The Jewish Play and Learning Experience: A New Sunday Morning Model

Changing our name has changed our message.

By Beth Young

[This article is the fifth in a series written by participants in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

What do you do when “good enough” is no longer “good enough”? This is what we – the clergy and educational leadership of Temple Judea in Coral Gables – asked ourselves when considering how we might improve our religious school experience. In general, we were happy with the staff, the curriculum, and the overall vibe of Sunday mornings in the congregation school. Yet, we felt that we were not achieving many of our goals for creating community among our youth and for cultivating lifelong Jewish learners. We felt that we had maximized the potential of the “traditional” religious school model, and that to move from good to great, we could no longer tweak; we needed a massive renovation!

In conversations with key stakeholders we recognized that the most profound Jewish experience we had in our own youth were the URJ camping experiences, so we began asking how we might craft Sunday mornings at Temple Judea to have more of a camp-like feel and less of a school-like feel. Recent research has also investigated the relationship between the two. Just this past November (2016), Rabbi Eddie Shostak wrote about the mutual benefits of symbiotic relationships between summer camp and school year experiences.

While we’re not alone in thinking about how to bring this model to our school, one variable that might make our approach unique is that we did not change the time parameters of our education system. Taking for granted that kids will continue to come on Sunday mornings for two and a half hours, we set about re-envisioning what how those two and a half hours could be experienced.

First, we renamed – and essentially reframed – our faculty structure. In place of faculty and curricula professionals (for arts, music etc.) we now have counselors and specialists. Counselors focus on our goal of creating community and building relationships with each child in their cabin, or group. Groups in the school start and end the day with their counselors, who also guide them through their morning schedule that involves multiple specialists. The congregation is fortunate to be located across the street from the University of Miami. While not all counselors are college students, many are. These counselors are young role models. But they may lack the requisite content knowledge to have a position in a traditional religious school structure.

The counterparts for the counselors are our specialists. These specialists are content experts and craft a series of experiences for the kids. Most specialists see two to four groups on a given Sunday morning. Not only do the specialists master their specific content area (Jewish studies, Hebrew, culture, etc.), they are also experienced and comfortable presenting material experientially. When possible, we utilize curricula that emphasize hands-on learning and are designed for supplementary school settings, such as Hebrew Through Movement and JPrayer from the Jewish Education Center in Cleveland, and DISC (Discovering Israel through STEAM Careers) from Rozzy Learning Company. And in other areas, our Limmud (study), Chug Ivrit (Hebrew Club), or Tarbut (culture) specialists create their own lessons. This model of counselors and specialists allows us to simultaneously focus intentionally on community building and respond to the challenge of finding engaging content experts for every age group.

We also made a major branding change, renaming our congregational school J-PLEx: The Jewish Play and Learning Experience. In Judaism naming has particular significance. Changing our name has changed our message, which in turn has had a deep impact on how students now see Sunday mornings.

We are in our second year of this new model, and are constantly reflecting on and learning from our experiences. My learning with M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education Senior Educators Cohort has encouraged and enabled me to think more critically about what is working in J-PLEx and where we need to focus additional energy and attention.

One of our greatest challenges at J-PLEx is overcoming the idea that if something is fun, then there isn’t real learning. While many parents have enthusiastically embraced the experiential model, some hold beliefs that without structures like grade-level grouping and didactic authoritative instruction, the educational experience is not effective.

Through my learning with M², I have come to realize that the next step for J-PLEx is building a shared vision with parents and lay leaders in which learners are engaged in the process of personal meaning-making while simultaneously being guided towards outcomes that institutionally matter to us. I have come to realize that the one does not necessarily need to come at the expense of the other: Jewish educational philosophy is filled with oppositional pulls, one example being the tension between keva (fixed liturgy) and kavannah (creative meaning). I am excited by this tension, between personal exploration and communal visions, between self-exploration and pre-determined outcomes, and am now looking forward to seeing how it will guide J-PLEx as we continue to grow.

Beth Young is the Director of Education, Kalish Family Education Chair at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida, and a participant in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. SEC is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Applications are now open for Cohort 2 of the Senior Educators Cohort. For more information and to request an application visit