Unique Partnership Serves Up Recipe for Success in Congregational Education

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By Michael Hoffman and Lynne Lieberman

Every day, every decision we make, we ask ourselves the same question: What do we want for our children? What can we offer them that will ensure a vibrant Jewish future for our community?

And every time we arrive at the same answer: Without a solid foundation of Jewish learning, we risk that future.

But the field of Jewish education is facing a tremendous challenge in the 21st century: How do we make it relevant to overscheduled families? They are a largely disengaged population that finds little meaning in the old institutional ways of engagement; instead, this group is finding expensive synagogue membership fees, low prioritization of education from the Jewish community (yes, even the Federations), poor quality of teachers and content, and lack of accessibility.

A generation ago, the National Jewish Population Survey (2000-01) informed us that the majority of Jewish children receiving any type of Jewish education during the school years do so in the afternoon religious Hebrew School setting. Today, we know that although Hebrew school enrollments continue to decline, the majority of Jewish children who receive any Jewish education still are learning in the afternoon Hebrew schools.

The trend in the Palm Beach community, where we live, has been a 17 percent decline in Hebrew School enrollment over the past five years. To help stop this trend, we looked for ways to help our local Hebrew schools maximize high-quality teaching and learning with relevant 21st century tools and resources. How could we make traditional Hebrew school less traditional, more meaningful and, dare we say, fun? The search brought us to ShalomLearning.

Two years ago, Lynne approached Joshua Troderman, CEO of ShalomLearning, about the possibility of creating a unique partnership in order to bring ShalomLearning’s dynamic in-class, virtual and/or blended method of Hebrew school learning to local congregational Hebrew schools in the Palm Beaches. ShalomLearning offers congregational schools a thoughtful, pluralistic, values-based Judaics curriculum for students in grades kindergarten through seven and multiple options for Hebrew curriculum that can be taught either in class, virtually or a combination of the two. Instead of ShalomLearning partnering with synagogues one at a time, we decided to leverage our own donors and local Jewish Federation community to help our congregational schools acquire ShalomLearning at minimal cost in a new, regional partnership model. ShalomLearning, also a 2018 Slingshot winner, shared our enthusiasm and worked with us closely as we introduced the program to school directors, clergy and volunteer leaders at the synagogues. We held the first South Florida ShalomLearning Professional Development Retreat in collaboration with Orloff CAJE in Broward County, Florida, in August 2017. At this writing, we just wrapped up our second summer of teacher training workshops with ShalomLearning.

The recipe for our partnership:

  • 2 parts local Federation community funding (40 percent)
  • 2 parts ShalomLearning funding (40 percent)
  • 1 part local congregation funding (20 percent); Professional training from ShalomLearning and local agency or department of Jewish education
  • Mix the above ingredients together. Stir thoroughly throughout the year by coaching; having onsite workshops that include reflecting with school directors and teachers; webinars; customer service; and a network of teachers who are sharing resources. For enhanced flavoring, add in a National evaluation study from Brandeis University, as well as local evaluation comprised of interviews and surveys with teachers, students, parents and school directors.
  • Share the recipe!

In last year’s pilot, we planned for three synagogues and 50 students to participate. However, five congregational schools became ShalomLearning users teaching 100 students. Three schools chose to initiate ShalomLearning in one class or grade using the Judaics curriculum; one school chose to begin in one grade with one of the options for Hebrew curriculum; and the fifth school chose to implement ShalomLearning’s Judaics curriculum across the board.

ShalomLearning’s high-quality, flexible program has changed the paradigm for participating schools. It is easy access, interactive and screen-based, whether in class or virtual. Teachers and schools can use the materials “as is” or adapt them and make them their own.

As part of our pilot year, we created this video about our community’s experience with ShalomLearning. School directors, teachers, students and parents all praised ShalomLearning’s relevance and ability to create a higher level of engagement with students. In the words of a parent of a fifth-grader, “…my daughter enjoys Hebrew school; she has learned a lot this year. After starting the ShalomLearning program, her attitude changed – she became much more engaged, and it’s really been good for us.” The student’s teacher said this: “For something that is a little foreign to the students, like learning Hebrew or new concepts, it makes a more comfortable atmosphere. … Then they are interacting more.”

The Palm Beach community is proud to be the first to implement ShalomLearning on a community-wide basis. By providing the capacity to put ShalomLearning into local congregational Hebrew schools, we are beginning to transform the way students learn in this traditional model. Let us know (lynne.lieberman@jewishpalmbeach.org) if we can help you make your community’s congregational education more vibrant through blended learning.

Michael Hoffman is CEO, Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
Lynne Lieberman is Senior Director, Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.