Pilot Program Seeks to Transform Synagogue Schools

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The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia initiated and funded the two years of planning with partners Gratz College and Jewish Learning Venture to collectively develop a strategy for invigorating supplementary school education in Greater Philadelphia.

Good things are worth waiting for. All good things come to those who wait. You can’t hurry success.  Though these sayings extolling the virtues of patience may sound trite, they are true in the case of Havayah: A Jewish Community Experience.  After two years of research, this first-of-its-kind synagogue school curriculum for fifth-graders is being rolled out this fall.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia initiated and funded the two years of planning with partners Gratz College and Jewish Learning Venture to collectively develop a strategy for invigorating supplementary school education in Greater Philadelphia.
“Supplementary school education is endemically challenging in Philadelphia and nationally,” said Rabbi Erin Hirsh, director of Gratz Advance. “It is in a rapid period of change. Schools are dramatically smaller than they were even just five years ago. As schools become smaller, resources become smaller. Collaboration is necessary to sustain dynamic Jewish learning environments for these kids.
“Our group began working to determine what we needed to do differently from what was already being done,” continued Rabbi Hirsh.  “It was a unique opportunity to think about ‘what next?’ This was a very generous and innovative gift from the Jewish Federation. It is rare to have the opportunity to receive an investment in research without knowing the outcome.”
Staff from Gratz College and Jewish Learning Venture began studying a variety of successful supplementary school models and interviewing numerous people, but they realized key stakeholders — including students — were missing from their research. To address this, two summits were held in 2015. The first brought together 100 fifth- through 12th-graders from 25 different synagogues. The students talked about their school experiences, both what was working and what else they were looking for. Also during that summit, nearly 40 parents participated in a focus group. “People were so moved just to be asked about their children’s Jewish education,” said Barbara Hirsh, the Jewish Federation’s Director of Jewish Life and Learning. “They had never been asked what they thought before.”
The second summit convened synagogue and communal professionals, teachers and a handful of parents. “There was a lot of stakeholder input, and the planning model was in itself a form of engagement,” said Barbara Hirsh. “Not only has it raised the bar on how we do planning; it also has resulted in a very interesting curriculum model that centers on Jewish values.”
Havayah, Hebrew for “experience,” will roll out on Sept. 25 to fifth-graders from seven synagogues spanning various neighborhoods and movements: Adath Israel, Beth David Reform Congregation, Temple Beth Hillel – Beth El, Germantown Jewish Centre, Congregation Kol Emet, Main Line Reform Temple and Congregation Or Ami. Fifth grade was selected because “it’s the year many students may become cynical about supplementary school,” said Rabbi Hirsh. “It’s when school can begin to feel repetitive. Fifth-graders are also at an age where we can incorporate more self-directed learning before more intense studying begins for their B’nai Mitzvah.”
The pilot year is being funded by the Jewish Federation’s Bernard and Etta Weinberg Family Fund. Lori Rubin, director of family engagement at Jewish Learning Venture, will be working with the synagogues to implement Havayah and provide professional development, along with Anna Marx, Jewish Learning Venture’s director of Jewish education and leadership development. “I am so excited,” said Rubin. “We’re building something that doesn’t exist in any other place, something that we’ll eventually be able to share across the country.”
Key findings from the research included that students want to: make meaning of everything they’re doing; feel Jewish anywhere and anytime, not just in synagogue; engage in self-directed learning; and learn from their own social network, not necessarily from a teacher standing in the front of the room. As a result, four times throughout the year ahead, the entire group of 150 students will come together for two-hour gatherings. Students will break up into “tribes” for small group discussions as well as participating in the larger group, whose activities will include presentations, songs and time for reflection on what they learned. “It’s important for kids to see there’s a large, vibrant Jewish community in our area, and to have fun with other kids in a Jewish context,” said Rubin.  “It’s powerful for them to know they are part of something bigger.”
These four large-group sessions will also launch and conclude the three separate units of the year. Each unit will comprise six 45-minute sessions on a specific project that will complement the remainder of the fifth-grade learning for the week at each respective synagogue. According to Rubin, this will be a “true experiential educational method. They will use games and interactive activities to learn. There will be no sitting and watching.”
While the themes are still being solidified, the learning will center on sacred time and sacred places. “We want them to see that everywhere can be a place of Jewish spirituality,” said Rubin. “We want them to know how to find holiness wherever they are.”
Each student will use a workbook throughout the year to keep track of where they are in the process and help them focus their time. The students will share their findings with one another during the large-group meetings. Professional development workshops for teachers will help them start and end each session, and ensure it meshes with the rest of their curriculum.
Ideally, Havayah will expand during its second year (2017-18) to also include even more fifth-graders, as well as programming for the now-sixth-graders who participated in the program during the pilot year.
“This is a wonderful experiment in community collaboration,” said Rabbi Hirsh. “This is an opportunity to create something together that no one organization or synagogue could have created on their own.”
For more information on supporting Havayah, please contact Barbara Hirsh at 215-832-0812 or [email protected] For more information on participating in Havayah, please contact Rabbi Erin Hirsh at 215-635-7300 ext. 135 or [email protected]