Leaders of Congregation Beth El in Yardley have been struggling with the same issue that synagogues across the country have been grappling with for years: Can religious school be made enjoyable, interesting and meaningful enough that kids actually want to come?
In order to take a fresh look at the challenge, the synagogue turned to the Jewish Learning Venture, a Melrose Park-based organization that, among many things, helps congregations reboot their religious school programs.
After more than a year of meetings and planning, the congregation is experimenting with a new Sunday school model that aims to capture some of the exuberance and informality of summer camp while offering over-scheduled teens a more flexible format.
For the school’s 23 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders (out of 72 students total), the school has jettisoned weekly Sunday classes in favor of a once-a-month program on Sundays that lasts from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The program stresses group activities and informal learning — and even includes breaks so the kids can shoot some hoops in the gym. (The weekly Wednesday afternoon Hebrew class hasn’t been tinkered with yet.)
Karen Lewin, Beth El’s education director for the past eight years, acknowledged that it is too soon to know if the changes are working; they have only had two Sunday sessions so far. But she credited the staff at JLV with helping the congregation ask tough questions, articulate a vision and form a plan of action.
“One of the things about JLV is that they are pushing the envelope,” Lewin said. “They are pushing congregations to think differently, to think outside the box.”
Apparently Beth El is not the only group to think so. Last week, the 5-year-old organization was named one of the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in the country by the influential Slingshot Guide. JLV was one of four local groups cited in the annual guide. (See sidebar.)
In its Oct. 24 announcement, Slingshot said of JLV: “There may be no better example of the drive for ongoing relevancy than at Jewish Learning Venture.”
The recognition was a major coup for an agency that resulted from the 2009 merger of two established groups: the Jewish Outreach Partnership and the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education.
Since its merger, JLV has positioned itself as one of the primary local organizations pushing innovation at a time when many are saying that’s just what’s needed if Jewish institutions are going to remain relevant in a rapidly shifting religious, cultural and communal landscape.
JLV has hosted an array of communal forums on topics such as engaging young families, the use of technology in synagogues, whether synagogue dues are an outdated model for financially supporting congregations and whether supplementary schools can inspire students. Just this past weekend, 200 educators gathered at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley for a half-day workshop on engaging young families.
“Our job is to help people have conversations that they need to have that may not always be comfortable,” said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, who is JLV’s executive director and has worked in the Philadelphia region since 1992. “We are able to look at the congregation as a whole and help to make change.”
By recommending JLV, Slingshot’s leaders were trying to demonstrate that larger, more-established organizations that deal in multiple areas are also doing cutting-edge work, according to Will Schneider, Slingshot’s executive director. He added that the guide has tended to highlight startup organizations that focus on a single program or issue but it’s now broadening its scope to include more legacy institutions.
“The reputation of innovation is, in general, too tied up with startups, with newness,” he said. “We are on a constant quest for impact.”
JLV, housed at the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park, has a full-time staff of 20 and an annual budget of $1.9 million. Roughly 60 percent of that funding, about $1.1 million, comes from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The rest comes from the group’s own fundraising and other grants.
One signature program is the Reshet Network for Synagogue Strength, which has been replicated by other organizations across the country. It works with synagogue leaders in areas such as making committees more effective and more deeply engaging members who have already joined the synagogue.
Among JLV’s major initiatives is jkidphilly. That is the local address for the national PJ Library program, which sends out free Jewish books and CDs to young families. Jkidphilly also runs play dates and other events for parents and children around the region.
During the latest round of allocations from the Philadelphia Federation, jkidphilly and JLV’s other early childhood programs received $580,000, compared to $780,000 last year. Some members of Federation’s Policy Strategy and Funding committee had questioned the effectiveness of jkidphilly and its ability to gauge its impact.
That committee had set aside $150,000 in additional dollars for JLV’s jkidphilly program once some of those concerns had been addressed.
Lewis Gantman, who co-chairs Federation’s Center for Jewish Life, which had originally recommended that jkidphilly receive all the funding, said those issues had been ironed out and that funding was restored.
Warmflash noted that his organization also received $45,000 from Federation to help launch jteenphilly. A group of local educators and lay leaders recently gathered at JLV’s offices to envision what the new organization aimed at engaging local teens, and its web presence, would look like.
One thing JLV will no longer be doing is run the kehillot, the seven community-building entities throughout the region that over the years have staged Jewish festivals, adult learning sessions and Israel Independence Day programs.
Instead, in a new effort to bolster Jewish life in geographic pockets of the Greater Philadelphia area, the Philadelphia Federation has asked representatives of various neighborhoods — places as diverse as the Old York Road corridor, the Main Line, Northeast Philadelphia and Chester County— to apply for $25,000 grants to be used for specific projects. Those applications were due on Oct. 31.
According to Slingshot’s Schneider and others, the area of JLV’s work that has created the most buzz is in its dealings with congregations and supplementary schools.
JLV’s predecessor organization, ACAJE, had long concentrated in this area on a program that was replicated in other cities called NESS: Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools. As part of that program, synagogues undertook a three-year-process to re-evaluate and transform their schools.
Warmflash said that while he highly respected the advances of the NESS program, he thought it worked too slowly for synagogues seeking change — and faced with very real challenges. At JLV, he re-launched the program as LeV, which means “heart” in Hebrew. Through professional development, working with consultants and conducting broad internal conversations, synagogues work to make major changes to their religious schools that affect at least 20 percent of their student body within a year.
“LeV is taking the best of what was, and looking around the country at what is, and saying we can change congregational learning, for kids and their parents,” said Warmflash. “People try to do long and slow and bring it incrementally. We decided that we need to do it fast — one year of building and one year of implementation, where we are really working closely with the congregations.”
So far, six synagogues have taken part in the LeV program, including Beth El in Yardley, a Conservative congregation with 300 families.
Lewin, Beth El’s education director, said the synagogue’s leaders were trying to reshape religious school to be a lot more like camp — even if it has to be experienced indoors much of the year.
To show how serious they were, synagogue leaders got rid of the term “religious school” and instead relabeled it a “Jewish Learning Community” to emphasize that the synagogue is as much about inculcating values as imparting knowledge and to convey that children are part of a larger community.
They are holding the monthly Sunday program at the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, where there is more space for informal learning, davening, text study and other activities. Lewin is also planning a field trip next month to take the students to the National Liberty Museum in Old City. She plans to use an exhibit there to discuss the Jewish ideal of heroism.
After a year of deliberations, Ohev Shalom in Wallingford, another participant in the LeV program, also decided to adopt a camp model for Sunday religious school, though its leaders chose twice a month sessions at four hours apiece.
Cantor Seven Friedrich, the Conservative congregation’s education director, said he is focusing on experiential learning and prayer and creating emotional experiences that will linger in a student’s mind.
“We had determined from the beginning that a new school model was needed but weren’t sure what that might be,” he said. He described JLV as the spark that made the process work.
Friedrich said that through numerous meetings with JLV staff, synagogue leaders were exposed to what’s being tried across the country, JLV’s assessment of some of those programs and how to contact the educators running the experimental programs.
But before making any decisions about how to proceed, Friedrich said, synagogue officials were told to “go do your homework.”