Sunday School 2.0: Aish Detroit rolls out new curriculum for 2016-2017 school year

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AISH curriculum 2
Last year’s Sunday school graduating class at Aish.

Aish Detroit is giving Sunday school a reboot, reimagining the weekly religious school experience and bringing things like computer coding, video editing, cooking and drama into the mix.

This school year, students will learn about the Passover story, for example, while building pyramids using the popular virtual reality adventure game Minecraft. They’ll absorb the rich meanings behind Bible stories by acting them out in a play. Classes are held at Aish Detroit on Coolidge Highway in Oak Park.

“As a teacher of little kids, my challenge is not the content; it’s the method,” explains Rabbi Simcha Tolwin, executive director of Aish Detroit. “How am I going to best communicate the information?”

Aish found answers by partnering with experts, including AccelerateKID, an independent, local enrichment program focused on teaching science, technology, engineering, arts and math. They brought in a seasoned drama teacher and worked with others to prepare a nontraditional, state-of-the-art curriculum.

What’s more, parents and students can select the various courses they want to take each semester. Offerings include “Torah Tube,” which allows students to “create Torah videos while learning video editing,” and “Art and Soul,” which promises a “hands-on experience of learning new art methods and creating pieces that will enhance your holidays.”

“When it comes to enrichment, if it’s dance or Sunday school, dance wins. If it’s anything versus Sunday school, anything wins,” Tolwin says. “That’s not a bad thing; it just is what it is. The point is — we have to up our game.”

New Way To Learn Hebrew

Rabbi Simcha Tolwin

What else is new? Hebrew reading will no longer be taught after second grade until eight months before a student’s bar or bat mitzvah. Tolwin says teaching Hebrew in a Sunday school format simply doesn’t work.

“The challenge with Hebrew is as follows: We have 24 weeks of Hebrew school, and the kids will learn a new language in one hour a week with half a year break in the summertime?” Tolwin says. “It makes no sense.”

Instead, parents will have the option of enrolling their children in an online program called Hebrew Home, started by the JCC of Manhattan. For $750, students can participate in Hebrew classes over the internet, including one-on-one instruction. Aish will also offer a weekly, half-hour open Hebrew reading and cocoa club from 9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. before Sunday school starts.

Classes run from 10 a.m. to noon each Sunday, followed by a community lunch. The cost is $595 per nine-week semester or $995 for the full year.

“The previous [Sunday school] format mirrored the kind of approach we all grew up with. You’d have prayers, classroom work, learn about the holidays, learn some Hebrew and leave,” says Elysa White of Huntington Woods. “This new curriculum incorporates skills that kids are excited about learning. It’s taking Judaism and fitting it into their life.”

Ariella Madgy of Huntington Woods at Sunday school graduation.

White, an associate professor of philosophy at Oakland University and former director of OU’s Judaic studies program, was part of the group that put the new curriculum together. Her two sons, Austin, 9, and Jordan, 7, both attend Aish.

When they get older, they’ll be able to participate in a program called Raising the Bar for seventh- and eighth-graders, which begins with an intensive project where students make their own teffilin, followed by monthly leadership lab meetings. The meetings take place over dinner while students visit with local leaders to learn what it means to be part of the Jewish community and how they can make a difference.

“One of the things studies have shown is that Jewish organizations have to make Judaism work within the framework that Jewish families are already working,” she says. “This new curriculum is innovative and exciting. I think the kids are going to love it!”

 Aish’s Sunday school program begins Sept. 11 and runs through May 2017. To register or for more information, visit aishdetroit.com or call (248) 327-3579.

By Robin Schwartz, Contributing Writer

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