Hanging prominently in the foyer of Jewish Learning Venture (JLV) is a large poster that displays three short lines of text.
It reads, in Hebrew and English: “The old will be made new, and the new will be sanctified.” The final line in the frame attributes the quote to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.
Kook’s message resonated with the roughly 45 attendants at JLV’s annual meeting June 7.
The event carried added significance, as it was its final gathering at the Mandell Education Campus in Elkins Park. Bought by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in 1985, the 28-acre retreat has served as a site for, among others, Gratz College, Perelman Jewish Day School, Ramah Day Camp and Jewish Family and Children’s Service.
On June 20, JLV will relocate 2 miles down Old York Road to an office building. The downsizing has triggered fearful reactions from community members who worry about the dwindling size of the Elkins Park Jewish community. JLV CEO Rabbi Philip Warmflash said such anxiety is misplaced.
“There is no increasing or decreasing. We still serve the whole community, but we don’t need a 10,000-square-foot space with a large library and resource section. It’s a different generation now,” he said.
Though the organization is only moving a 10-minute drive away, some expressed sadness to leave the campus, especially because of the ornate plaques adorning the walls of JLV’s office.
Unable to take the plaques, which commemorate supporters of the organization, JLV instead created a piece of art that incorporates every plaque’s information under a single frame. The work was unveiled at the meeting.
Warmflash reaffirmed the new office “won’t affect what we’re doing at all.” Elaborating on the work of JLV, he explained its focus is two-fold — “engaging families with young children and working with congregations.”
The young family operation mainly works through jkidphilly, an online hub for Philadelphia’s Jewish families and kids’ events. Its well-known PJ Library program has lent more than 6,000 Jewish-themed books to area children, Warmflash said. The books, which provide young children with a Jewish foundation, inflate the likelihood a family observes Jewish holidays, sends kids to Jewish camps and joins a synagogue, he added.
“We’re trying to bring new people into the continuum of Jewish life. We’re trying to guide people to find meaning,” he said, adding that even those who aren’t members of a synagogue share in JLV initiatives such as home-based Shabbat kits and services open to all.
Those who do join synagogues receive JLV programming through its previous LeV and NESS programs and current Havayah programs, which aim to revitalize Hebrew school education and student engagement across synagogues. The programs were honored at the event in recognition of innovation in part-time Jewish education.
At the meeting, a panel discussed the increase in participation. Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel; Lori Green, director of education at Temple Sholom in Broomall; and Debbie Rosenthal, vice president of Shir Ami, all remarked on the ways the programs have increased Hebrew school attendance despite mounting extracurricular activities.
Yanoff attributed the gain in part to a new curriculum of “real-time Judaism,” meaning religious school now focuses on connecting Jewish current events and holidays to students’ daily lives. To bring the whole family to shul, the synagogue created a Hebrew school program on Saturday mornings, during which parents and kids often cross paths in the sanctuary.
“It has created a wonderful, intergenerational Shabbat,” Yanoff said.
Echoing that sentiment, Green said Temple Sholom concentrated on “how we can make Jewish learning authentic right now.” She noticed that 90 minutes of after-school religious school were too long for many tired kids, who often arrived late or left early to attend sports practices and events. With JLV’s help, she created a 45-minute program, and “Hebrew [learning] has improved dramatically.”
“The fact that we are listening has made a huge difference” in religious school attitudes, Rosenthal said.