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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Teens discover their Jewish identity on Youth to Israel journey

By Shelley A. Sackett

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2017 Y2I participants dance on the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem during their ‘Welcome to Jerusalem’ ceremony. The trip included 109 teens from 28 communities.

 

 

Josh Tabenkin didn’t want to go on the Youth to Israel Adventure trip. He even skipped one of the mandatory pre-trip meetings, half hoping that infraction might get him booted out of the program. He ultimately decided to go because he was afraid he would regret it if he didn’t for the rest of his life.

 

After two weeks in Israel, the Georgetown Middle-High School 11th grader returned a different person.

 

“You learn about how great Israel is over all these years, but you really don’t believe it until you see it. I now feel I have a home and a place to go where I’ll always be accepted,” he said. “Being a Jew is more than a religion. I am changed in a Jewish way.”

 

Which is exactly the kind of transformation philanthropist Robert Israel Lappin hoped teens would experience when he created the Y2I program in 1971.

 

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2013 Y2I alumnus Jon Cohen, who is currently a Lone Soldier in the IDF, spoke to 2017 Y2I teens and encouraged them to defend Israel by being Israel advocates. Pictured, from left: Jonah Spritz of Swampscott, Colby Tarbox, Ian Shevory of Marblehead and Cohen.

 

“Y2I teens come back from Israel prouder and stronger Jews and eager to support Israel. Israel builds Jewish pride in our teens where none existed before. Israel inspires kids to stay Jewish. Israel connects teens to our Jewish Family and Israel inspires them to keep the Jewish chain of tradition going,” he said.

 

A stated goal of Y2I is to “inspire teens to stay Jewish, to marry Jewish, and to raise their own children Jewish.” To that end, it gives local teens a means and a reason to get together. “It’s a beautiful thing to see so many North Shore teens connect with one another and become fast friends. Were it not for Y2I, most would never meet,” Lappin said.

 

Open to Jewish sophomores or juniors in high school who live in or are members of a temple in any of 23 cities or towns, Y2I is considered a rite de passage for Jewish North Shore teens. More than 2,500 teens have taken the fully subsidized trip since its inception as Let’s Go Israel in 1971.

 

The 2017 trip included 109 teens from 28 communities and 38 high schools. Y2I is open to all, regardless of level of Jewish observance, education, and affiliation and, thanks to a 2017 grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, disabilities.

 

Deborah Coltin is executive director of the Lappin Foundation and has led 12 Y2I trips over the program’s life. The two-week trip combines education, adventure, history and fun in a packed itinerary that includes visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, a Bedouin Village, the Sea of Galilee, and Masada.

 

“A big challenge is wanting to do more and see more during our time in Israel. With thirteen days on the ground and only 24 hours in a day, there is only so much we can do and see, and we do and see a lot!” she said. The 2017 trip also included activities such group building and leadership development, and Israeli dance sessions that tell the story of Israeli history and culture through dance.

 

Although Y2I offers participants the opportunity to have a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall, none from the 2017 signed up in advance. After less than a week in Israel, several changed their minds. “It was beautiful how Israel made them feel this way not even one week into the trip,” she said.

 

Tony Gluskin, who never had a Bar Mitzvah at home in Marblehead, pinpointed the event of wrapping tefillin, reading a prayer with Rabbi Bernie and receiving a blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as the single Y2I experience that had the most impact on him as a Jew.

 

“I felt a connection like never before, like I was crossing a bridge and strengthening my Jewish identity,” the Marblehead High School 11th grader said. “It all came together to give me a once in a lifetime feeling.”

 

Being at the Wall, touching it and putting a note to his grandfather in one of its crevices was “one of the coolest experiences I ever had,” according to Tabenkin. “I just felt so connected with the country and my people.”

American and Israeli teens spent fours days together in mifgash, a Hebrew word that means, “encounter.” Coltin witnessed the strong bonds formed over such a short time. “The mifgash is about feeling part of the Jewish Family, regardless of where we live,” she said.

Gluskin was struck by how similar American and Israeli teenagers are. “We talk about the same stuff, like the same music, enjoy the same things,” he said. He was also struck by an important difference.

 

“Once we graduate high school, we go onto college, but once they graduate, they go to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. It was fascinating seeing the affect that has on their daily lives.”

 

For Katie Cohen, of Peabody, seeing people who were not much older than herself wearing IDF uniforms and carrying guns “showed me up-close how different it is to grow up in America versus Israel.”

 

Most of the teens were surprised by how safe they felt in Israel. “The Israel they saw and experienced was not the Israel they saw on the news,” Coltin said. “Some expected Israel to be like a military state with armed soldiers roaming the streets.”

 

The rigors of a summer tour in Israel had its own physical tests. For Gluskin, the 6 a.m. wakeup call was his biggest challenge. “During the summer I like to sleep a lot,” he said. For Cohen, it was the heat, which she doesn’t think she could ever get used to completely.

 

With the heat, however, came the chance to float in the Dead Sea, Cohen’s favorite experience of the trip. “I’m not that great of a swimmer, so for the first time I could float comfortably without a floaty,” the Peabody Veterans Memorial High School 11th grader said with a laugh.

 

On a more serious note, another goal of Y2I is to equip teens to be Israel advocates and ambassadors. Following their trip to Israel, they are invited to enroll in the Foundation’s free Teen Israel Advocacy Fellows program, where they can participate in advanced Israel Advocacy training.

 

“My wish is that every Jewish teen in the U.S. could experience Israel, which would remedy the growing divide between the American community and Israel,” Lappin said. Coltin is excited by the number of teens who have expressed their interest in continuing in the 2017 post-trip advocacy program.

 

Her biggest reward, however, still comes from establishing a connection between Israel and North Shore Jewish teens who now have new friends, their own personal stories about Israel, and the tools and techniques to stand up for Israel and for themselves as Jews.

 

“Y2I continues to weave its magic,” Coltin said. According to Tabenkin, so does she. “This whole trip would not happen if it weren’t for Debbie. She gave me the gift of Israel,” he said.

 

 

 

 

Y2I is funded by Lappin Foundation, Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, Robert Israel Lappin, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and more than 900 donors to the Foundation’s annual campaign. The Morton and Lillian Waldfogel Charitable Foundation provides funds for families in need to cover ancillary costs.