Synagogues in Metro Detroit continue to find ways to change their curriculum to make Jewish learning fun and engaging.
By Barbara Lewis
Featured photo courtesy of Temple Shir Shalom
Prayer is an important part of any religious school curriculum, but it’s rarely a student favorite. Several area congregations are trying to make the subject more appealing.
Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills unveiled a new Hebrew program this year for its 159 students in grades pre-K-7, said Melissa Ser, Ph.D., C.J.E., director of education. After teaching basic Hebrew reading skills in the early grades, the curriculum focuses on prayer.
Students in grades 3-7 work in small groups with a Hebrew reading specialist and a Hebrew madrich — a teen trained to teach Hebrew — and focus on one prayer at a time. They learn to read a prayer fluently, then to chant it. Games and activities help them learn the meanings of the key words and phrases, and when and why the prayer is said. “It’s not just reading; it’s mastering a concept,” Ser said.
Adat Shalom uses Alef Champ, a creative curriculum to teach Hebrew reading to second graders. Students earn color-coded medallions as they progress through each of 10 books. “We have kids begging to stay in from recess so they can earn another medallion,” Ser said.
Ser and her teachers have seen a big improvement not only in reading skills but also in behavior because the students are never bored. The program is flexible so it can accommodate all levels and abilities, Ser said.
Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield has integrated wellness and mental health into prayer in its religious school curriculum, said Ari Reis, director of youth and family learning.
Reis brought in Brandon Klein, founder of WiseMindGentleSoul meditation center in Farmington Hills, to work with students in grades pre-K-7 on self-awareness and meditation through prayer, music and guided imagery.
“This allows children to recognize t’fillah (Jewish prayer) as a time to calm down, focus and become more conscious of themselves and their surroundings,” Reis said. “They have time to understand and process what the prayer is saying, rather than simply trying to repeat the words by rote. They are tuning in to Judaism from a spiritual perspective.”
After Klein’s introduction, classroom teachers get a boost from the school’s madrichim, teens in grades 8-12.
Using teen madrichim is one way of making schools more camp-like. Studies have shown that childhood Jewish summer camp experiences correlate highly with adult Jewish identity.
Shaarey Zedek has a song-filled weekly Havdalah service at the beginning of Sunday morning school sessions. The 70 students and teen madrichim join their teachers and the congregation’s two rabbis and two cantors in spirited camp-style singing of at least six songs.
Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield adapted camp-like programming for 240 religious school students, said Rabbi Daniel Schwartz.
Camp specialist Nikki Ostrovsky leads activities that tie into lessons and build peer relationships. Though classes meet only on Sundays, the school holds periodic fun-filled Shabbat retreats to augment the formal curriculum.
Parents are more involved, too. They often stay for the Sunday morning Havdalah at Shaarey Zedek and, at Shir Shalom, parents frequently join in the prayer service at the beginning of Sunday morning school sessions.
“Students see that their parents are engaged in Jewish life, and they model for their children what it means to be part of the Jewish community,” Schwartz said.
Temple Israel uses similar techniques to make religious education interesting for its nearly 1,000 students. But the temple is also increasing accessibility in terms of place and time, said Rabbi Arianna Gordon, director of education and lifelong learning.
The Sunday religious school program is offered both at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield and at Conant Elementary School in Bloomfield Hills. Fourth- to sixth-grade students can also take an optional mid-week Hebrew class on Wednesday at the temple or at West Hills Middle School in Bloomfield Hills, or on Thursday at Derby Middle School in Birmingham.
The temple also incorporates art and cooking into lessons as a way of reaching out to non-traditional learners.
“Our mantra is to make religious school engaging, hands-on, fun and accessible,” Gordon said.
Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, the JN wrote about some local congregations employing innovative approaches to engaging students in the 21st century. We learned other congregations also have creative curricula, so here is part 2 of that story.