Rabbi Joshua “Yoshi” Fenton is founding Executive Director of Studio 70, A Jewish Learning Laboratory. He has vast experience in developing innovative and engaging projects in various aspects of Jewish education & engagement. Rav Yoshi has his Rabbinic ordination from the Ziegler School and Master’s degree in education and rabbinic studies from the American Jewish University. Rav Yoshi lives with his family in Berkeley, California. When not teaching or writing, he enjoys playing music, cooking, snowboarding, playing basketball, coaching youth sports, gardening, and spending time outside in nature, with his family.
Just about every day at 3pm you can find me standing on the 15th step of one of our corner staircases. I like to look out over the 5000 square ft converted warehouse space called Studio 70. The view never ceases to take my breath away.
In the far back corner is what looks like an old Israeli cafe. Eight children are sitting on stools at the counter. It’s covered with old Israeli restaurant placemats, and Hebrew posters of foods and their appropriate blessings line the walls. The kids sit at the counter singing a song in Hebrew about what’s on the menu and the smell of a warm, home cooked meal fills the room. They’re singing and laughing and hungry after a long day at school.
Passed them I see some kids playing fuzbal, others hanging out on couches, and a group climbing around on the indoor climbing wall. Each of the holds has a different color tape on it. They’re playing a modified game of twister. If I was closer I’d hear them using Hebrew for all the colors.
The other side of the warehouse looks like a mini maker space. Children and educators are hard at work building models of what they imagine a 21st century Beit Hamikdash could look like. Other kids are working on machines that wake up souls to repentance. And at the Lego Beit Midrash a team is constructing models of each of the different kinds of sukkot mentioned in the Mishna.
The back of the warehouse looks like a children’s library. Mixed age groups are sitting at desks or on couches practicing their Hebrew reading and writing with tutors or in hevrutot (pairs). In the upstairs loft behind me the art room has been devoted to making holiday cards, and a group of teens are engaged in a text study in the Beit Midrash.
But what I love most of all are the sounds: the music of children playing and laughing and singing together. It’s loud. It’s joyful. Kids run around the room with purpose, moving from station to station or drifting off to play with friends or do some homework. It’s full of Hebrew language, everyone wants to be there, and it’s a picture of meaningful learning and authentic engagement.
Welcome to Edah, the Bay Area’s premier Jewish learning afterschool program with sites in Berkeley and San Francisco. Five days a week, children from around the Bay Area spend their afternoons, afterschool, in what we believe is the future of supplemental Jewish learning. And not just in the Bay Area. Similar programs can be found in Washington DC, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, and Philadelphia where hundreds of children make their way by foot, bus, bike or car every day after school to a Jewish afterschool programs. These early adopter kids and their families are paving the way for thousands more as this new and important model for the future of after school Jewish learning gets ready to hit the mainstream.
In 2019 the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that over 60% of American families with children are dual income families. And in many specific locations, that percentage of families is much higher as the cost of living in places like Washington DC or the Bay Area demands it. This trend brings with it a profound need on the part of families and a new opportunity on the part of Jewish organizations: after school care.
The Jewish afterschool movement (yes, we call ourselves a movement) sees this growing trend as an opportunity to restructure and reposition supplemental Jewish learning for families. And in much the same way that Jewish preschools have become both essential service providers for families as well as places of deep meaning and connection, Jewish afterschool programs have the opportunity to do something similar.
Through integrating high quality afterschool care with excellent experiential Jewish learning two huge shifts in the model take place: 1. More time is realized to offer higher quality, more rigorous and more robust Jewish supplemental learning and; 2. Jewish afterschool education is removed from the world of extracurricular activities.
The Edah day begins at around 1:30 pm when our first kindergarteners arrive. They’re with us until 5:30 pm. Children continue streaming through the doors with the biggest waves of arrival between 2-3. Each afterschool program that is part of this movement has slightly different hours and minimum day requirements; at Edah we require a minimum of two days a week. That is, any two days a family would like. And if at some point during the year you’d like to switch days, if there’s room, no problem. The same goes for adding days – just no reductions. This lets families choose other afterschool activities in addition to Edah, on whatever days work for them. If ballet is on Tuesday, they can still do Edah; if soccer is on Wednesday, same.
That means if our average kindergartner attends three days a week (which they do), they’ll be in our immersive learning space after school for up to 12 hours a week. That’s a lot of contact time. It’s what makes the model so educationally powerful. But for our youngest children, and some older ones too, three days isn’t enough (childcare for the family or the children themselves want more). So they come four or even five days a week, and all of a sudden kids are spending as many as 20 hours a week, after school, in an immersive Jewish learning space.
And at Edah more time means a lot. But most of all it means we’re not in a rush. It allows us to turn the reins of learning over to the kids and design programming that speaks to their needs, not the needs of the program. It translates into us educators being able to implement, pedagogically and curricularly, our deepest values and beliefs about education – learning should be joyful, meaningful, and relevant. And it means we can get a lot more done while at the same time letting the kids set the pace.
A New Service
Afterschool programs respond to a pain point for parents that can’t be denied – afterschool care. By offering transportation (Edah takes responsibility for transportation from many area schools), warm food, a place to unwind and a space equally concerned with learning outcomes as it is with social and emotional growth and support, Jewish after school education enters into a new and exciting relationship with families. Your children will love it here! They’ll learn. They’ll make friends and find community. They’ll develop meaningful relationships with adults as loving caregivers and friends. And their Jewish identities will be nourished on a daily basis. Essential to the model, and let’s be honest – we should already be doing this as a community – is the message to parents ….”We’re here to help with all things afterschool!”
This message is more powerful and transformative than you can imagine. For tens thousands of parents throughout North America, the logistics of religious school or Hebrew school and soccer and play practice and ballet are just too much. The five day a week afterschool model responds to that overwhelm in the best way possible, by helping. And that help results in feelings towards the afterschool program and community that much more resemble how families feel about their kids preschools. After school programs become points of affiliation for families. Children and even their families Jewish identities become wrapped up in and formed by the program. And parents embrace the partnership with educators that’s so critical to realizing the best experiences for the kids.
The medieval commentator of the talmud, the Ritva, writes “Even though the commandments are placed upon each individual, all Jews are responsible for one another, they are all a single body, they are like a guarantor who repays the debt of his friend.”
While we stand before God as individuals, as we’re reminded every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we walk through the world in community. And that means we are guarantors for each other and we should care and support each other, because we are responsible for one another. We educators and educational organizations need to embrace this essential value and allow it to inform the structure as well as the substance of the Jewish learning we offer. And when we do we realize the holy communities we all are working to build.
At Edah we regularly hear parents talking about how they couldn’t make it without us, and we couldn’t be happier about that. But mostly we hear it from the kids.
Originally published by The Jewish Federation of North America: Ideas in Jewish Education and Engagement.