Creating a successful religious school program in a contemporary culture dominated by secular youth activities demands an experiential approach to Jewish learning.
The beauty of an experiential program in a progressive school setting is that it is student-centered, allowing educators to focus on bringing a child's experiences to life through fun and interactive educational lessons.
Moreover, the experiential approach can be achieved without sacrificing the goals of a sound Jewish education. An example of a successful experiential program is a school-wide "Exodus Walk." To accurately convey the story of the exodus, it is preferable to portray the departure as if we, ourselves, left Egypt, as opposed to simply "the Jews left Egypt."
Almost any Jewish holiday or Torah story can be taught employing this approach. The emphasis should be on keeping lessons fresh, exciting, fun and interactive while, in turn, responding to the needs of students and their diverse learning styles.
Transforming Jewish students into lifelong learners is essential to the survival of the Jewish people. A program committed to this goal should also embrace the concept of family education in efforts to bridge the gap between school, home and the surrounding community.
Students in a contemporary religious school program should grow to understand and appreciate their Jewish religion, culture and heritage, while feeling a strong sense of identity with the larger Jewish community.
If Jewish educators succeed in this task, our schools will have a positive influence on the spiritual and cultural development of its graduates and help create future leaders and role models within the Jewish community.
We can begin by imparting the notion that becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah does not mark the conclusion of one's Jewish studies, but rather the beginning of adult Jewish study. A successful religious school program should promote this type of ongoing commitment by both students and parents.
In John Dewey's The Child and the Curriculum, he speaks of a child's realm of personal experiences. As educators, we need to understand where the child is coming from before we present a host of Jewish facts and laws. This is why family education and parental modeling at home is vital to the success of a religious school curriculum.
We cannot simply teach Shabbat. We must model the Shabbat experience for students in the classroom, at home and within the synagogue. Monthly grade-level Shabbat dinners and programming, as well as school-wide Shabbaton weekends, can provide meaningful Shabbat experiences.
Dewey also suggests that children need to take initiative in the classroom while the teacher provides direction and guidance. Using this philosophy, schools can introduce active learning techniques that give the illusion that the students are selecting what they are doing. These types of activities can be fun, yet provide innovative, active lessons that yield desired results.
The ideal classroom is one where students are standing, moving, acting and playing educational games, fully engaged in interactive learning with their teachers. It's through this type of camp-like programming that educators can kindle excitement about being Jewish and motivate their students and parents to keep coming back for more.
At the high school level, that translates into employing more interactive learning techniques and offering choices to teens. Whether it's analyzing a specific Midrash or debating the Jewish perspectives on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, providing individual autonomy is vital. What these students really want from their Jewish educators are choices; they want to be decision makers. Introducing electives and other platforms for autonomy will ensure that a teen program will survive and thrive.
Operating a successful religious school program in these difficult times can be a significant challenge that calls for experienced and enthusiastic educators committed to innovative, experiential concepts, as well as parents, clergy and lay leaders who share a coherent, overarching goal and vision for Jewish education. Only by working in concert can they assure the survival and growth of Jewish education in a supplemental religious school setting.
Sharone Weizman is the director of education at Tiferet Bet Israel Synagogue in Blue Bell.