A local educator hopes that her new after-school program 'Makom' will open next fall with camp-style energy.
When the question arises over how to engage Jewish children and teens, one answer in recent years has been: Send them to summer camp.
But Beverly Socher-Lerner believes that you don’t need 90-degree temperatures and bunk beds to create a camp-like environment. That’s why she’s planning to launch Makom, a Jewish after-school program in Center City for children ages 4 to 11.
“I think Jewish aftercare can bring a lot of the best parts of camp to a year-round learning program,” said Socher-Lerner, who has a master’s in Jewish education and has worked at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy over the last decade. “There’s a quality of immersive learning that can happen when you’re with the same people in a shared communal space almost every day.”
Socher-Lerner, who lives in the Graduate Hospital area, said she has already received commitments from about 10 families and has hosted several community Shabbat programs to provide parents and children an idea of what the environment would be like.
The program, which she hopes to start in the fall, would be organized as a nonprofit and meet five days a week. It would initially teach students from pre-K through second grade. Socher-Lerner has not yet found a space for Makom but is hoping to open it near Rittenhouse Square or Graduate Hospital.
The tuition, which she said would be comparable to other specialty after-school programs, such as those teaching karate, would initially cover only about 40 percent of the cost of the school, making up a greater share as more families enroll. She is searching for funders to donate between $150,000 to $200,000.
Why enroll your children in Makom rather than in the supplementary Hebrew school programs that already exist?
“I’m a big believer in differentiated and individualized instruction. Every child and every adult has distinct ways in which they learn best. All kinds of different schools, both Jewish and secular, are now coming around on that point, but some of our Jewish learning environments are still behind,” she said. Makom parents would be able to send their children three to five days a week.
At Makom, students will start together to talk and snack, then spread out into individualized learning. One student may be reading Jewish stories while another is learning the Hebrew alphabet or creating an art project. Then the students will gather together for music, prayer and movement.
She said she is modeling Makom after after-school programs such as Edah in Berkeley, Calif., that describes its mission as engaging children through “experiential, Hebrew-infused learning in order to nourish collective commitment to Jewish life and learning.” Edah is part of the Nitzan Network with eight similar programs around the country.
“The children will have a lot of say on what activities they’re doing on a given day so the child is really at the center of this learning experience,” said Socher-Lerner.
Rabbi Phil Warmflash, executive director of Jewish Learning Venture, said there is not a similar program in the Philadelphia area that provides not only after-school care — which the Kaiserman JCC does — but also Jewish education.
Warmflash said he had been waiting for someone to start a program like Makom. “We’re at a time when families with young children are looking to engage differently,” he said. “The hope is they will reach people who aren’t reached in other ways. It would be great to have multiple experiments going on in town.”
This kind of program could be the “next vanguard in Jewish education,” said Ilana Trachtman, a Center City documentary filmmaker who used to teach Hebrew school. A mother of two, she has attended the Makom Friday night Shabbat gatherings and said there were about 15 children and 30 parents at one in January. She is hoping to send her older daughter who will be in pre-K.
“I think for children, Hebrew school is something they have to do, an obligation as opposed to soccer games or birthday parties,” said Trachtman, who directed Praying with Lior, a documentary about a child with Down syndrome preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. “At an aftercare program, where it’s more organic and built on a summer camp model, it’s more relaxed and more fun.”