I’ve Been Thinking About Religious School…
Johanna Norry is an alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program, Atlanta 05. She is currently the co- president of her synagogue’s Sisterhood, and serves on the board of Limmud Atlanta + Southeast, and has served on the boards of the Federation of Greater Jewish Atlanta and The Weber Jewish Community High School. Johanna can be reached at email@example.com.
Just over a year ago, my friend Erin made a pretty radical decision and commitment, and decided not to reenroll her two sons in our synagogue’s religious school. Sure, she appreciated the three hours on Sunday morning to go to the gym and have brunch with friends, and maybe less so the harried Wednesday afternoons, but her sons hated it. They dreaded it. And it was important to Erin, who is a regular Torah reader at our synagogue that her sons love being Jewish and that they feel at home at shul. But religious school was miserable for them, and she couldn’t stand idly by.
Erin came to meet with my husband, Hillel, who is our synagogue’s rabbi. She was probably a little nervous that he would discourage her from her plans to pull them out of the school, that he might tow the party line about requirements for having a bar mitzvah at our synagogue. But when Erin told him she wanted to begin to Hebrew home school them, and wanted to talk with him about her ideas about materials and curriculum, I think she was pleasantly surprised that he was fully supportive. The state of our religious school – certainly not the worst or the best – was already weighing heavily on his mind. Hillel had already been thinking a lot about the challenge of engaging families all together for learning and moving away from the surrogacy model that our synagogue and most synagogues provide. He had already transformed the 5th through 7th grade program to make it more experiential and including more parent learning opportunities. Erin and Hillel met several more times during the year to talk about how it was going and to talk about how what Erin was doing could translate into family education for our entire community.
Right off the bat, and all year long, Erin’s boys loved their Hebrew home school. Erin had wonderfully creative units set up that played off of their interests. Her husband taught them Jewish history. They learned about sports and Jewish athletes and learned Hebrew vocabulary along with it. Her boys are active and Erin didn’t require them to sit in a chair for hours at a time. Word spread, and other families were interested in doing the same thing. What Erin initially envisioned was that other families would do the same thing in their homes with their kids – because, after all, the best part for her was the incredible quality time she was spending with her boys, sharing something she loved and wanted them to love. But it turned out that most of these families wanted their kids to learn with Erin and her family. So, this year, she started with six families. At least one parent comes along with the kids and in some way participates in running the program. I think Erin would say that this has been one of the most valuable and life- changing decisions she’s ever made.
Our own two kids—Natanya and Zamir—started religious school last year—and they didn’t hate it. They weren’t miserable. And they both had caring and creative teachers. But, in fairness, the synagogue is their home away from home and they might not really count as typical. But we have higher aspirations for our kids and all the children in our community than just not dreading going to shul.
Last Spring, Hillel convened an Education Think Tank and involved members of our shul who were experienced educators, including Erin, who happens to also have a Ph.D. in education. The result was something of an education revolution. And as with all revolutions, there were some bumpy moments.
The premise of the revolution was that the model of “I hated going to religious school when I was a kid, so my kid can hate it too” is a doomed model. What we know does work is the Jewish camping model. Camp is experiential and fun. At camp, Jewish learning and Hebrew are integrated into what the kids are interested in, whether that’s sports or art or dancing or music, right along side learning tefillah and Torah. At camp, our kids are with adults who live Jewishly and who play and pray side by side with them. Why do our kids only get that if they’re fortunate enough to go to camp? Why not all year long? Why not religious school that the kids look forward to going to as much as camp?
So as of this new school year, our synagogue’s youth education program is called “Machaneh Shai” – or Camp Shearith Israel. Machaneh Shai, which meets on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, begins with Tefillah with parents staying to pray with their kids. Then the kids go off with their teachers. What they’re learning is not so different from what you’d expect – it’s the how not the what that has changed. They’re still learning Jewish values, synagogue skills and Hebrew. On Wednesdays, the kids get to choose from Chugim (electives)—so far this year they have had interactive sessions on Jewish food, story-telling, and mitzvot in action. The teachers incorporate art, drama, sports, food, music, classical Jewish sources, current events, and digital technology into their lessons. What I think was most important to Hillel in creating Machaneh Shai was that families learn together—maybe not in the home like at Erin’s house—but together like at Erin’s house. And that the curriculum is driven by the students and who we want them to be, and not by a body of knowledge we’re trying to convey.
If our program had been Machaneh Shai a few years ago, Erin’s family may not have left. Erin is still running her program at home – I don’t think she’ll ever give it up. But she also encourages friends and families who come to her to go to Machaneh Shai – something she wouldn’t have done before. And with our synagogue’s new approach, which focuses on parent involvement and family education, Erin’s home school fits right in. If 50 families at our synagogue wanted to Hebrew home school their kids – I think Hillel would be thrilled.