‘Family Time’ Hebrew School


Edward Schnitzer remembers his father dropping him off every week for Sunday school and hanging out at the men’s club while the kids sat in a classroom.

“I don’t remember any of it with the family together,” he says.

But for his daughters, who are 10 and 7, Hebrew school is family time: Schnitzer and his wife, Cindy, join the girls — and about 30 other families in Temple Shaaray Tefila’s Masa program — in the basement social hall for a two-and-a-half-hour session, participating in activities and discussions, singing and sitting together for a prayer service in the sanctuary.

Masa, an alternative track within the Upper East Side temple’s religious school, appealed to the Schnitzers not just because of the family togetherness, but because, with fewer sessions required than the traditional program, it’s convenient.

“It seemed to be a little more interesting than regular Hebrew school and it fits better with modern kids’ schedules,” Cindy explains, noting that were it not for Masa, her older daughter would have to come in twice a week. Instead, she participates in the family sessions and schedules a weekly one-on-one Hebrew-tutoring session provided by the temple.

With technology enabling 21st-century families to customize seemingly everything in their lives, and with Jewish education just one of many priorities in most households, part-time religious schools are struggling to compete for time and attention.

Masa (Hebrew for “journey”) is one of many new efforts to offer more options and flexibility, with the goal of making Hebrew school more convenient, flexible and meaningful for busy kids and their families.

“We want Judaism to be something that is valued and manageable, and not in constant conflict” with other activities, says Mindy Davids, the Reform temple’s director of religious school and educational innovation. “We also want to have parents involved and to build community.”

Masa, which started five years ago, grew out of Shaaray Tefila’s participation in Re-imagine, a UJA-Federation of New York initiative, and its successor Lomed, which is run out of the Jewish Education Project. Also known as the Coalition for Innovating Congregations, Lomed provides consulting, grants, networking opportunities and other assistance to help area congregations (more than 50 currently participate in it) share information with one another and make their religious schools more engaging and effective.

Like Masa, many of the new models emerging from Lomed offer a more flexible, customized and, at times intimate, experience that gets kids out of the classroom. Community Synagogue of Rye developed a “havurah” option, in which small groups get together in people’s homes or other places outside the synagogue. Queens’ Forest Hills Jewish Center is experimenting with a “concierge” model, in which staff meet with each family to learn about their interests and needs, then introduce them to like-minded congregants and appropriate Jewish activities. North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, L.I., created “Mosaic,” an alternative track in which, in exchange for participating in an array of family projects and temple activities, kids can go to Hebrew school once, rather than twice, each week.

However, Lomed’s focus is less on structures and scheduling, than on “whole-person” learning, in which programs and individual lessons are assessed based on how well they affect a child’s sense of “knowing, doing, believing, valuing and belonging.”

The emphasis is on helping kids and their parents experience Jewish life, forge a sense of community, and apply Jewish values and teachings to their day-to-day lives, rather than just learn about it as a subject.

Lately, the focus has been on, as Lomed’s director, Cyd Weissman, puts it, “sustaining innovation.”

Lomed “keeps us as a congregation pushing the envelope,” says Shaaray Tefila’s Davids, noting that having a consultant is particularly helpful.

“It’s nice to have an outsider look at things and say, ‘have you thought about this or that,’” she says. Lomed also “brings us together as colleagues throughout the year and keeps us talking to each other, learning about what people are doing in other congregations.”

On a recent Sunday, families in Masa’s “Mitzvah Corps” cohort (another cohort, called “Celebrations,” meets at a different time) are gathered in the temple’s basement, an air-conditioned oasis from the unseasonably hot and humid weather outside.

A music teacher leads the group in singing “Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah” and discussing its meaning — taken from Pirkei Avot — that one good deed leads to another good deed, while one trespass leads to another. Each family then participates in a game, in which they have to match Torah texts on little slips of paper to related mitzvot (like caring for the earth, visiting the sick or “making Jewish food choices”) on five posters taped up around the room. Each poster represented the book of the Torah where the text is found.

“We don’t expect the kids to know what book of Torah the quote comes from, but the exercise reinforces that the mitzvot are grounded in text,” explains Sarah Lauing, who coordinates Masa.

During the activity, some parents join in with their children, while others shmooze with one another.

While most of the Masa time is spent with parents and children together, the program also has “parallel learning,” so that participants can discuss texts and concepts at an age-appropriate level.

Currently offered for kindergarten through fourth grade, Masa is expanding to include fifth grade next year, and Shaaray Tefila is trying to decide whether to continue it into middle school. Thirty percent of families with children in the Masa grades opt for it. Tuition is the same as for the traditional Hebrew school, although it costs the synagogue more to operate.

“If you count the parents as learners, we’re serving more people for less money,” Davids says. “But if you don’t count the parents, it costs more per student.”

Masa families meet two or three times a month, and while the majority of sessions are on Sundays — the Mitzvah Corps track runs in the late afternoon to accommodate families that go to a country home on the weekends — several sessions throughout the year happen on Shabbat.

Because of its relatively large size (240 children in grades k-4 alone), Shaaray Tefila is able to offer a menu of choices that a smaller program would not be able to support financially or have a critical mass of people to make practical.

Within Masa, they can select from two tracks to accommodate different interests and schedules. “Mitzvah Corps” focused on learning about and performing various mitzvot. The other track offered this year, “Celebrations,” focused on Shabbat and holidays. Other tracks have included “Jewish New York,” in which families learn about New York Jewish history and visit various sites, and “Family, Friend, Foe,” focusing on what Bible stories and other Jewish texts teach about these different kinds of relationships.

Even families that opt for the regular Hebrew school rather than Masa, can decide between a Sunday morning and Tuesday afternoon schedule, or Monday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon one.

The scheduling options make Hebrew school easier to balance with other commitments, parents say.

Michele Kahn and Eileen Levy, who participate in Masa with their 10-year-old son Aaron, say they joined the program because “we thought it would be nice to do something Jewish as a family” and because Levy wanted to make up for not having attended Hebrew school as a child.

However, “part of the reason,” Kahn says, is the scheduling. “There are so many activities for kids nowadays. This made sense for us as a family.”

All the options can sometimes undermine a sense of community, however, with some Masa parents worried that at all-synagogue events their children don’t know the kids who are in the traditional Hebrew school program.

On the other hand, others say that Masa’s intimacy and parental involvement has made it easier for them to make friends than it would be if they were just dropping their kids off each week.

Another issue besides community is whether children get a consistent or rigorous education.

Because it meets relatively infrequently, Cindy Schnitzer notes, “When you miss a week or two because you’re out of town you miss a huge chunk. You lose a bit of the structure and consistency. But it more than makes up for it otherwise.”

Seth Nadler, who participates in Masa with his son and daughter, says he likes Masa, particularly because “we met a lot of people we wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

However, he is “not sure” his children are “learning the fundamentals.”

Towards the end of the last session, when parents meet in the Shaarey Tefila sanctuary to give feedback and ask questions, several ask if their children are covering all the same material as their peers in the traditional Hebrew school.

Davids responds that “it doesn’t correspond exactly,” but that if a child participates in Masa through fifth grade they will come out with roughly the same skills and knowledge as those who participate in the traditional program.

The meeting winds down when the children, who have been in a separate activity downstairs, begin filing in, squeezing in next to their parents on the pews.

Laminated prayer cards are passed out, and the group begins a short worship service, starting with the song, “Hineh Mah Tov.” Roughly translated, it means, “How good it is when brothers and sisters sit down together.”

julie.inthemix@gmail.com; @julie_wiener