Written by: Jennie Starr (Founder and Director of the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center)
My daughter was born, and we didn’t know what Synagogue we’d belong to, or if she’d go to Jewish Day School, but we knew we wanted her to be “Happily Jewish” and strongly connected to Israel from our home far away in San Diego, CA. We’d do Shabbat at home, celebrate the Holidays with friends and send her to Jewish Summer camp. But, she needed her own Jewish friends for it to be meaningful. Not just our friends, but hers. I was raised by an Israeli father who did not want to go to Synagogue. He’d had enough in the Israeli Orthodox orphanage camp he was raised in as an immigrant during the war and wanted no part of it; though he filled our home with Jewish tradition at holiday time, i.e. Shabbat every Friday, he read us the Megillat Esther at Purim, built a Sukkah each year among other things, and, lucky me, made Israeli food and music staples in our home.
I was recently asked why I built the Tarbuton, and it’s not an easy answer. Why did I spend the last 7 years of my life, volunteering 40-60 hrs/week building an Israeli Cultural Center for Americans and Israelis with Israeli culture, Modern Hebrew and Jewish Education at its heart? I didn’t feel I had a choice. I could not hope someone else would do it for me. I knew no one would. My youngest was turning 3, and I had a son on the way. They needed these programs and it couldn’t wait.
I had terrible Synagogue Sunday School and Jewish Day School experiences, though I’m sure there were hard working, underpaid, Jewish professionals behind these programs. The experiences were bad enough that even my American mother, an educator, agreed to pull me out when she observed the lack of substance, failures of discipline and unhappy kids. We never found a suitable program for any extended period of time, though my mother was motivated. I didn’t want my kids to be dragged by an unsatisfied parent, which I seemed also destined to be, in and out of different Jewish programs, with different kids, never quite finding a Jewish community of their own.
In addition to all those things, I wanted their Jewish life to be filled with educators and a community passionate about Israel. I could not stomach putting my children into a Jewish environment that would “undo” our work to inspire our children’s connection to Israel. Several real life experiences provide illustrations. In the first, a Synagogue Sunday school teacher asked me for introductions to an Israeli who served in the IDF and believed in conscientious objection so she could teach her elementary aged Sunday school students that people can opt not to serve in the military. I couldn’t understand why this subject was relevant in a Sunday School, let alone as part of her Israel education unit. In the second, I had heard that a local Rabbi gave a beautiful gift of a trip to Israel to a bar mitzvah boy but warned from the pulpit, that the family should use the ticket when it was “safe to go;” a public, chilling and conflicted message indeed.
I wanted my kids instilled with a love and passion for Modern Israel, a deep and lifelong connection filled with positive images and visits. I wanted my kids to understand Israel and Israelis. Much of our family lives in Israel. I couldn’t accept anything less. And Hebrew was very important too. I couldn’t speak Hebrew, but I knew I wanted my kids to. I wanted them to feel at home, because they could understand and engage in everything around them when in Israel, something I hadn’t been able to do as a child when we visited and I was left out unable to participate in family conversations in Hebrew.
Silly, I know. We weren’t planning to make Aliyah. I still don’t know if we will. But, I wanted them to be so connected to Israel that they would tell you, “I’m an American, but I am also passionate about Israel, and let me tell you how amazing Israel is.” I looked at our Synagogue and JCC options and while they were filled with dedicated Jewish professionals and multitudes of programs, the programs were filled with songs I didn’t recognize, few if any in Hebrew, there was little if any Israel or Israelis in their programs, knowledge of Modern Hebrew in their staffing, and none gave me hope they would ever want or be able to provide these things.
For the last 7 years, my children have attended the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center program where they have made American and Israeli friends who are passionate about Israel, they have studied Modern Hebrew in a high quality program taught by Israelis, studied Judaism with admired and respected teachers, and celebrated Jewish Holidays with a core group of many of the same friends experientially, usually outdoors, and with Israeli music. They’ve done so conveniently in classes at our Center, but also in Tarbuton classes offered after their bell at their elementary public school in what we believe may be one of if not the first District’s Enrichment program.
They sing and dance in Tarbuton performing groups at the Yom Haatzmaout Festival and at our House of Israel sharing their passion for Israel with the public. My kids are, I’m very grateful to say, so far, “Happily Jewish”. We visit Israel every summer and the kids love Israeli music, are hummus and schwarma connoisseurs, and discerning Israeli visitors to their favorite historical and modern sites, beaches, and restaurants. The kids understand Hebrew well enough to feel comfortable in “their Keitana”, the summer camp they call their own, in Israel, and to respond in Hebrew when they need to with a passably authentic Hebrew “resh.” It hasn’t been easy, and it’s not always perfect, but it has been and continues to be our privilege to enrich our children and the community’s lives on this Jewish journey through an Israeli Lens.
Jennie Starr is the Founder and Director of the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center in San Diego. She advocates for Hebrew Language Charter Schools, introduced Hebrew classes in elementary public schools and serves on her District DELAC Board, for English language support (ESL), and encouraging maintenance of Heritage language skills too. The Tarbuton was recognized this year by Slingshot as a top 50 innovative Jewish organization in North America. The Tarbuton is also proud to be part of the new Nitzan network. The Tarbuton is a recipient of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County Innovation Grants 2011, 2012 and of the Leichtag Foundation 2011, 2012. If you are interested learning more about our Center and programs, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Response to The Redemption of Hebrew School
Originally published in EAugust 6, 2012 by eJP
Filed under Education, Opinion / Letters
by Ana Fuchs
As the Executive Director of Jewish Kids Groups – a new independent Hebrew school movement piloting in Atlanta – I read with interest Paul Steinberg’s article “The Redemption of Hebrew School.” His insights about the value of Jewish education are brutally honest:
“In the hierarchy of devalued occupations, Hebrew school is a top contender.
