Murals depicting the 10 plagues, meditation groups, drumming circles, creative writing – this is Hebrew School? Long gone are the days of rote memorization of Sabbath prayers and the Hebrew alphabet. In their place, supplemental religious schools at synagogues across the area are offering engaging lessons about the Jewish holidays, important values, history and culture.
“Our vision of education recognizes the necessity of multiple approaches to learning in order for our students to explore and make meaning of all of the riches that Judaism has to offer,” said Sherri Morris, Director of Congregational Learning at Congregation Beth El in South Orange. “We strongly believe the best way to incorporate their learning into their lives, our students most be provided with the opportunity to learn and then implement their learning.”
To put classroom lessons into action, sixth and seventh grade students at Beth El first learn about the mitzvah (commandment) of visiting the sick and then with their families they work together to make no-sew blankets for children at the hospital.
For many children, these synagogue-based religious schools are their primary source of Jewish education outside their families. They attend classes one or two afternoons during the week and again on Sunday mornings. To keep their programs compelling in a child’s busy after-school life of sports, music and other activities, religious schools offer elective classes on topics such as photography, Israeli music videos, calligraphy and Judaism and comedy.
“We continuously fine tune the program to address the changing needs of our student population,” said Mindy Schreff, director of the Rudy and Linda Slucker Religious School at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. “Our newest model is a Hebrew Enrichment Program for our students who want more than we can offer in our classrooms, including conversational Hebrew.”
At Beth El, Morris and Rabbi Francine Roston collaborated with members of the congregation on the Jewish Learning Center board to develop a program outside the tradition model of a supplementary religious school. Throughout the past four years, they have attended seminars, researched other schools and brainstormed to ensure their program is innovative and cutting-edge.
Recognizing that not all children learn in the same way, religious schools have hired reading specialists and teen helpers to help children with special needs better navigate the classroom. While schools vary in their capacity to accommodate children with significant learning issues, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel offers one-on-one tutoring for students who need extra help in a mainstream class and an individualized instruction program called B’lay’vav (In the Heart) for those who need more assistance.
First developed 20 years ago, the B’layvav Special Learning Center is staffed by a team of teachers experienced in working with students with a variety of special needs, and led by a coordinator of special education. The self-contained class operates like a “one-room school,” so that every child has a place in the program.
“Our mission is to provide a varied educational program that allows every student to achieve their personal best,” said Schreff. “It has long been a source of pride that we have been able to accommodate all our students.”
MetroWest ABLE, an advocacy and resource network for individuals and families with special needs, has compiled a detailed list of Jewish schools and their special needs inclusion programs which can be downloaded at their website: www.metrowestable.org.
Family education has also become an important component of the curriculum at religious schools as staff work to teach multiple generations about Jewish religion, tradition and values.
“Each grade at Beth El has a family project where the children get to share with their parents what they have already learned or where the families learn together,” said Morris. Recently, the entire congregation was invited to participate in a Passover mural project led by artist in-residence Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen. People chose a topic related to the holiday such as the seder plate, the slavery experience, the 10 plagues or redemption. Then they studied texts together and using guiding questions, painted something inspired by their learning. Individual paintings were cut up and made into group murals which are now used to teach about the holiday of Passover to future classes.
At Sharey Tefilo-Israel, Schrett said, “We think that it is very critical for our parents and children to have the opportunity to learn together and to have what we hope will be a positive Jewish learning experience. Most parents find that is a precious and sweet time with their children.”
To Learn More, Visit
Beth El Congregation: 222 Irvington Ave., South Orange
Oheb Shalom Congregation: 170 Scotland Road, South Orange
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel: 432 Scotland Road, South Orange