The feedback from parents for the concept has been overwhelmingly positive.
At the start of the school year, Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA) began a new tradition — FJA houses. Houses in school settings may be familiar to many from the Harry Potter books and movies, but school houses are quite common in schools in England, says FJA’s new Judaic Studies Principal Rabbi Abi Taylor-Abt, a British native.
Students, faculty and staff were split into three houses — Galil (north), Mercaz (center) and Negev (south) to represent the different regions of Israel. Students will keep their same house affiliation throughout their time at FJA. Currently, the school has 123 students enrolled.
Taylor-Abt grew up in British schooling and wanted to implement the house model she experienced, believing it’s a way to create bonds and community within the school.
The house system was one of the first ideas Rabbi Abi Taylor-Abt brought up when she started.
“I was very aware of the fact that our students have missed out on the social-emotional learning over the past two years,” Taylor-Abt said. “We did a great job with their academics and keeping them going and bringing them into school, but where we had to cut for health and safety were the lunches, the after-school activities — everything that creates these bonds and the community. To me, it just seemed like perfect timing to bring something in that would encourage team-building and forging friendships across the different year groups.”
Some community-building definitely needed to happen after the past two years with the pandemic, agreed Shana Kantor, FJA’s director of advancement.
“These houses were an opportunity to jumpstart and rebuild those networks and communities in new, fun and interesting ways for the students,” Kantor said.
Throughout the year, students can earn house points for mensch-like behavior like picking up a piece of trash, offering to help with something, having a really well thought-out, insightful response to something in class, looking especially nice in their Shabbat attire and more. Two monitors in the school allow students to real-time track the status of the house points at any given moment.
“For all things that benefit our school community, you can earn points for it throughout the year,” said Nicole Kahn, English department chair and head of Mercaz House.
At the end of the year, the overall winning house will receive a small prize, which FJA is keeping secret for now, along with bragging rights.
While only a few months into its first year, Taylor-Abt believes the system has gone really well, even if it took a short while for the students to understand what it was all about.
“Initially, they didn’t really know what to make of it, but my office is right in the middle of the school next to their lockers, and outside my office is one of these enormous monitors that keeps track of the points in real time. What happened was, my door was open, and I started hearing the kids go, ‘Oh, look at that, we’ve got the lead! Wait, how is that possible, we were just winning!’ It was funny because almost despite themselves, they became excited about the concept,” Taylor-Abt said.
The feedback from parents for the concept has been overwhelmingly positive. Taylor-Abt received an email from a particular parent saying how excited they were because their daughter and daughter’s cousin were in the same house, and their son who will be coming up from Hillel is also excited about the fact he’ll end up in the same house, too.
“Not only did we ensure siblings were in the same houses because it’s easier for parents, we also didn’t want to create rivalries within families,” Taylor-Abt laughed. “I think it’s so awesome that it’s already traveled beyond our own school and the younger kids in the community are learning about this.”
Taylor-Abt has noticed a difference in the corridors this year, with the school not necessarily trying to “get back to pre-COVID times,” not even knowing if that’s a complete possibility.
“What we’re doing is redirecting the attention and we’ve created a path to excitement and community-building within the school that isn’t dependent on anything from ‘the before,’” Taylor-Abt said.
She is proud of making the connection to Israel by dividing the houses into the three regions, creating a situation for cross-curricular activity. The students actually designed their own house logos based on the characteristics of their house and its respective Israeli region, which Taylor-Abt believes makes it a global learning experience.
“Galil, which is up north, is very green. The characteristics that came out of it were peaceful, serene, calm, adventurous. Mercaz was enthusiastic, welcoming and vibrant. Negev is adaptable, resourceful and resilient,” Taylor-Abt said. “It gives a taste of the different flavors of Israel. To have the house system as an additional resource in creating connections with Israel, it’s a win-win and a fantastic teaching tool.
“We really aim to allow our students to find their place to shine,” she continued. “By creating the houses, which are not just academic-based or athletic-based, it’s a little bit of everything; it allows these students to find their place to represent.”
Taylor-Abt doesn’t want to give away any possible plans they have for future years of the house system but says to look for continued innovation.
