Hebrew School Reimagined


During a recent lesson about biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, fourth-graders at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue Hebrew school watched as role-playing talk show host, “Shecky Bevakasha,” mediated a dispute between Jacob’s two wives, sisters Leah and Rachel. While some students watched the Jerry Springer-like feud play out before them, others observed equally sensational Torah stories, starring Judaism’s forefathers and mothers.

“They were engaged, serious at some moments and laughing hysterically at others,” said David Monblatt, 29, who acted out a conversation between Abraham and God during the matriarchs-patriarchs lesson.Monblatt is among a cadre of five full-time teachers the Reform synagogue hired last summer to overhaul the Hebrew school curriculum and create a new archetype for supplementary Jewish education, where the vast majority of non-Orthodox children receive their religious education. The congregation plans to next summer hire two additional full-time teachers to jumpstart its post-bar and bat mitzvah formal and informal education programs.

The new hires earn salaries and benefits on par with area public and private school teachers, which is extremely rare at a time when most Hebrew school teachers work part time for neither benefits nor a living wage. Private donors will fund the $400,000 per year endeavor for three years, at which time the cost will be built into the membership dues of the 1,800-household synagogue. The $400,000 is almost equal to the synagogue’s previous budget for religious education.The teachers, a bustling group of twenty-somethings who teach about 10 hours per week, spend much of their time conceiving and implementing hands-on curricula. “It’s very experiential,” said Evan Schultz, 25, one of the new teachers. “We try to put them in the seat of history.”Recently fourth-graders re-enacted the Maccabees’ revolt against the Syrian-Greek army; the fifth-graders recreated a 17th century ghetto, outfitted with a Jewish tailor, a kosher butcher, and a rabbis studio; and sixth-graders were given dossiers and asked to debate Israel’s 1979 Sinai pullout.

“Other Hebrew schools hand down their curriculum from the rabbi or from other teachers,” Monblatt said. “We were brought into the process from the get go. We wrote the curriculum and are completely immersed in the program because we ‘own’ it.”Added fellow teacher, Lisa Rosenberg, 29, “The most important piece of this, before the money, before anything, is the excitement it has created. It’s the jump-start in your heart.”The teachers’ enthusiasm is, perhaps, best mirrored by their students, said Saul Kaiserman, the director of education. He noted that family involvement in synagogue-sponsored activities has increased significantly since the new teachers came on board.The educators work as a team, discussing aloud ideas for new lesson plans for their third- to sixth-grade classes. (Part-time teachers continue work with younger students and on pre-b’nai mitzvah tutoring.) In addition to their curricular work, the group regularly discusses pedagogical quandaries like whether to write “God” or “G-d” on the blackboard. The group ultimately went with “God.” “It wasn’t like the answer was handed down to them,” Kaiserman said. “It was more like, ‘Let’s sit down, as clergy and staff, and look at the implications for the Reform movement.’ This couldn’t happen in a situation where people just come in [to teach] and leave.”On might not expect such a modern program at the oldest synagogue in continuous usage in New York City. But Central Synagogue, built in 1872 in Midtown, attracts members from a pool of educated and forward thinking residents.

Each week, parents receive e-mails summarizing the two-hour Hebrew school class, suggesting ways to reinforce class lessons at home. “It’s exciting for parents to receive these e-mails,” said B.Z. Schwartz, a founding member of the synagogue’s parent organization. “I’ve actually learned a lot from my daughter’s third-grade curriculum.” She said she measures the success of the changes at the synagogue Hebrew school through her two children’s disparate experiences there. “I hated Hebrew school,” said Schwartz, whose 13-year-old son, Alex, was bar mitzvahed in January. “I found it boring and useless. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite and send my children to that kind of program. But when my son began Hebrew school it was indeed that kind of program. Some of the teachers were subject matter experts, but didn’t really know how to teach. They spent all their time dealing with students with really out-of-bounds behavior and, to this day, I feel my son’s Jewish education has suffered.”

By contrast, Schwartz’ 9-year-old Sally, spurred on by the Hebrew school’s dynamic transformation, asked if her brother’s bar mitzvah tutor could give her supplementary Judaica lessons.Until last fall, Central Synagogue’s Hebrew school staff was composed primarily of part-time educators, who were teaching in addition to pursuing a degree or working a full-time job elsewhere. It was ultimately a dinnertime conversation between Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, the shul’s spiritual leader, and a farsighted synagogue member set the wheels of change in motion.“How come I’m hearing from my children the same complaints about religious school that I had when I was a kid?” Rabbi Rubinstein remembers a congregant asking. “They say, ‘It’s boring. They keep repeating.’ ” The quality of religious education, the men agreed, ultimately depends on the quality of teachers in the classroom. The congregant soon offered up a third of the upstart costs, and recruited other donors to do the same. The implications of the synagogue’s decision, written into the congregation’s three-year strategic plan, resound far beyond the synagogue walls in Midtown Manhattan. “This is not just about Central Synagogue,” Rubinstein said. “We want it to become a national model for all movements.” Rabbi Rubinstein knows that many other synagogues would be hard-pressed for the funding needed to replicate the program. He therefore advocates the creation of community-based, interdenominational Hebrew schools, which pool resources to hire full-time teachers. “We need to establish communities of learning instead of ghettos of learning,” he said.

“I don’t see any reason why Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist kids can’t study together. And what would be so wrong if they learned the ideology of each other’s movements in the same class.”David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s flagship seminary, predicts the Central Synagogue’s revolutionary experiment will be a successful one. “The program sends the message that education is of paramount importance in the congregation,” he said. “I think that will have a ripple effect.”