The Start-Up Nature of Jewish Afterschool Programming

dsc_0148By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

Searching for a part-time Jewish education program for their two young daughters some years ago, Elizabeth Lenhard and her husband knew that they wanted their kids to find being Jewish a joyful experience. “Community and identity – is fun and joyful,” Lenhard said.

The Lenhards chose to enroll their two children – one now in second grade and the other in fifth – in Jewish Kids Groups, an Atlanta-based afterschool Jewish education program.

Key buzzwords jump from its website – “a reimagined, reinvented, and ridiculously cool Hebrew school” – appealing to a generation of parents seeking to instill Jewish identity and knowledge of Hebrew in fun, creative and inviting environments early in their children’s lives.

Forty kindergarteners through fifth graders attend Jewish Kids Groups on weekday afternoons this school year, and 150 children from pre-school age to seventh grade attend on Sunday mornings. When the program began in 2011, attendance stood at just 20 students.

Its approach and growth over the last several years mirrors a still nascent, yet hard-to-ignore trend on this end of the Jewish educational spectrum.

Programs such as these are neither day schools nor synagogue-run Hebrew or religious schools. They are a different option offering Hebrew language and Jewish cultural immersion for children during afterschool hours. And, they are proving to be increasingly attractive to parents desiring learning environments and approaches that are stimulating, innovative and experiential.

Nitzan, a network of programs committed to renewing Jewish learning after school, has emerged to tie geographically dispersed programs together, strengthen them through shared resources and connections, and advocate for what is now considered by many as a growing niche within Jewish education. The Covenant Foundation supported the creation of Nitzan with a Signature grant in 2014.

More than 900 children are enrolled in 10 such alternative Jewish afterschool programs in the Nitzan network, the organization reports. The numbers, at once modest but impressive considering the relative newness of programs, reveal unmistakable 21st century realities.

Generation X and Millennial parents are by their very nature more innovation-savvy and disruptive-friendly, open to new educational approaches and venues. And many are juggling households with two working parents and complex schedules so afterschool care coupled with quality Jewish content is a winning proposition for those wanting and needing both.

“Many of our parents haven’t done any Jewish ritual or practice in a decade or more,” said Beverly Socher-Lerner, Founding Director of the Makom Community in Philadelphia, which opened with four students just two years ago, and begins this year with about 30. “They come to us and find a version of Jewish life that embraces their need for child care and Jewish connection. We are striking a chord with people.”

Such accounts of startling growth in such a short time span are commonplace among directors and educators at independent Jewish afterschool programs across the country.

Edah, in Berkeley, CA, is enrolling more than 50 kids from pre-school age through fifth grade this year, a 25 percent surge from last year and a tenfold increase since it opened in 2010. At MoEd, in the DC-metro area, 50 children are participating this year, nearly triple the number since the program began in 2012. And at Sulam in Brookline, MA, enrollment has grown eightfold to 25 students in five years.

“Before these programs emerged, there were afterschool programs and there were Jewish learning programs, but they hadn’t been merged,” said Dr. Rena Dorph, who co-founded Edah. “The innovation and uniqueness here is the synergy of aftercare with enrichment opportunities in Jewish and Hebrew learning. It is one-stop shopping for busy families.

“As with all innovations, we all wonder why we didn’t have this earlier. We are fusing things together in a way that no one saw before. This is how this feels.”

For sure, there is an entrepreneurial nature driving the establishment of programs such as these. Directors use words such as “pioneering” and “start-up” when describing the programs and organizations that they are generating and occupying. Often created beyond the traditional Jewish establishment, some of those who envisioned them did so around their kitchen tables and even contemplated turning their garages into afterschool learning spaces.

Enter Nitzan. The national network of alternative supplementary programs had an organic birth, as creators around the country found each other often through chance or word of mouth or social media. Through the network, educators are supporting each other, sharing best practices, building sustainability models, growing the field and earning it early recognition on the Jewish communal landscape.

“It is difficult to work in a community to change a status quo that people are holding onto,” said Dorph, who co-founded Nitzan in 2012. “The journey was more painful than I anticipated. The group of us trying to pioneer in this area – creating hybrid, innovative spaces – was really in need of a community of moral and practical support and recognition.”

Despite their relative successes so far, those creating and seeking to expand this space in Jewish education are not immune to stumbling, illuminating of course the risks of any start-up.

Bayit Afterschool opened in Evanston, IL, in 2013 with eight children for three afternoons a week. Last year, the program enrolled 30 kids and offered five afternoons of programming.

Yet despite that enormous growth and communal interest, the program is not reopening for the current school year largely due to financial sustainability issues and an inability to find a suitable organizational home for its programming in order to reduce costs.

“We were able to set up a funding model for the program based on tuition and grants, but what we ultimately couldn’t cover was the overhead of being a independent organization,” said Megan Roth Abraham, Bayit’s Founder.

“Yes, we are a great program and yes, we did wonderful things and reached our objectives of outreach and engagement. We may have been ahead of our time though, from the standpoint of realistic financial sustainability. But the market is definitely out there for the program that we provided. There is a hunger for this.”

In fact, Nitzan members are learning from each other’s failures as much each other’s successes.

“In the innovation sector, we are envisioning and imagining,” said Rabbi Joshua Fenton, Executive Director of both Edah and Studio 70, a Jewish learning laboratory that houses Edah and Nitzan. “That takes chutzpah and risk-taking and is just plain scary. So to know that you are not alone in doing so, and can learn from others is just huge.”

Now that Nitzan is established, and affiliated programs are getting a toehold in their communities, Rabbi Fenton is focused on strategies to maintain and grow the sustainability of the programs and the larger movement. These include strategies for partnerships, metric-driven benchmarks for success, advocacy for the model, and training a corps of educators to work within this niche of Jewish education.

The common denominator among those involved on the local and national levels is a belief that this new model of afterschool Jewish education is addressing a critical communal need and must be nurtured.

“We are the people of the book because we support Jewish education starting at the very youngest of ages,” said Rabbi Lila Kagedan, Founder of Sulam and Network Coordinator for Nitzan. “This isn’t the only option for parents, but it is a very good option, so it is critical that it be supported and strengthened.”

This article was originally published in Sight Line, a journal produced by the Covenant Foundation; reprinted with permission.