It is a lot of hard work with little evidence of success and even less thanks.”
Steinberg says 70-75% of kids receiving a Jewish education do so through traditional synagogue-based Hebrew school. “Hebrew school needs more than a bit of luck to face its challenges,” he writes.
His assessment and critique of the Hebrew school landscape puts forth two alternatives to the traditional route: more technology or more camp-like fun.
I am writing to share that there is a new, small but growing model with the potential to transform supplemental education – the five-day-a-week Jewish afterschool program.
In July, The Covenant Foundation, assembled a think-tank of the leaders of pioneering five-day a week Jewish afterschool programs. The Foundation’s interest in the model reflects the fact that a handful of new “five-day” programs are being established across the country.
But, why now? What is the convergence of factors causing several distinct communities to launch independent Jewish afterschool programs in the same year? The communities aren’t new, the programs are new.
For example, as Jewish Kids Groups enters its third year, we are launching JKG Afterschool Community – a marriage of our stellar Hebrew school and a robust afterschool care program.
The need for this new model is a result of the fact that many of today’s Jewish families include two wage earners, and they desperately need afterschool care. They also want their Sundays back. With two working parents, every second of weekend time is precious. They yearn for more family time, for true rest, for Shabbat, even if that’s not the word they always use. Parents also want their kids to have Jewish friends.
Perhaps more significantly, so many families are not interested in the desiccated and deadening model of Jewish supplemental education that is merely a pathway to bar/bat mitzvah. They want relevant, dynamic, high quality Jewish education that teaches why it’s a privilege to be Jewish with a curriculum that is fun, serious, and joyful.
In Atlanta, the new model grew out of a strategic plan initiative where we engaged the community through focus groups and surveys. Two trends emerged: one expected and one not.
Building on the experiences of two newly established programs, Edah Community in Berkeley (founded in 2010) and the Jewish Enrichment Center in Chicago (founded in 2011), the JKG board approved our expansion from our Sunday program to a full five-day-a-week program. We learned that we were not alone. There were other new initiatives forming like Makom in Toronto, MoEd in Washington D.C., Sulam in Brookline, MA and Tamid and the Hebrew Immersion Afterschool Program in New York.
As Steinberg points out, “what make camps such a success is that it is a whole-life experience.” Like camp, JKG Afterschool Community is designed to be an immersive experience in which children attend up to five days a week to grow, learn, and play in a supportive atmosphere with their Jewish friends.
As a result of this level of immersion, JKG Afterschool Community is able to strike a balance between teaching content and building community. We have many families who participate Monday through Friday, which means their children learn and play with us for 15 hours a week (and hence, in finding the balance, we have a huge advantage over the 3 hours a week most children spend in traditional Sunday schools).
On any given day children in JKG Afterschool Community can be seen playing outside, creating crafts in the art shack, eating snack with friends, praying, learning about holidays, Israel, Teffilah or Torah using Hebrew Wizards curriculum, speaking Hebrew, reading in the library and playing games with friends. Mostly, you will see them happy.
Additionally, because of this nearly-full-time set up, we are able to attract, train, retain and fairly compensate high quality educators, or in Steinberg’s language textpeople.
From our Jewish Educational Gardner, Farmer Amy, to our Lead Experiential Educator, to our Jewish Drama Director, our team members comment that our “company culture” – which places value on collaboration, initiative and experimentation – is what they love most about JKG. Furthermore, our team members enjoy internal and external professional development opportunities (this year we are all going to LimmudAtl + SEtogether), access to healthcare, sick days and so much more!
We carefully select these “Textpeople” who don’t only provide substance, but guide children through a journey of Jewish education and identity by going on that journey with them, in a way that a static textbook can’t. That personal connection and dynamic experience enriches the learning process by inviting kids to “forget” that they are being taught by losing the traditional classroom experience and gaining friends and mentors who will stay with them in lifelong Jewish learning. Textbooks stay in the classroom. Relationships endure and stretch beyond the walls.
JKG also speaks to Steinberg’s point about how Jewish summer camp is positioned to be effective because “camp is self-selecting. Parents and kids choose camp and they are willing to freely spend thousands of dollars for this experience.” In this sense, JKG Afterschool Community is also self-selecting. Today’s parents have choices and they are choosing to attend the JKG Afterschool Care Program.
The convergence of social and economic factors makes this the perfect time to revisit the five-day-a-week Jewish afterschool model. First, as Steinberg makes clear, there is wide recognition that the traditional Jewish supplemental education system and even variations of the traditional supplemental education are ineffective. Second, with increasing numbers of families where both parents work, more and better afterschool care is necessary.
So, thank you again Paul Steinberg for your all too accurate assessment of the state of Hebrew schools. But colleagues, take note. In Atlanta and select cities across the nation, there is a new model in town!
Ana Fuchs is the Executive Director of Jewish Kids Groups, Atlanta’s Independent Hebrew School.