When Traditional Hebrew School Just Isn’t a Good Fit

My childhood synagogue, Temple Or Rishon, was a hodgepodge of Jews and interfaith families, all of whom were happy to find a Jewish home in an otherwise Christian and Seventh Day Adventist area. Despite the Jewish community in Sacramento being very small, I feel blessed that I grew up in an incredibly eclectic and inclusive Reform synagogue in Orangevale, California.

I wish that more people could have such an affirming Jewish religious and/or community experience in their childhood—and adulthood as well. But synagogue-based religious life and education isn’t a good fit for everyone, for a variety of reasons.

While I am the Jew and leader that I am today in large part because of the synagogue in which I grew up, I recognize that day schools and synagogues don’t work for all Jews. There are other models where families can find Jewish learning and community. So where can Jews in the Greater Boston area send their children for formal Jewish education?

BJEP students

BJEP student theater

Enter BJEP, the Boston-Area Jewish Education Program.

BJEP provides an excellent alternative to traditional synagogue-based Hebrew school. The Boston-Area Jewish Education Program is a welcoming, independent and unaffiliated Sunday school located on the Brandeis campus in Waltham, MA. Brandeis University undergrad and grad students apply their knowledge and passion by teaching BJEP’s first through seventh grade students. The program embraces Greater Boston families from all backgrounds (interfaith, interracial, LGBT, varying Jewish denominations) interested in learning Hebrew and exploring Jewish traditions, values and culture.

Experiential learning and Jewish arts and culture are central to their program. They offer extended day options so students can learn modern Hebrew, Jewish dance and Jewish theater. BJEP also offers adult learning and family education, runs High Holiday services and provides bar and bat mitzvah support. Headed by Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari as the education director, BJEP is organized and funded by the parents of students enrolled in the school and is governed by a volunteer parent board of directors. For more information, visit www.bjep.com.

AriThis past weekend, Hebrew College ordained a new graduating class of talented and committed rabbinical and cantorial students—mazel tov! Among them is Ari Lev Fornari, the newly-hired BJEP Director. He comes to BJEP with a dynamic and ambitious vision.

“BJEP is a vibrant community of learners and teachers, including multi-faith, multi-racial and LGBTQ families. We share a desire to create and transmit a Judaism that is relevant and meaningful. A Judaism that celebrates the many constellations of family. BJEP is a place where young people learn to value difference, curiosity and critical thinking. It is a place of imagination, creativity and play.

I was drawn to BJEP because of its out-of-the-box approach to Jewish education and its commitment to making Judaism real and meaningful. Traditionally there were different models for how to organize Jewish communal life. One of them was prayer, which grew into the synagogue model. Another was learning, known as the Heder. I see BJEP reinventing a model of Jewish community built around learning. It is my hope that as we grow the program, it will increasingly become a place of intergenerational learning, where we can support families on their Jewish and spiritual journeys.”

I’m thrilled that InterfaithFamily/Boston will have the privilege of working with Ari Lev to support BJEP’s interfaith families in the coming school year!

How to Teach and Reach: Interfaith Children in Hebrew School

Teacher and studentsMany people want to be welcoming but don’t necessarily know exactly how to provide the welcoming learning environment for interfaith families and kids. In this essay, I’ll provide some tips on how to engage kids from interfaith homes in classrooms and how to handle potentially awkward situations.

1. Respect the family. Keep your own opinion out of the conversation. The children need to feel validated, not uncomfortable. Be prepared for anything. Families come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of dynamics. Some families may be raising their children in “both” religions or incorporate varying degrees of each religion. Grandparents may not be supportive. Students may believe in Santa Claus. Relatives may celebrate Kwanza. There are infinite ways to be a family.

