A Jewish Journey Here


On the spectrum of risky behavior, I fall toward the nervous end of cautious: I’m the type who analyzes every detail of every decision, resulting in paralysis over routine matters such as purchasing a new bedspread.

And yet, when it comes to Jewish education for my daughter Talia, I’m taking leap of faith. A jump of joy, really. Next month, my daughter will embark on the Jewish Journey Project, joining at least 130 others in one of the most widely watched experiments in the world of Hebrew school education.

JJP seeks nothing less than “to revolutionize supplementary Jewish education.” And with course offerings such as Bible Raps and Torah Nail Art, JJP’s glossy brochure grabbed Talia’s attention as well as mine.

Many pragmatic parents are taking a wait-and-see approach to JJP, an initiative of the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan that brings together students from nine institutions (seven synagogues; two JCCs) and the expertise of many more local organizations.

I don’t plan to look back.

This year, I often escorted Talia and two of her elementary school classmates to Hebrew school. On the walk there, the children sang and laughed and traded gossip about the day. But when I asked about Hebrew school, the response was often the same — a roll of the eyes from my daughter; a classmate related his plans to leave early, or take an extended bathroom break to avoid Hebrew studies.

And this school is one of the well-regarded ones, based at a large and vibrant Reform congregation. The instructors mean well; like other Hebrew schools at some of the liveliest synagogues in town, the curriculum and pedagogical approach seem less than inspired.

Talia didn’t hate it. She enjoyed spending so many hours with a close friend from school. Also, “I kind of liked the music,” she says. But overall, she says, “It was a bit of a waste of time. The teacher was really nice, but not the best for learning.”

Certainly, a far cry from the worst hours of my father’s religious school experience in the 1950s; he recalls falling asleep between turns to read from the text. Or mine: I recall one teacher who was barely awake himself. But mediocre to middling is not what I desire for my children.

I’m not alone: Fewer parents around the country are settling for the status quo. JJP is one of several such creative efforts launched in recent years that doesn’t focus on restructuring a synagogue-based Hebrew school but rather moves away from that paradigm entirely.

Last month, The Covenant Foundation gathered a group of seven new independent programs offering up to five days of after-school education. One of the largest among them, Jewish Kids Groups in Atlanta, will be serving 100 kids this fall.

In the New York area, three Reform rabbis, who are also parents, plan to introduce a tech-savvy program called Tamid in Lower Manhattan. Another group of parents will launch Kids Connection After School program at the Y of Washington Heights & Inwood. The program, focuses on Hebrew language acquisition through drama, art, sports and other activities.

Synagogues are also thinking way beyond the box. Temple Judea in Tarzana, Calif., pioneered a “camp” track for religious school — students spend two weeks each summer (and intensive stretches throughout the year) engaged in prayer and basketball, swimming and Hebrew and Israeli dance.

The spirit of summer camp also infuses the Sunday morning programming at North Shore Congregation Israel in Chicago, where one “bunk” this past year built a tabernacle with hammers and copper plaiting; another created musical instruments from Temple times.

“Different forms of Jewish education have had their moment in the sun at different times,” says Leora Isaacs, a vice president at JESNA, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening Jewish education.

Of these latest innovations, Isaacs says: “It’s been a long time coming.”

Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: eliciabrown@hotmail.com.