Why Is This Religious School Different from All Other Religious Schools?

by Aaron Starr

Most conversations about Jewish education focus on the “how” and rarely get to the “what.” Should we invert the two?

When those of us who are leaders in the world of Jewish education seek to define and, consequently, improve synagogue-based schools, we appropriately desire to engage the most cutting edge of educational delivery methods – and, for marketing purposes, to be known by our methodology. Consequently, the prevailing trade literature overwhelmingly focuses on the latest strategies for reaching our students, but focuses little on the content that qualifies as a successful Jewish education.

Unfortunately, discussing educational delivery methods before ascertaining how we can possibly teach our students the skills, knowledge and emotions necessary to live meaningful Jewish lives and give them the opportunity to express their Judaism in less than six hours each week, is like asking at the Seder why on Shabbat we have two loaves of challah but at the Seder we have three pieces of matzah. Good questions … just not the “right” questions.

Rather, we as educational leaders in conjunction with our synagogue families must first decide the core elements of Jewish life that will hopefully serve as the foundation for the students’ lifelong Jewish learning. In the scope of the religious school year, our children cannot and will not learn everything they need to about Judaism; it is simply impossible. The core elements, then, must consist of 1) skills and knowledge we want our students to gain familiarity with, understanding of, and mastery over. But we have to make those decisions while admitting to ourselves that we have less than six hours per week of instructional time, and that realistically we cannot teach all that we want or even need to. Moreover, 2) the core elements must also contain uplifting opportunities for our children and their parents to engage in spirited Jewish prayer services and to perform significant acts of helping those-in-need, within that limited “Jewish time.” And, 3) we have to figure out how to inculcate the skills and knowledge and offer real time Jewish experiences while still employing every single creative and exciting educational strategy so that our students will truly love being Jewish.

Getting real about the fact that our synagogue-based youth education programs are no longer supplementary schools, but the primary source for our families’ Jewish expression is the greatest challenge facing religious school in the 21st century – not whether we should use computers or arts and crafts in the classroom.

In the best secular schools, teachers utilize a variety of instructional methods within one classroom. Why in Jewish schools do we often seek one approach?

A decade ago, family education was the rage; we were working tirelessly to engage adults and their children/grandchildren in either shared or parallel learning experiences, grappling with the fact that adults and children learn in different ways. Excitement over family education transitioned to discussions of the use technology in the classrooms. We spent tens of thousands of dollars to bring in school computer labs, wireless internet access, and trained our teachers how to integrate technology into the classroom and social media into their communication with parents. Now the latest buzz in best-practices is the camp-style approach to learning. We wrestle with the extent to which we use camp terminology (“counselors” instead of “teachers”), camp-style rewards (e.g., badges, buttons or ribbons), experiential and informal educational techniques, and the extent to which we integrate art, drama and music into our already short school week.

Of course, when used appropriately, all of these educational approaches are impactful. There is no doubt that methodology matters when it comes to educating our children about Jewish skills and knowledge, as well as imbuing them with a sense of ahavat Torah and ahavat Yisrael. In fact, we know every teacher ought to utilize all of these approaches: “Train a child in the way he is most apt to learn, and that child will not depart from what s/he has learned, even in old age” (Proverbs 22:6, paraphrased). In the secular world, the interdisciplinary approach to education is called differentiated learning or multiple-intelligences, and it is common practice that a teacher must engage in whatever style of instruction will best suit each of his/her students. Yet, unless our goals and objectives are clear and realistic within our limited frameworks, then the method of educational delivery employed becomes simply theater and the discussions in which we engage children and parents becomes a sharing of mutual ignorance.

In previous generations, Jewish families actively participated in the religious life of the synagogue and practiced Jewish rituals in their home. Now that this is no longer the case, what implications does that have for the religious school?

In most synagogue communities, Shabbat and holiday service attendance among families with children is down, compared to previous generations. In most Jewish homes the level of ritual observance is also waning; and, I believe, throughout our country, families should spend more time engaging together in acts of repairing the world. Thus, in addition to offering innovative educational approaches that teach and assess skills and knowledge, we must create within the scheduled religious school time age-appropriate, meaningful spiritual outlets and Tikkun Olam opportunities for our families. Synagogue schools must find the time to transform t’filah lessons from “just” practicing the words of liturgy to also include opportunities for children to actually pray; for most children, these t’filah sessions are their only formal opportunity for communal prayer. The liturgy is important though, and with the prayers our children have learned, schools can establish weekly services in which those children lead their parents in prayer – even if the services are Sunday morning rather than Saturday morning or Friday night. T’filah in the religious school must be both lab and practicum.

Synagogue leaders must clarify expectations of parents for home-based rituals. At Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan, we recently began sending home one page fliers about each holiday that include not only the background on the holiday and the synagogue service schedule for those holidays, but 4-5 mitzvot associated with each particular holiday. Never do we provide all the halachah associated with each celebration, but we consciously choose to include in those fliers a few, specific rituals that can be accomplished. Increasing the practice of Judaism in the home and Judaism in the synagogue is a primary role of the religious school, but no longer can we assume that what the synagogue school provides is being reinforced or practiced in the home. We must give tools, ideas and resources to parents as well, and support our parents in their own personal journeys.

