadership, and the wider parent community). Begin with a timeline and think about how you will proceed in the next one, two and three years. Will you “rip off the Band-Aid” and make a drastic change all at once or will you roll out the changes incrementally? We chose to make the shift immediately from one school year to the next. The result was our enrollment dropped dramatically initially, but that was all part of the change for us. You have to be willing to take that risk with the longer term picture in sight.
I learned that ongoing communication is key. The parents and leadership did not always understand what we were trying to do. Communicate twice as much as you think you need to with your stakeholders. If you think you have explained it well, do it again, and again. Change is not easy for people even if it will benefit them in the end. There will be a lot of resistance. Listen, a lot. People need to be heard and feel connected to the process. I discovered that even in year two of the new program some leadership and parents were not clear on what was happening so I began to write detailed e-mails after each Shabbat program. Through these e-mails people began to understand and appreciate the unique pedagogical approach we were taking and the impact it was having.
Identity Not Information – Inquiry Based Learning
To make a part-time Jewish education impactful I believe that we must shift the focus from information acquisition to identity formation. The biggest impact we can have is creating positive Jewish memories. It is not that we skip teaching information in our program, but we have shifted from seeing information as the end itself to it being part of a means to the end. We use the content as a stepping stone to deeper meaning and making sure that the concept, topic or idea being taught has relevance.
At Shabbat Do ‘N Learn we have chosen to take an inquiry-based approach. Inquiry makes the topic resonant and adaptable to changing circumstances and fits into their lives because a personal connection is made to the topic or material. By asking the students questions that do not have predetermined answers, the students need to explore the topic in a way that is personal to them. This takes the Jewish concept and integrates it into some aspect of their everyday lives. We are implementing this using “loose parts” something we have borrowed from a Reggio-Emilia inspired ECE classroom. The loose parts in our case are Shabbat friendly and serve as the means to explore the concept at hand in a deeper way. They might include stones, wooden blocks wires, buttons, glass, fabric, yarn, marbles, magnets and more. Playing with the loose parts allows students to work through an idea or a question we pose that and make sense of it for themselves. We are then able relate the loose parts exploration back to the topic at hand through a reflective conversation at the end. In this way we make meaningful connections between Judaism and the students’ lives.
Experiential as the Foundation
This is the key reason why we moved our program to take place on Shabbat. Experiential is the buzz word for Jewish education these days, and for good reason. Kids cannot just learn about Judaism, they have to live it. We see Shabbat as the quintessential experiential Jewish experience and central to our practice, identity and communal life as Jews. It is also the day when our synagogue is alive and filled with energy and community. It is the day when families can come together.
Moving the program to Shabbat has been our biggest challenge and culture change, but it is clear to us that the impact was worth it. Parents and children are having learning experiences separately and then join together for part of the Shabbat service. As a result the families have felt part of the larger congregational community and have been joining for lunch with the congregation. They are celebrating Shabbat together. If the only thing they get is to celebrate Shabbat together, dayeinu, but combine it with an excellent learning program and we are seeing a deep impact.
Finding and keeping excellent part time teachers in a supplementary setting is a major challenge for program leaders. Even more challenging is finding teachers who are able to change the way they teach. One solution to both of these challenges is to invest heavily in talented teachers. That means paying well and providing adequate training and support.
At Beth Sholom, we realized that we needed to have our teachers trained in the new way of thinking and teaching and this meant hiring consultants to help us. We paid teachers for extensive development hours in addition to their hours teaching the program. We have had more than 20 training hours a year in two to three hour sessions. Additionally, each teacher is supported through the planning process for each Shabbat with 2 hours of planning support on the phone from our consultants. This will become less with time as we adjust to the new program and begin to build the capacities of each teacher. In one short year we have seen that this investment has paid off. The teachers feel supported, they enjoy the learning, they feel extremely connected to the program and its success and are excited to continue teaching. For the most part I needed to hire new teachers who were not too entrenched in the old way of doing things. But most important was the extensive training that allowed the teachers to embrace the new educational vision and methodology.
There are many more elements to our program; I have just highlighted some of the major learnings. Many times over the past three years this transition has been difficult and daunting. What keeps me going is the impact I see on the students and families. With our inquiry-based model, I hear directly from the kids what they are learning and the connections that they are making. The things they say in reflection are incredibly moving. The way they have changed and grown in their learning this past year has been incredible. The families I have seen get so connected to one another and to the synagogue has been meaningful. These are my rewards for the tremendous ongoing effort. The Jewish identities I am helping to foster make it all worthwhile. I hope more synagogues can be inspired to make meaningful change in their Jewish education programs. The rewards for all of us will be great for many years to come.
Rabbi Janice Elster is the Director of Engagement and Family Learning at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She is passionate about Jewish living and learning and transforming Jewish communal life.