May 27, 2011

Kolot/Voices of CJ: "What I Want For My Children's Jewish Education"

What I Want For My Children's Jewish Education

by Daniel Avraham ben David Kalmen v'Sarah

My oldest child will be starting kindergarten next year, and I have been thinking about her Jewish education.

I am proud to raise my children in an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood and to be part of a vibrant Jewish community. I live a block away from a public school where my children can get an excellent secular education. I also want them to benefit from Jewish learning that is engaging, rigorous, and appropriate to their needs. With two working parents, our family spends Saturday observing Shabbat, and we treasure Sunday for the family time when we can do things we don't do on Shabbat.

One option for my kindergartener's education is to spend around $20,000 to bus her to a day school miles away. That would pay for a secular education that would be approximately as good as the one at the public school, coupled with 15 to 20 hours per week of Jewish education. My other option is to send her to the public school down the block and pay around $1,000 to get three or four hours of supplemental education per week at a nearby synagogue. I'm planning to send her to public school, but I don't think that three hours a week of Jewish education is sufficient and I'm willing to pay for more.

For anyone reading this who is mumbling that I should just send my daughter to day school, you're in good company. I've lost track of the number of intelligent and passionate leaders of synagogues and synagogue schools who have told me that if I want a serious Jewish education for my children, day schools are the only choice.

Still, I am not alone in facing this choice and not choosing day school. According to recent surveys by the Avi Chai Foundation, there are 56,000 children attending supplemental schools in Conservative synagogues in the United States, and 13,000 children enrolled in Solomon Schechter day schools. Those 56,000 children whose parents can't or don't chose day schools have few other options for rigorous Jewish education during the school year.

I am also looking at another model that takes some inspiration from the old Talmud Torahs. In this model, on weekdays children get their secular education in public schools, and then they go directly to a Jewish school for Jewish education four days a week. Talmud Torahs were created as community schools in urban areas, but when Jews migrated to the suburbs their children moved away from those schools, which were not re-created in their new neighborhoods. This model can be revived and updated with everything we've learned about quality Jewish education in school and camp settings. (One modern benefit would be that Talmud Torahs provide childcare that helps working parents in the late afternoon.)

The Kesher Community Hebrew After Schools in the Boston area are probably the most established example inspired by this model. A few families in our neighborhood are trying to create this kind of program. We're working with vibrant local Conservative synagogues – Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, and Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Ohev Sholom, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington, also has expressed some interest in this idea and has families considering participating. We are receiving our most direct inspiration and help from the Edah program at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California.

Edah began with one kindergarten class last fall. Its goal is to merge the experiential, structured learning that flourishes at highquality Jewish summer camps with a commitment to daily Jewish learning and Jewish community. The program began with a partnership between a group of parents and Netivot Shalom's rabbi and director of lifelong learning. The program runs Tuesday to Thursday afternoons, beginning when the school buses arrive from public schools – between 1:30 and 2:45 – and goes for a total of 8 to 12 hours per week. On Thursdays, the Edah children join the synagogue's religious school class. Plans call for the program to run five days a week in future years, with children attending at least three afternoons.

When they arrive, children can choose art, reading, or game activities. Each activity has Jewish content, and most involve Hebrew language. The children play a lot of games, play sports in Hebrew and do aleph-bet yoga, participate in outdoor and environmental learning experiences, cook, daven, study the parshat hashavuah, and much more. There are also full-day programs when the public schools are closed, and three full-week programs during school breaks.

Rena Dorph, a day-school graduate and Edah co-founder, said that the program is helping her child develop a sense of being Jewish in a secular world. She has heard kindergarteners discuss how to explain Judaism and kashrut to friends in their public schools. The regular transitions between a secular environment and a community of Jewish peers create a place for in-depth discussions like these. Rabbi Stuart Kelman, Netivot Shalom's founding rabbi, who is a former day school principal and camp Ramah director and the grandparent of a child in the program, calls it "the first serious alternative in Jewish education that has come along in years."

I hope to adapt some of these elements in our community. Although it is far from certain that we'll have our program ready by the time my daughter enters kindergarten, the lay and professional leaders at Congregation Tifereth Israel and Ohr Kodesh Congregation are enthusiastic and willing to work with us. But translating enthusiasm into action is a challenge. Budgets are tight and neither synagogue has funds to invest in experiments, even if those experiments should be largely self-sufficient once they are fully running. It's hard to recruit families for a program that doesn't have a location or a schedule yet.

My vision is far from the only new model in Jewish education. For example, the winter 2010-11 issue of this magazine looked at Hebrew language charter schools. I am not personally interested in that model – I see no need to replicate the things that secular schools do well in my community. My vision, however, does share something with Hebrew charter schools – the central organizations of the Conservative movement are barely part of these efforts. The authors of two of the three articles in CJ supported a serious consideration of charter schools by the Conservative movement. The third article, from the head of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, argued that it would be "demoralizing, counterproductive, and against the best interests of the existing institutions" for Schechter professionals to support charter school Jewish education.

Given limited money and staff, what role could the Conservative movement's central organizations play in these efforts to innovate in Jewish youth education? Section 2 of United Synagogue's recently passed strategic plan provides some surprisingly good guidance, as it talks about United Synagogue staff as connectors. For example, in CJ's spring 2011 issue Rabbi Harry Pell described a Schechter day school's curriculum on the evolution of halachah through modern times. A central Conservative organization like United Synagogue or the Jewish Educator's Assembly could make such curricula available on public websites. Even if such a program can't be replicated outside day schools, it could be a starting point for educators in traditional supplemental schools or newly designed programs. Organizations also could work with outside groups such as the TaL AM, which provides Hebrew language books and curricula to day schools, to adapt their resources for othereducation models and increase the number of Hebrew language educators trained in using such materials.

I want to see Conservative organizations identifying, documenting, and publicizing some of the many new education ideas happening within and outside the movement, so that educators and parents can spend less time reinventing the wheel. Where there are particularly exceptional programs, I want to see additional funds and the necessary support to replicate them. I want the synagogues in my neighborhood to learn about programs, like Edah, not because a random congregant – me – moved from California to Maryland, but because professionals are scouring the country for good programs to use. Even providing web pages where people could post and comment on programs, curricula, and lessons would be a huge help.

So what does movement infrastructure have to do with my vision for my children's education? I'm just a parent with a mediocre Jewish education who is learning Jewish pedagogy in my spare time. I want my ideas to be heard by others, ripped apart, improved, and sent back to me so that what happens in my children's classrooms is of higher quality than what I and a few overworked teachers and synagogue leaders could create on our own. I want to learn about new ideas from people with whom I have no direct connection. I want my children to understand they are not part of just their synagogue community, but of a world community of Jews who are working together to make sure their education is as engaging and high quality as possible. I want the institutions of the Conservative movement to have an active and valued role in this process.

Daniel Avraham ben David Kalmen v'Sarah is a walking-distance member of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, and Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He's also a non-walking distance member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California. He grew up at the South Baldwin Jewish Center in Baldwin, New York.