Congregational religious schools in Metro Detroit find innovative ways to keep kids engaged.
By Barbara Lewis
Featured photo by Anthony Lanzilote
If there’s one thing that unites the Detroit area’s congregational religious schools, it’s their willingness to try new approaches. This is not your father’s Hebrew school!
After-school sports and other activities killed the traditional religious school programs of previous generations, said Elissa Berg, education director at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield. Now religious education is just one choice among many for children not enrolled in Jewish day schools; it’s no longer something most Jewish children are expected to do.
Sometimes, declining enrollment is the impetus for innovation. Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park was down to just a few dozen students in its religious school four years ago when it decided to merge with the school at Temple Emanu-El, a nearby Reform congregation, which was also shrinking.
The result was Yachad (Hebrew for “together”), which started in the 2015-2016 school year and has grown to 95 students this year. Students attend class at Emanu-El on Sunday morning and at Beth Shalom on Wednesday afternoon.
Director Abi Taylor-Abt has no problem running an inter-denominational school. “There’s no right or wrong way to practice Judaism,” said Taylor-Abt, who grew up Modern Orthodox. Yachad teachers present the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform approaches to various practices as equally valid. For example, Conservatives do their daily morning prayers in Hebrew, while Reform congregations use English, so Yachad alternates between the two languages.
She looks for ways to help the students learn by doing. They’ve made challah and mezuzah cases, both of which they were able to use at home.
Parents have told her their children are happy they can go to religious school with their friends who belong to a different congregation, Taylor-Abt said.
Beth El’s Journey
The school at Reform Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township has grown slightly this year, to about 200 students. The temple completely revamped its religious school program four years ago when Deborah Morosohk started as director of education.
They no longer call it religious school. The program is named Masa, Hebrew for journey. It’s based on a curriculum developed by Cleveland educator Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz.
Masa, which meets on Sunday mornings, starts with Hebrew Through Movement for grades K-6. Students jump, spin, point and more in response to directions from their teacher, all in Hebrew. They also learn Hebrew through everyday vocabulary; at Masa, it isn’t “third grade,” it’s “kita gimmel,” and teachers praise their pupils by saying “tov m’od,” rather than “very good.”
Students join in age-appropriate prayers, which they learn by listening, singing along and discussing their significance, Morosohk said. They don’t start “decoding” — learning to read Hebrew — until they join the B’nai Mitzvah Club in fifth grade. By then, she said, they have an “ear” for Hebrew and recognize many of the words they read.
Jessica Gertner of Rochester Hills says her son Daniel, 10, loves Hebrew Through Movement. “The weekly repetition of words becomes familiar without the kids having to be drilled like I had to so many moons ago,” she said. “Every once in a while, Daniel will recall the Hebrew word for something like ‘door,’ ‘chair’ or ‘pencil’ in our everyday conversation.
“Things have surely changed since I was in Hebrew school,” she said. “If my program had been anything like Temple Beth El’s, I would have actually enjoyed going!”
Online Hebrew Study
At Conservative Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, the small number of students could not support a traditional religious school. Instead, each student gets a customized 30-minute Hebrew lesson via the Internet through OnlineJewishLearning.org. The online lessons are augmented by a Sunday morning gathering for students of all grades where they learn about prayer, Jewish history and culture, said Barrett Harr, director of youth education and family engagement. The program is free for paid-up congregation members.
Overall religious school enrollment in greater Detroit declined only slightly this year, to 2,012 from 2,197 last year, said Harvey Leven, senior director of school services for the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, which coordinates communal education.
Study, Prayer, Action
This year Shir Tikvah, a Reform and Renewal congregation in Troy, took a “deep look” at its middle-school and high-school programs, said Rabbi Aura Ahuvia. “Our faculty revamped our class offerings and integrated them with team-building exercises, youth group activities and tikkun olam actions. The idea is that each leg of Jewish practice informs the other — study, prayer and action.”
Shir Tikvah’s bar and bat mitzvah program was updated so that every family meets with the rabbi six times over the course of six months to help the celebrants discover deeper meaning in their parshahs, Ahuvia said.
Making It Relevant
Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield has seen “tremendous growth” this year in its pre-K and kindergarten classes, said Gail Greenberg, director of lifelong learning, and enrollment in other grades is stable.
Once a month, the whole school comes together around a theme. To learn about Chanukah lights, for example, the students made night lights for a homeless shelter and observed a miracle of sorts by making “stone soup.”
“It’s child-centric and learning-centric,” Greenberg said. “The students are not sitting in a classroom learning about brachot (blessings) but taking information and making it relevant to their lives.”
Families Can Choose
With only 18 students this year, Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield decided to let each family choose what to study — and when, Berg said. Now 10 children (from eight families) come to the synagogue for an hour each on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday for individual instruction with Berg or David Higer. Each family also meets with Rabbi Steven Rubenstein at least once every semester.
The youngest students start with individualized Hebrew instruction.
“Sometimes the parents stay for the lesson,” Berg said. “We have two who never learned Hebrew themselves, and they’re very excited to learn.”
Older students choose topics that interest them for six to 12 weeks of study, and at the end of the block, each has something tangible to show, Berg said. It could be the ability to read a prayer in Hebrew, a map showing the travels of the Israelites as described in the Torah or a personal Passover Haggadah.
The children are much more responsive and more likely to complete assignments than they were in traditional classes, Berg said. She is thrilled when students tell her about something they learned on their own between sessions.
On Shabbat, all the Beth Ahm students come together for Hebrew conversation.
Parents appreciate Beth Ahm’s flexibility. “One family came to us because we had a class on Monday, and no one else did,” Berg said.
“We’ve had some great discussions about our family history and traditions,” said Erica Gray of Farmington Hills, whose daughters, Leah, 12, and Chloe, 11, study with Berg. “We’ve made my grandma’s challah recipe and are working on a project that could win us a trip to Israel. It’s been a great bonding experience for the girls and me.”
Svetlana Lebedinski said, “We like that the religious school program is individualized for each student and that our children develop a relationship of trust with the teachers.”
She said the program helped her middle son, Daniel, 9, to develop a clear Jewish identity and knowledge of holidays and traditions. She and her husband, Alexander, feel the program will help their son “carry the essence of Jewishness into adulthood.”