North Shore religious schools survive by adapting

MARCH 22, 2018 – When Rachel Jacobson started teaching at Hebrew schools on the North Shore in 1977, the conservative synagogues held classes three days a week with mandatory attendance expected on Shabbat. She remembers the curriculum’s concentration on learning to speak and write Hebrew, and on learning prayers at Shabbat. “The kids were comfortable with the language,” the Jerusalem native said.

“I won’t say the kids were extremely happy to be there, but on the other hand they learned and parents made sure their kids were there. Hebrew school was part of the family’s daily lives. I felt the parents were behind us,” she said.

After 40 years of teaching all age groups, from preschoolers to adults, at religious schools at reform, conservative and orthodox congregations, she is concerned that today’s religious schools are not preparing Jewish children for the future.

“I’m worried about this generation – that is not connected enough to Israel, to Jewish history and to the Hebrew language,” she said, noting that parental involvement and commitment to their children’s religious education has also decreased. “We need to get to our parents.”

Religious schools have always competed with secular activities (especially sports) for students’ limited after school time. Contemporary Hebrew schools face significant additional hurdles in attracting and keeping their students: intermarriage, diminished Jewish institutional affiliation, and the fact that in many families, both parents work full-time, making scheduling and involvement even trickier.

Despite these obstacles, total enrollment at religious schools in Andover, Peabody, Gloucester, Newburyport, Beverly, Marble­head and Swampscott is more than 750. The North Shore pedagogic styles span the gamut from structured and traditional to student-driven, interactive and contemporary. Their enrollment numbers range from 22 to 247 and schools meet from fewer than three hours to more than two times per week. Few go beyond B’nai Mitzvot ages.

Delving below the surface, however, reveals the schools have more in common than it might seem. They all share common goals of teaching their students Hebrew, Torah, prayer, Jewish values and Jewish history, and they all thrive by adapting to conditions that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

Raizel Schusterman, who directs the Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center’s Hebrew School of the Arts, focuses her curriculum on multisensory, hands on experiences. The age 3 to grade 7 school uses interactive stories, art projects and research to teach Hebrew, customs and Jewish history. “You’re not going to come into a classroom and see children sitting at a desk and writing,” she said. “Kids are up and moving.”

At Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, 190 religious school students attend grades pre-K through 12. Liz Levin, Temple Educator, describes the reform synagogue’s curriculum as “emergent.” She explains that each grade has a topic of focus and the teacher creates lessons and projects based on what the students themselves find interesting within that topic.

“Our goal is to teach students how to ask questions about Judaism and how it affects their daily lives, and then help them learn how to find answers to those questions,” she said.
The preparation to go out in the world and make a positive difference resonated with Julie Zabar, who graduated as a 12th grade post-confirmation student two years ago. “The most important thing I learned in Hebrew school was how to be a person anyone would be proud of simply by following many of the Jewish values I was taught,” she said.

A mile down the road, Congregation Shirat Hayam’s Conservative Center for Jewish Education enrolls 95 students from pre-K through 7th grade. Religious School Director Janis Knight describes the curriculum as project-based learning with differentiated lessons that use more technology on non-Shabbat days.

Shirat Hayam recently changed its Sunday class day to Saturday, a challenge for younger grade teachers whose lessons could not include cutting, writing or drawing. However, parents are delighted with the change, despite kids sometimes dragging their feet on Saturday mornings. “My 6th grade daughter, Jasmina, feels very at home at Shirat Hayam and connected to the community. Our Saturday morning program, which brings the whole family to shul for various programs, services, music and lunch, has played a big role in that,” said Alex Shube.

Returning or beginning a model of Saturday Shabbat schools is a trend that Dr. Deborah Skolnick Einhorn, Assistant Professor of Jewish Education, has seen anecdotally in the thesis research of her master’s students at the Shoolman Graduate School at Hebrew College. “I see a lot of schools doing it, or at least playing with it. Part of it is embracing an orientation of experiential education,” she said. “It’s a way to create a more vibrant congregation and to bring the students’ families in with them.”

Facilitating family involvement in synagogue life has become an important function of today’s religious schools. A generation ago, families supported synagogue school for their children’s Jewish life; today, the synagogue school often supports the Jewish life of the family.

“In 75 percent of the families connected to the synagogue, one of the parents isn’t Jewish,” said Phoebe Potts, director of Family Learning at Gloucester’s Conservative Temple Achavas Achim. She sees her job as not only overseeing the 22 K-7 students in the religious school, but also helping parents to raise Jewish children. “With less of a Jewish influence at home, a synagogue and synagogue school becomes the majority of some students’ contact with Judaism,” she said.

Conflicting priorities of families and making religious school accessible to busy families are also topics Dr. Skolnick Einhorn overhears a lot of her students discussing. “There are at least one or two theses each year that try to attack that,” she said. Some proposed solutions have included adding one day that can be done on line, using a flex model of scheduling, and reducing the total number of hours.

At Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, a “full service synagogue that follows the principles of the Conservative movement,” Educational Director Deb Schutzman has tried to accommodate scheduling challenges of working families. The school meets Sunday and students choose either Tuesday or Thursday. “We found offering just one day was too limiting. It’s so important to engage and educate the entire family,” she said.

Although many religious schools have teen “madrichim” (teachers/aides), post 7th grade classes are rare. Nonetheless, Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody, Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead and Temple Emanuel in Andover all have post-B’nai Mitzvot classes that include confirmation (grade 10) and, in Marblehead and Andover, post confirmation through grade 12.

Judy Matulsky, administrative director in Andover said changing classes to once a month and lowering the tuition brought back many of the grade 8-12 kids, with current enrollment at 50. “Once you get a few, the others seem to jump on board,” she said.

Many administrators and directors bristle at the suggestion that a religious school that changes its curriculum and schedule to adapt to families’ 21st century needs has “watered down” the Judaism taught in the more traditional Hebrew schools of previous generations.

“Parents are not looking for the same thing our parents were looking for. If we are to keep the kids and families engaged for the next generation, we need to be innovative, exciting and hands on,” said Schusterman, of Chabad of Peabody.

Schutzman, of Beverly’s Temple B’nai Abraham, agrees. “The whole idea behind Judaism and its beauty is the idea that it is open to change and interpretation. There are so many different ways to explore, teach and inspire spiritual growth and understanding.”

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