Hebrew School done differently

Revolutionizing Jewish education for teens

In Short

The changing landscape of Jewish supplemental education requires communities to offer programs that are both personally meaningful and have clear value  

“But you always hated religious school.” This was my parents’ response when I told them, at the age of 21, that I wanted to become a rabbi. To this day, I am honestly not sure if their response reflected their annoyance or relief, thinking about all the time they spent arguing with me about going (likely a bit of both!). 

I quickly responded, “I didn’t hate all religious school, I just hated the parts that weren’t very good.” I was lucky to have meaningful and formative Jewish experiences in youth group and NFTY, as well as a collaborative high school program. Those experiences set me on a path to six additional years of Jewish learning, which enabled me to become a rabbi and receive a master of arts in Jewish education. But much to my parents’ surprise, I was essentially agreeing to be in charge of religious schools for the length of my professional career (OK, yes, this is a little reductionist, but it’s how it felt). And now here I am, with 14 years as a professional educator under my walkie-talkie-adorned belt, doing my best to ensure that we don’t offer anything that “isn’t very good.”  

Just recently, the Jewish Education Project released new data about supplemental education, and in the first webinar to discuss the report, David Bryfman, who heads the group, began by acknowledging that the religious school model of 30 years ago is not one that fits the reality of our world today. Today’s students and families have different interests and needs. They are busier than we were, and they have different demands placed upon their time. And yet, that doesn’t mean that today’s teens aren’t also seeking a meaningful and formative Jewish experience.  

So, when Rabbi Daniel Sher of Kehillat Israel (KI) in Pacific Palisades, Calif., came to me five years ago and said, “I want to create a program where our teens can learn Jewish content with us and earn college credit,” I said, “Yes.”  

Immediately, we began to identify all the possible goals:

  1. Teens could earn undergraduate college credit in a class that was formulated as a discussion-based seminar class.
  2. Their Jewish community would be providing them with a low-stress, emotionally and mentally safe space to learn for the sake of learning.
  3. A teen program would be strengthened by increased numbers, as teens enrolled in one program tend to be more likely to participate in other programs.
  4. Teens would engage in adult-level learning that deals with sophisticated topics and challenging content. In turn, teens would see their progressive community as a place that supports and encourages this kind of learning.   
  5. Clergy and education teams would deepen their connection with their students.
  6. Parents would be happy that their kids would still want to participate post-b’mitzvah.  

We began to work with American Jewish University (AJU) — an accredited institution with experience in academic and community learning — to develop a program that checked all of these boxes. It’s not an accident that this program worked in the first year, with a total of 25 students enrolled in two different classes. Many institutions are searching for “innovative programming,” but we have seen that innovation for its own sake does not work.

Moreover, our teens today are extremely aware of the value of their time and have unlimited amounts of options available for them to decide how to spend it. But because our courses are designed to be personally meaningful with clear extrinsic value, the teens at KI have responded incredibly positively. In its first year, the Jewish Learning Experience (JLE) program at AJU has proven itself as a success, offering relevant and valuable experiences for the teens at KI, achieving each of the goals that Rabbi Sher and I set out from the start. For the upcoming school year, the JLE is expanding to include a handful of other communities in California, before taking the program nationwide in the very near future. My hope with the JLE is to inspire every teen (and teen program) to join us.

And the clearest way to know that it’s working? Our teens (and their parents) are already asking which classes the JLE will offer next fall.  

Rabbi Carrie Vogel serves as the director of undergraduate initiatives at American Jewish University, which includes their newly launched Jewish Learning Experience.  Prior to joining AJU, Rabbi Vogel served as the director of the Jewish Experience Center at Kehillat Israel. She also serves as a board member for the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.