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Rethinking Hebrew School [part 3]: It’s Back to School for Parents As Congregations Focus on Family

October 1, 1999
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The school at Congregation Eitz Chayim boasted a unique curriculum, hands-on activities and had been cited in the Baltimore Jewish Times as one of the six best Hebrew schools in the country.

But children were regularly traipsing in late, missing school, not doing their homework and demanding to know why they had to be there.

In exasperation, Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, the education director of this nondenominational Cambridge, Mass., synagogue, did something simple.

She sent out a letter asking parents to require the same attendance and performance standards of their children at Hebrew school that they do at “regular” school. The letter also asked parents to sit down with their children and explain their reasons for sending them to Hebrew school.

To her surprise, it helped.

“Parents didn’t mean to be doing something that would sabotage the Hebrew school,” said Koller-Fox. “But kids pick up on it if they always have to do homework, but they do not always have to do Hebrew school homework. If parents are not consistent, they’re sending a message I can’t fight.”

For decades, Hebrew school teachers and principals have been complaining about the lack of at-home reinforcement for what’s going on in the classroom.

Whether it’s because they don’t see Jewish education as a priority, lack confidence in their Jewish knowledge or both, many parents appear to view their responsibility to “teach your children” as ending once the car-pool obligations are fulfilled.

But around the country Hebrew school directors are starting to demand more. Some are simply speaking up and asking that their schools be taken seriously. Others are requiring or strongly suggesting that parents participate in certain family activities, classes or Shabbat services.

What they are finding is that if approached with respect, given choices and offered high-quality programs, parents are more willing to get involved than the schools had thought.

“Parents don’t need to be dragged kicking and screaming,” said Vicki Kelman, director of the Jewish Family Education Project at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco. “Many were just waiting to be asked.”

While most congregational schools have implemented some form of family education — often just a special program or event — a number are engaging parents in more intensive experiences.

At Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, parents can choose between the traditional three-day-a-week Hebrew school for their kids and Project Mishpacha, a family education track.

In Mishpacha — which 90 percent of the families select — parents come in one Sunday a month for “parallel learning” classes in which they learn on an adult level what the children are covering.

They also commit to attending eight Shabbat services and several family programs each year. In exchange for the investment of parental time, children only have to go to school twice a week.

“Parents know what’s going on and can help their children,” said Ellen Budish, whose daughter Rebecca is in third grade. “It’s not, `Oh it’s Sunday I have to go to school, but it’s Sunday, we’re both going to school and Mommy will be in classroom down the hall.'”

For Budish, the program not only strengthens her daughter’s Jewish education; it strengthens her family as well.

“It’s a great way to get children and family together. In today’s society, it’s a hard task to get everyone together at the same time.”

Intensive family programs can also strengthen the entire synagogue community, said Michelle Shapiro Abraham, who helped develop a series of family courses at the Reform Temple of Suffern, in suburban New York.

“It makes connections for parents to meet each other,” said Juliet Barr, a parent of three children and a volunteer teacher in the program.

The series, called Passport to Jewish Family Living and Learning, started two years ago as an overhaul of a less popular family program, in which parents were required to attend programs corresponding to what their children were learning in class.

“One parent came up to me and said this is a nice program, I enjoyed learning about this period of history, but I still haven’t figured out how to light Shabbat candles,” recalled Abraham, who recently moved to New Jersey and left her post as the temple’s education director.

“Parents, whatever level their kids are at, are all coming in at different levels. Some want to learn history, others need rituals and others want the opportunity to go to the Jewish Museum in New York.”

The new program, which is required for students and parents in 3rd to 6th grades, offers more choices and encourages parents — and other congregants – – to help with the teaching.

Among the course offerings: tours of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side, making stained glass mezuzot, volunteering at a soup kitchen and — in perhaps the most unusual venue — learning about the 18 sections of the Amidah prayer by participating in special activities on an 18-hole miniature golf course.

“I’ve learned an incredible amount and my 12-year-old has too; he’s never complained about going to a Passport program,” said Carol Diamant, a parent who liked the program so much she opted for three times as many courses as the temple required.

At Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., parents can attend classes while their children are in Sunday school. Or they can participate with their children in a Shabbat school called Shabbaton, in which the families pray together and then study both together and separately.

For Lisa Langer, the Reform temple’s education director, what’s important about the school is that it offers choices and that it’s not simply an isolated program, but part of a larger congregational focus on education.

Beth Am is one of 14 Reform congregations around the country participating in the Experiment in Congregational Education, an effort to create a “culture that values learning,” said Isa Aron, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion professor overseeing the project.

Participants are charged with infusing all synagogue programs with Jewish learning, integrating the school more into the larger workings of the temple and engaging congregants of all ages in Jewish study.

Congregation Beth Am Israel in suburban Philadelphia is Conservative and not part of this experiment, but has a similarly holistic approach in its Shabbat school, in which parents, children and other congregants all attend classes and services on Saturday morning.

“When the kids were at Sunday school, they didn’t want to get up on Saturday, so I had to choose between them and going to shul,” Abby Stamelman Hocky, a Beth Am Israel parent, said, adding that she enjoys the “rhythm” of coming to synagogue each week and of having a family respite from the “hectic world we’re living in.”

The Shabbat structure also encourages family discussions about Judaism, said Stamelman Hocky.

“On the car ride home, you’re naturally talking about the Torah portion of the week and some interesting lesson that was learned,” she said. “It’s not like usual, when you ask your kids what they did at school and they say, `Nothing.'”

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