Some Hebrew Schools Decide to Go the Free Route

Chabad of Cobb’s Hebrew school

by Tamar Runyan

Start them young, they say, underscoring the value of a solid educational foundation. But in the world of Jewish education, such a firm footing may not come cheap.

With that in mind, several Chabad-Lubavitch centers around the country have begun offering free Hebrew school programs, using the incentive of a tuition-free experience to help ensure that Jewish children of all stripes have access to Jewish education.

In South Florida, the Highland Lakes Jewish Center, known as Chabad Chayil, offers a five-day after-school program for children from kindergarten to eighth grade at the Aventura Waterways educational center just across the street in Miami. Every day, 200 children from seven area public schools gather after school to pray together, learn about Jewish history and holidays, Hebrew language arts, conversational Hebrew, and the weekly Torah portion. They can also choose between ceramics or martial arts class.

And besides a one-time $100 book fee, the cost of the program is free.

For many parents, the fact that the program is free makes the difference between their children attending and not attending.

“They make it accessible to everyone,” Moroccan-born Esther Poler said of Rabbi Moshe and Layah Kievman. “If I had to pay for three kids, they wouldn’t have any [Hebrew school] experience at all.”

Traditionally held on Sundays, Hebrew schools across the board have undergone a programmatic shift over the last several years, leading the non-profit Avi Chai Foundation to study their evolution and techniques, releasing three studies between 2007 and 2009. Among the foundation’s acknowledgments was that “a majority of Jewish children [receive] their Jewish education in supplementary settings.”

Of the many reasons Jewish families may choose to send their children to public school, “some simply can’t afford Jewish day school,” said Layah Kievman. “We don’t want to add the cost of Hebrew School to their burdens.”

As in Florida, the idea of providing free Hebrew school is alive and well in the New York village of Dobbs Ferry, where one Jewish center doesn’t charge a cent for kindergartners in its program.

“The downfall of the economy really hit young families living in Westchester County hard,” said Hinda Silverman, co-director of Chabad of the Rivertowns. “Why have a child not start Hebrew school just because his or her parents are hesitating because of finances.”

According to Silverman, 10 more children were able to join the Hebrew School this past year. And 10 more have already registered for next year.

Her brother-in-law, Rabbi Ephraim Silverman in Georgia’s Cobb County, followed suit this past year, offering free kindergarten at his Chabad House’s Hebrew school.

“When kids are young, many people are hesitant to get involved,” said Silverman, who added that families often wait until a child is almost Bar or Bat Mitzvah age to start sending them to Hebrew School. “This is an incentive to start young.”

For some parents, the fact that synagogue membership is not required is another big draw.

“We initially chose Chabad because we weren’t quite ready to commit to a given congregation as we didn’t have any time to look into it,” explained Kira Mondrus-Moyal, who said her five-year-old daughter, Mia Mondrus, loves Hebrew school. “So the fact that I could put her into a program without having to be a member was a huge draw.

“The fact that it was free for her first year was icing on the cake,” added Mondrus-Moyal.

Back in Florida, Moshe Kievman emphasized the importance of giving Jewish children a Jewish education, no matter what.

“This is the most important time to reach people, to change their lives,” he said.

And through their children, he noted, parents also get involved in Jewish life.

The Kievmans host groups of students at their house over the Sabbath, inviting parents and siblings to join them for services, Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch. Beyond learning about the Jewish holy day, they get to experience it for themselves.

“It infuses the entire family with Judaism,” said Layah Kievman.

Though Poler, who along with her husband attended a Jewish day school in Venezuela, wishes full-time Jewish day school was an option for her children, she’s grateful for the Hebrew school, which was rated the No. 1 after-school program in Dade County.

“My kids love it,” said Poler. “Not only is it educational, but it gives them the opportunity to socialize with other Jewish children.”

Since all three of her children attend the Waterways elementary school, Poler does not have to shuttle them between school like many others do every day.

Kievman and her husband are now looking for a sponsor to cover transportation so more children could have the opportunity to attend, she said. “We would have a lot more children if we had a sponsor.”

courtesy News