 

2. Respect the other parent’s religion. If a child refers to another holiday celebration with relatives who are not Jewish:

a. Listen. A key element of listening is eye contact. Pay attention to what the student is telling you about a religious experience. If you can relate their story to something Jewish, great. If not, just listen attentively. If you don’t have time to talk because class is starting, say that you would love to talk in greater detail after class and then make sure to offer to talk to them after class.

b. Ask questions. “Did you enjoy going to church?” If you end the conversation abruptly because you are uncomfortable or in a rush, the student may think that he said something wrong. Asking questions (within time constraints of the class) shows that you are interested.

c. Support. Your response of support will enable the student to be happy about their experience. Students should never feel bad if they participated in a family event that wasn’t Jewish. Responses like: “That is great that you had fun with your cousins. You are lucky to be exposed to so many different types of religion.”

d. Pay attention to all of the students. The whole class is potentially listening to your conversation about interfaith issues. The students will take their cues from you and it is key to set an example of support. If you hear another student give a negative response (or make a face) be sure to provide a supportive environment to all of the students. The student that provides a negative response should get the cue that in this classroom, we don’t judge other people but accept one another.  It is a mitzvah to support your whole family.

3. Truth. What if a child says: “My cousins told me that the Jews killed Jesus—but I told them, I didn’t.” This is simply not true but it is a long stated myth. This is a good opportunity to set the record straight by saying. 1) That’s not true. 2) The Romans killed Jesus. 3) That was a long time ago and Romans are predominantly Christian now. Please remember that what you teach the students now is what they will remember their entire life. This opportunity to teach not only this student, but the whole class, will be important for defending against anti-Semitic comments in the future.

4. Unconditional support. Families and children need encouragement. Religious school for many families is not a requirement like a high school diploma so a negative interaction can be catastrophic. Families frequently switch to another synagogue if they have a bad experience in Hebrew school. In some cases, families will leave Jewish life completely. The burden is on you (not easy, is it?!). Make it fun, be welcoming, be supportive and teach the students as much as you can.

5. Adaptation. Whenever you can, point out ways in which interfaith families have been important to the Jewish culture. The story of Ruth (an ancestress of King David), a Midianite woman who married a Jewish man and identified with the Jewish people and God, that we read on Shavuot is a great example. The story of Esther, who married a King who wasn’t Jewish and saved the Jews, which read on Purim, is another example.

6. Instill pride. Jessica is part Jewish, Cherokee, Irish and Italian. She is special and unlike any other human being. She should finish her year in your class feeling happy that she has learned some stories, some songs, some traditions, some Hebrew, some of the commandments, and wants to come back next year! Jessica should be proud to be Jessica. Interfaith kids should NEVER be made to feel like anything less than ALL JEWISH when they are in your classroom.  All students should be proud of their differences and proud of their Judaism.  People will participate in a culture where they feel like they are part of the “home team.”  You should never call a child “half-Jewish” or their parent a “goy” and should try to stay away from saying “non-Jew” as well. If a child is attending religious school, then that child is Jewish.

7. Turn it around. There will be many awkward situations throughout your career. Take the opportunity to turn the situation into a “teachable moment.”  Many families may not be enlightened about how to be welcoming. You will set the example for the kids about how to be proud and accepting of people’s differences, not only regarding religion but other differences as well.

You are an educator and your role in the development of your students is meaningful and powerful.  On behalf of Jewish families in America, thank you for your efforts.

A Secular Jewish Alternative

I have often wondered if, had I not been raised Jewish, I would convert to Judaism. I know many Jews who are intermarried and who don’t believe in God, who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “just Jewish” Jews. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in, or question the existence of, God. If a person was not raised Jewish, but enjoys cultural aspects of Judaism, would they convert? Would I convert had I not been born into this religion? Do I love the Jewish religion? Or do I love the Jewish customs and culture? For me, I think these answers are fluid as I grow with my Judaism. I think everyone is different and has their own spiritual and cultural journey. For many individuals and couples, community is really what they are seeking.

Jewish Children's Folkshul of PhiladelphiaIn Philadelphia, I experienced an interesting option: the Jewish Children’s Folkshul. It is a secular humanistic community for children and adults. There is no rabbi or cantor, but they sing songs in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They say a secular kaddish with a translation of “We remember them,” without invoking God. The kids learn all the Bible stories as stories, not as miracles or acts of God. They tell the Purim story and identify themes that are relevant today. They learn about the Holocaust. They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (righteous giving), kindness, and ethics. They experience social action/social justice projects and what it is like to be part of a soup kitchen and stand in line for their soup for the day.

