No More “Necessary Evil”

After years of watching parents and students make Hebrew school secondary to other activities, a religious school director decided it was time for change.

by Jennifer Rudin

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For generations , enrolling a child in religious school went something like this. Parents would call the synagogue office and say, “My child is going to kindergarten in the fall. When do kindergarteners come to religious school?” The helpful synagogue staff would recite the days and times and before you knew it, the child was enrolled and ready to go. More often than not the entire process happened without any interaction with the education staff, because what more was there to say? That kindergarteners came to religious school at a particular time, on a particular day was the first inevitable step on a child’s journey to bar or bat mitzvah.

Over the past 24 years, as an educator at numerous Conservative synagogues in the greater Boston area, I watched this process play out time and again, always curious about why parents who often spent hours researching dance and music classes, sports teams, and other extracurricular activities, were so content to make one call to their local congregational school. I wondered what made the religious school decision so different from other decisions. Were families so confident in the excellence of our religious school that they were willing to sign up sight unseen? Or was religious school a necessary evil through which one had to pass on the way to bar or bat mitzvah?

Once a child entered the school I noticed another pattern. Parents of second graders would register their child even if the child had a regular violin lesson at the same time. More often than not, parents would simply pick their child up early or not send their child to school at all. I wondered, are parents doing so many Jewish things at home that they feel confident in their ability to fill in anything that was missed? Or is the religious school experience so secondary to what is happening in a child’s life that parents simply don’t give it a second thought?

I realized that there were many questions we should be asking to understand what was unfolding in our religious school: why didn’t we actively invite parents to ask about what went on during their child’s time with us? What were the parents’ goals for their children’s Jewish education?

And so began our journey at Temple Aliyah, in Needham Massachusetts, to what eventually became Mercaz Aliyah – mercaz is Hebrew for “center.” It’s a different approach to religious school that has succeeded far beyond our expectations.

We began three years ago by dreaming about what a religious education at Temple Aliyah could be. We made lists of the 100 things we would most like students to know and experience during the eight years they spent in our school. We looked at our existing curriculum and reorganized it into five categories: Hebrew/Siddur, History, Tanakh, Israel, and Jewish Living. We created a core curriculum that would achieve our learning goals and organized the curriculum into 22 distinct courses.

At the same time, we began asking questions and listening carefully to the answers. We questioned many of our constituencies, but most importantly, our parents and students. What made students attend or not attend classes regularly? What would make our education more compelling, more convenient and more relevant? What did parents think their children were learning and what did they wish their children were learning? We listened to each answer and analyzed what we were hearing. When we were finished, we had learned some important things:

Families are looking for convenience. They want all of their children attending classes on the same days and at the same time.

Transportation is a roadblock to attendance. Parents want a bus to pick their children up at school and bring them to the synagogue.

Children and their parents are busy. Flexibility in scheduling was a consistent request.

Choice is important. Parents and children are happy to participate in the core curriculum but would appreciate opportunities to pursue Jewish learning outside of that core, even if it means devoting more hours to religious school and paying additional fees.

Community is key. Our families were hungry for opportunities to socialize and to widen their connections.

With dreams and information in hand we developed a program to meet both our educational goals and our community’s needs.

  • We classified each of our core courses as either Core Fixed, required and offered on Sunday mornings – or Core Flex, offered twice a week on different days and times and can be taken over a three-year span. We added optional elective courses that expand curricular learning in Conversational Hebrew, Haftarah Trope and Service Leadership Skills.
  • We established extracurricular courses in art and music, as well as the Kehillah Zone, a homework help and social center where students can go before, between, or after classes.
  • We offered bus service from the local public schools and hired a monitor to build community on wheels.
  • We began each day with Community Time where students gather for a snack, play games or discuss the core values of our community.
  • We expanded our Musical Minchah to include all students, creating fertile ground for them to cultivate their own prayer community. We also created a system for pairing students in various configurations for tefillah.
  • Finally, we created curriculum guides for each course, with demonstrable and measurable learning goals.

In September 2013, after three years of planning, Mercaz Aliyah opened its doors to 107 students. The result? Students attended classes regularly. Parents took an active interest in their children’s learning. All three of our Conversational Hebrew electives were filled to capacity. New friendships blossomed among students, teachers, and clergy. And most important, our halls were filled with smiling, engaged students and parents excited to make Mercaz Aliyah the center of their Jewish lives and learning.

It turns out that religious school parents are indeed interested in their children’s Jewish education. All we had to do was ask them what they wanted. It also turns out that we ourselves knew  how to do a better job of engaging our kids. We just needed the courage to ask some tough questions and to follow the answers wherever they led us.

Jennifer Rudin is Director of Education at Temple Aliyah in Needham, Massachusetts.