“I think there’s something here that shows I’ve taken a historical artifact from my own Jewish education, brought it around years later and it’s as true and trusted as it was then, and I think that’s a lesson we have within Judaism.”
House Spirit Week
During the final week of October, FJA conducted a House Spirit Week. FJA’s annual grade-by-grade spirit week will still happen in the spring.
The FJA community showed their spirit by dressing up each day in different themes: Friends of the IDF Day, Book & Movie Character Day, Sports Day, Decades Day and House Color Day. There was an overflowing amount of activities, competitions and student participation opportunities associated with those themes throughout the week, one associated with each specific day.
There were also student house delegates who helped plan and set up spirit week, four from each house and one from each grade, along with teacher-leaders Melanie Sesi, Social Studies department chair and head of Galil House; Nicole Kahn, English department chair and head of Mercaz House; Margaret-Ann Wommer, social studies instructor and co-head of Negev House; and Kat Untener, English instructor and co-head of Negev House.
Movie trivia, relay races, a “Music of the Decades” Jeopardy game, capture-the-flag, camp crafts and drawing murals representing each house are just some of the activities students participated in during the week.
Each day was planned to include a dress-up, an active activity and a passive activity. Passive activities included everything from guessing the amount of candies in a jar to finding hidden trophies around the school.
Fundraising was also incorporated into the spirit week. On Friends of the IDF Day, students dressed up in camouflage and did a penny war to raise money for Friends of the IDF. A toiletry drive also took place throughout the week. In their Hebrew classes that week, students also wrote letters to IDF soldiers.
“We were touching on our core values throughout,” Taylor-Abt said. “Everything we did has this concept of our value system within it, even spirit week.”
Sesi says she and other teachers overheard students saying they wouldn’t get this experience anywhere else, realizing how cool that is.
“There was a real engagement of, ‘Wow what a cool thing we get to do here,’” Sesi said. “I think sitting with a teacher and making a craft while someone else is playing capture the flag, while someone else is creating a mural to represent their house, it’s just unique and special.”
At the end of the week, the winning house, Galil, won coffee and donuts for the whole house. The hope is that next year and beyond, House Spirit Week and the house concept as a whole will grow at FJA.
“Our hope is that as we transition back to normalcy post-COVID, that this is a really great on-ramp to that return,” Kantor said. “It’s an opportunity for us to put in place some fun and exciting things for our students that will help them build communities, learn about themselves in different ways and try out new things they may never have tried. Students get to stretch themselves in all different kinds of ways inside the classroom, and this spirit week was also a way for them to stretch themselves outside of the classroom.”
FJA freshman Caleb Starr and senior Leah Phillips are both in Galil house and won spirit week. Both believe the houses are a cool way to connect with others in school.
“We really became a community and I got to know a lot of the upperclassmen, it was a really nice way to meet new people,” Starr said. “There was also some learning in it, and that was interesting as well.”
Starr believes the points incentive has been a fun part of the house system but thinks FJA students are doing good deeds regardless and not necessarily doing it just to win something.
“I think it’s a good incentive, but I also think people are doing these things anyway, though it’s nice they’re getting recognized,” he said.
Starr was a Galil house delegate for the freshman and was able to help plan how it went.
“I got to recommend things and it was really interesting and fun to hear what other people thought,” Starr said. “We’re definitely a small school, and I think it’s important because of that we form a really strong community, we need to stick with each other, and I think spirit week was a good way to bring us together and form that bond. It definitely sets us apart, not every school has that.”
While Phillips is only going to be able to take part in the houses for one year at FJA, she’s grateful she was able to experience it at least once.
“I’m at least happy that, as a senior, I was able to participate, help set this up for future grades and hopefully inspire or keep this tradition going as something people get really hyped up about,” she said.
Starr will be in Galil house for the rest of his time at FJA and is looking forward to how the house system evolves.
“I’ve talked about this with some friends, we said we feel like it’s our job to welcome people who are going to come after us and make them feel welcome like the upperclassmen welcomed us,” he said. “It’s now our job to keep that tradition alive.”