In the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film “A Serious Man,” religious school is depicted as an experience equivalent to undergoing a medical exam, one that can only be survived by sneaking in a radio and listening to Jefferson Airplane.
While that might be an extreme analogy, the negative perceptions persist. And fighting against them are hundreds of teachers from all ages and backgrounds, trying every sort of creative idea to make Hebrew school more meaningful.
As supplemental education programs gear up for a new year, we caught up with three young teachers in the Greater Philadelphia area who aren’t so far removed from their own positive experiences in Jewish education to find out why they make the time to ensure that Hebrew school is more than just a dreary rite of passage.
FROM CHATTANOOGA TO RRC
The son of two Jewish educators in Chattanooga, Tenn., Jesse Charyn grew up to serve as a lone soldier in the Golani Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, work for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, live in a rich Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles and, most recently, study to become a rabbi.
What drove him across the map, he said, was his inclination to always ask questions.
The 29-year-old tries to encourage that same quality in his teenage students at the religious schools of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley and Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. He also previously taught at a joint Beth Sholom Congregation and Congregation Adath Jeshurun post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah education program.
“I’ve lived in so many different places and have had many different experiences, which have helped me create a phenomenal classroom because I’ve thought about all these different aspects of Judaism,” said Charyn, who spent a year at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles before starting at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote last year. “I don’t necessarily have answers to all the students’ questions but one of the most important things in Judaism is the process of asking questions, and I try to have students ask why and who and what and when.”
Charyn said it’s important to focus on the 14- to 24-age group, those years post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah to post-college, when young Jews tend to disappear from organized Judaism.
Part of the rabbinical student’s approach to teaching involves not trying to cover too much.
“You’re not going to teach someone 4,500 years of history,” he said.
Instead, he tries to make Judaism relevant by talking about how students can apply the religion’s values in day-to-day life.
That could mean “walking around outside and picking up trash or being the first one to get up in the cafeteria to help people to pick up trays,” he explained. “Or if you see someone struggling with a large bag, walking over to them and saying, ‘Hey can I help you?’ That’s sort of the style of Judaism that I want to teach.”
GRANDDAUGHTER OF A RABBI
Tamar Godel grew up the oldest of four children in a Cheltenham home where it didn’t even occur to her “that there were families who let their kids not go to Sunday school.”
She wanted to be a teacher since she was 7 years old, she said, adding that her dad thought she had the perfect “constructive bossiness” for the job.
“I love ‘aha’ moments,” said Godel, who teaches at BZBI and Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, where her grandfather, Simeon Maslin, spent 17 as senior rabbi.
“When you’re sitting there trying to deliver a lesson and they’re looking at you like you’re a brick wall and then something clicks and they look at you like, ‘Oh, that’s what you mean.’ ”
Godel, 25, has been studying how to create those ‘aha’ moments for many years. In high school, she completed the Isaac Mayer Wise Reform Teaching Certificate Program and worked as a classroom aide at Keneseth Israel.
She’s now working on her masters in education at Temple University. In addition to teaching at Keneseth Israel, she helped Rabbi Stacy Rigler overhaul the religious school’s curriculum for this coming year. Part of that involves implementing a Hebrew Through Movement program, where students learn while actively responding to commands in Hebrew.
Godel, who learned the language from birth, said religious school students usually recite Hebrew by rote, meaning that they learn to say a word or sentence correctly but don’t actually know what a prayer means. If they see, for example, the word “l'hadlik” modeled, then they’ll know that it means “to light” and suddenly they can say, “ ‘I know what the prayer is about.’ ”
The school’s new approach also involves more of an emphasis on project-based learning. Godel started that with her fourth grade class last year in which students initiated a pay-it-forward program they called “suspended coffee.” The idea was to get customers to pay for an extra coffee or food item when they enter a shop so that someone else who can’t afford a cup can later pick it up.
The students took on the project with gusto, designing posters and approaching coffee shops around Philadelphia, trying to get them to start using the system, she said.
“I don’t know if any of the coffee shops actually did it. But the students had the experience. It was a lot more than I thought kids in fourth grade were capable of,” Godel said.
Ultimately, she said, her goal is to get students engaged and excited about Judaism so they’ll be more likely “to continue to be active in Judaism in the rest of their lives.”
A BASEBALL-LOVING MOSES
Nathan Weiner hates the phrase “Hebrew school.”
Put more bluntly, he said, “Hebrew school sucks.”
That’s not exactly the sort of endorsement you expect to hear from the director of education at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, N.J., who also teaches at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park.
But Weiner, a fourth year rabbinical student at RRC, said the current religious school system is broken. He’s trying to fix it by drawing inspiration from youth groups and Jewish camps.
The Brockton, Mass., native uses a baseball analogy to explain his approach.
“Religious school gets men on base but camp and youth groups drive them home,” said the 31-year-old who lives in Mount Airy. “If I can give kids the camp or youth group experience in religious school, that’s my goal. Otherwise, more often that not, we’re leaving men stranded on base.”
The camp setting is, in fact, where Weiner got the push to become a rabbi. A few years ago, while serving as teen director at a large congregation in a Washington, D.C., suburb, he spent two weeks working at Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa. While there, he said, a few rabbis cornered him and asked, “When are you going to rabbinical school?”
So after four years working at the Reform congregation in Virginia, he enrolled at RRC. Now he balances his time between studying, teaching sixth- and seventh-graders one night a week at Kol Ami and working at the synagogue in New Jersey where he is spearheading a new education program called Tikvah Learning Community.
As part of that initiative, the synagogue purchased lights, a sound system and a fog machine, and covered a room in chalkboard paint to create what Weiner calls the “Simulation Station.”
Students will enter the room with music and lights blasting as though they were stepping into a club, and find Moses — played by Weiner — or another figure from the Torah.
“I want to transform them into another time in Jewish history and all of a sudden, they’re going to meet Moses,” Weiner said.
For another activity, he plans to teach students how to kasher a kitchen using cooking supplies that a parent donated. For a class during Yom Kippur, he plans to decorate a room with a blue tarp to create the scene where Jonah was trapped inside the whale.
What none of the activities require are desks. And that, Weiner said, is the point.
“Kids are in school sitting at a desk all week. I want them to come into synagogue and to learn and to be excited,” he said. “Chances are they’re going to remember meeting Moses.”
Do you or your child have a favorite supplementary religious school teacher? We want to hear what makes him or her so special.
Send your nominations to news@ jewishexponent.com with a short description explaining your choice.