Yet prayer and ritual experiences are not alone in their importance. When I came to Shaarey Zedek five years ago, we sought to make a bold statement about the role community service must play in our families and in our congregation. Thus we instituted Project Tikkun Olam: an annual family day of service for the entire Religious School. Each year we dedicate a full morning – three hours – toward repairing the world. While there are certainly learning opportunities built into the activities, the main goal is to provide service to those in need. Families with children of all ages call it one of the highlights of the Shaarey Zedek experience. Certainly, throughout the year each class of students engage in age-appropriate service learning opportunities. But, given our limited number of classroom hours and the lengthy list of skills and knowledge we hope to impart to our students, how can we add more of these important opportunities that not only allow for fulfillment of mitzvot but bring families together in such a powerful way, within the fixed religious school schedule? The situation is the same in all of our communities: religious school hours are families’ Jewish time. If schools do not schedule prayer and community service experiences in addition to study, the vast majority of Jewish children will not participate in formal prayer and large-scale acts of tikkun olam.

If examining our educational methodology is not the sole way of achieving success in the religious school, what must we do to create synagogue-based youth education programs that speak to the 21st century Jew?

For most educational leaders, we know how to write curriculum; we know how to establish the KNOWs, DOs, and FEELs our students ought to gain. But we are hard pressed, especially when we ask our teachers to use creative approaches, to accept the reality that we cannot teach everything we consider essential to living a Jewish life AND figure out how to give our families real-time Jewish experiences. No matter how creative or effective our faculty, there are not enough hours in the week, for example, to teach children how to read prayer-book Hebrew, write Hebrew cursive, and speak modern Hebrew. Let’s be honest: to try to accomplish a little bit of each is actually to fail at them all, and this is true whenever our curricula aim for tremendous breadth over meaningful depth. Rather, we must turn toward our families to partner with us in the creation of articulate mission and vision statements along with clear, assessable, realistic KNOWs, DOs, and FEELs so that we can create effective Jewish educational, spiritual and emotional avenues for our families. Only then, having established achievable goals that support the school’s mission and vision, may we decide the most successful differentiated learning approaches to accomplish our sacred lessons.

At Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we recently decided on eighteen specific stories from the Torah that we want mastered in our fourth through sixth grades. Mastery includes understanding the stories as literature, recognizing their role within the broader story of the Jewish people, and appreciating the dynamic interplay between Jewish life and our sacred texts. It means being able to explain specific mitzvot that come forth from the text, its p’shat or drash, and the modern-day fulfillment of those mitzvot. In other words, our students will be able to list the commandments of welcoming guests, visiting the sick, brit milah and kashrut as mitzvot found in the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the angels and expound upon, how as Conservative Jews, we understand and accept these mitzvot in a particular way. Delving deep into these eighteen stories, however, also means that there are countless other “important” stories, including a parashah by parashah study of the Torah that our children simply will not receive. Moreover, our Hebrew curriculum focuses almost exclusively on the Shabbat morning liturgy from the Torah service through the concluding prayers, as well as the Friday night dinner table rituals. During their time in religious school, our students might never be exposed in more than a passing conversation to P’sukei D’zimra, Kabbalat Shabbat or, sadly, learn to write Hebrew letters in cursive. But, given our time constraints, school mission and other goals, this is a reality we have knowingly chosen to accept. Then again, we recently began a process of Family Covenant: a sacred, personalized contract for accessible, meaningful, tangible steps toward greater, more mindful Jewish living in which their families might actively pursue such knowledge or experiences outside the religious school schedule.

Synagogue schools’ curriculum guides, mission and vision statements must clearly articulate its institution’s goals so that it can adequately provide for and assess its students’ learning. Moreover, the goals within those guides and statements must reflect the fact that – for most religious schools – there are less than six hours each week of the school year to educate children and their families. Such goal statements should reflect the reality – again, for most if not all schools, that the majority of our families do not come regularly on Shabbat and holidays, but on Sundays and midweek. And, finally, the Jewish community in America today is obligated to address the fact that religious schools are no longer supplementary schools, but the primary avenue of Jewish education and spiritual outlet for children and their parents. These are the key points of reality that a successful school must address to build a Jewish experience that is meaningful and relevant to 21st century families.

In less than six hours each week of the school year, we must help our students discover the knowledge of how Jews pray and create a forum for the experience of prayer. We must help our students develop a knowledge of Jewish ethics and provide for them the opportunity in time and resources to engage in mitzvot bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero. We must help our students wrestle with sacred scripture and relate it to their hyper-assimilated, very modern lifestyle. These requirements are not native to the supplementary school model; they are new realities of Jewish life in 21st century America.

To be successful, the synagogue school must utilize camp-style experiences along with technology. The synagogue school must provide meaningful, engaging family education opportunities and reach out to parents and children individually. The synagogue school must offer its students art, drama, music, chevruta, and more. But creative educational methodologies alone will not succeed in inspiring a new generation of Jews. To be successful, synagogue curricula must be concise and practical with measurable goals and religious school teachers must employ every creative, multi-faceted educational strategy imaginable. Why is this religious school different from all other religious schools? Because it is a school that is asking all the right questions, and answering them as well.

Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan and past president of the Metropolitan Detroit Board of Jewish Educators. He is the author of Taste of Hebrew from URJ Press and Tradition vs. Modernity: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) and Conservative Halachah, published in the Journal of Conservative Judaism.