The bar/bat mitzvah program includes a project where the student can learn about any topic that helps them connect with their Jewish identity; they prepare a research project to present to family, friends, and the Folkshul community. I was able to watch a young girl give her bat mitzvah presentation. She conducted an entire research project about wedding traditions. She, like her peers at the Folkshul, was encouraged to pick songs and music for the ceremony that are meaningful to her and her family. It was different than a traditional ceremony, yet still a rite of passage and just as lovely. The kids who complete their bar/bat mitzvah stay a part of the Folkshul community because they want to. They work in their community on Sundays. They assist the teachers for the younger grades. The director mused that when the teens assist with the curriculum they themselves learned in younger grades, their learning is enhanced because now they see the teachings from a new perspective.

I met with the teachers to provide them with some sensitivity training. They learned about the resources at InterfaithFamily and we discussed how they teach kids from interfaith families. I was truly impressed that any discussion about other religions is met with absolute respect. It was a wonderful exercise for the teachers and I truly enjoyed their enthusiasm and wisdom.

For those who are interested in a Jewish option that emphasizes ethics and culture, check out a Secular Humanistic community like the Folkshul. It is an intriguing option for those who enjoy Jewish culture and community in a non-religious environment.

My Jewish December

This is a guest post by Sara Beth Berman, the Nadiv Educator at The Davis Academy and URJ Camp Coleman. Nadiv is a program through the Foundation for Jewish Camp, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVICHAI Foundation. The Davis Academy is a large Reform Jewish Day school in Atlanta, Georgia, with students in Kindergarten Prep through 8th Grade and URJ Camp Coleman is a Reform Jewish summer camp at Cleveland, GA. Sara Beth has worked at many Jewish summer camps and is excited to be doing experiential Jewish education at the Davis Academy during the year.

“It’s like that latke that wouldn’t stop screaming,” a Davis Academy Middle School student stated, when talking about media clips in their Beit Midrash presentation today.

The Davis Academy Beit Midrash (DABM) is a monthly experience for all Davis Middle Schoolers, where they take a day out of their Judaic Studies curriculum to engage in “Torah Lishmah” — learning for the sake of learning. In the DABM, learners engage with texts, both modern and ancient, while experiencing an educational methodology that addresses multiple intelligences.

This month’s DABM was focused on our students’ Jewish December. For our Reform Jewish Day school, questions about Chanukah and Christmas — and about Judaism and Christianity — can pepper class discussions in all grades. Many of our students come from interfaith households. Their observance of non-Jewish holidays covers the entire spectrum from zero knowledge to attending mass with their Christian family members. Some of our kids have Christmas trees or Chanukah bushes.

The students started the activity by watching a video of Hazzan Matthew Klein reading Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Set off by the loud and frustrated fried potato pancake, our learners were ready to talk! The discussion was heated and excited, as the kids were finally getting their chance to ask questions about Christmas. Why do we celebrate this — or that? Do we combine holidays? How are the holidays different? How do *I* feel about being a Jew during this time of year? Why can’t I have a tree? What does going to church with your family mean to you? Would you ever wear this sweater?

They also had a chance to voice their issues and beliefs. Students talked about their experiences visiting church, how they feel when they’re wished a “merry Christmas” around town at this time of year, and how nice it is for them to celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish parent. They aired frustrations and asked for clarity. What is the whole presents thing all about, after all?

One student said, “I am not forced to celebrate Christmas with my dad. I choose to celebrate with him.” Her explanation gives great hope. Being an educator at a Reform Jewish Day school, we’re trying to teach informed choice based on study of Jewish laws and texts. How wonderful that our students, who are Jewish, show such respect to their non-Jewish parents, as it is written in the Torah.

Interested in the conversation? Check out the Prezi, put together for use at the Davis Academy today, as an introduction to the conversation. How would you respond?

Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.