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Action: Re-envisioning Religious School

To learn about kedusha (holiness), 4th and 5th graders at Temple Beth Shalom (TBS) in Needham, Massachusetts are watching a video created by the architect chosen to renovate TBS' building. Channeling "Mission Impossible," it begins, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to design a new synagogue filled with holy spaces." Next up are "G-dcast" YouTube videos detailing the Torah's instructions to build the Mishkan (portable sanctuary built by the Israelites in the wilderness), complete with materials (gold, silver, precious gems, acacia wood, linen, etc.) and holy objects (such as the ark, lamp, and menorah). The kids are riveted: they want to know how this sanctuary was built because they are going to design one themselves.

The students visit other synagogues, churches, and an Islamic Center, and also query parents, clergy, and temple members: "Should there be a separate room where kids pray?" "Do we need more handicap ramps or seats?" "What was the temple like a long time ago, when you were kids?" Responses are recorded and tallied. Students then discuss what they want and need in a synagogue, understanding that there must be an element of holiness to everything. If they include snack machines—which they want to do—they need to offer a Jewish ethical value that supports having access to snack food.

After each student chooses whether to work on the interior, exterior, or overall building design team, the teams draw up blueprints and create 3D models using paint, fabric, cardboard, sequins, clay, rocks, and flat blue marbles—the latter representing ponds in their proposed meditation garden.

Finally, the day arrives when the children, beaming with pride, present to their parents and the synagogue's architectural committee multiple models of their ideal synagogue—featuring, among other elements, Torah scrolls, a ner tamid (eternal light), and an Israeli flag. "The adults were blown away," says Jewish learning guide (aka teacher) Sheira Rosenfield. "Here were 4th and 5th graders explaining why handicap ramps and a vegetable garden make a synagogue more holy."

In another kedusha project, children in the same classes wrote and illustrated their own blessings—which they then turned into "Pocket Blessings," a calendar app, available from the iTunes store.

TBS began piloting experiential, project-based learning in two 4th grade classes last year. In two years, its kindergarten and 1st grade populations have tripled, and TBS has now expanded this learning paradigm to K-5. "When we used traditional teaching methods, our kids weren't connecting what they learned in synagogue to their lives outside the synagogue," says Rabbi Todd Markley. "Now that they are producing something Jewish for use in the real world, they are starting to understand how and why Judaism matters."

Last Sukkot, students at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington learned about the holiday by running around the social hall and constructing with food. They'd received checklists of the characteristics of acceptable sukkot ("booths" symbolizing the temporary structures the Jewish people lived in during the Exodus), and sped from drawing to drawing of different sukkot posted around the room, analyzing which ones were "kosher." Then they built individual sukkot out of graham crackers, pretzel sticks, fruit snacks, and frosting.

Their Passover learning was just as much fun. Grades K-2 competed in a plague relay race, each team filling a bucket with "blood" (water dyed red), racing with spoons carrying "lice" (white rice), and doing leap-"frogs" across the room. Grades 3-5 received baskets of foods such as matzah, canned fruit, cream cheese, and icing, and, following the protocol of the TV show "Chopped," raced to create the best tasting, best looking, most matzah-centric dishes—all in just 25 minutes.

"We've designed a camp-like program for children to learn while having positive experiences of Jewish life," says Jordan Magidson, associate director of Congregational Learning. "We approach each grade's curriculum through media kids love, such as video, TV shows, sports, games, dance, music, and art. If kids have positive memories of Jewish learning, they'll want to learn more."

To learn about feeding the poor and giving thanks for food, 3rd-6th graders at Temple Beth Ami (TBA), Rockville, Maryland ground wheat into flour using coffee grinders, millstones, and mortars and pestles and then recite the Motzi (prayer thanking God for bread). Later, faculty members baked their flour into bread to be donated to a local shelter.

"The children were taken aback by the small amount of flour they produced after expending a huge effort to grind wheat," says Director of Education Kim Roberts. "The program began with a skit by employees of nearby Kayam Farm laying out the steps required to produce wheat—preparing the land, planting, and harvesting—and the next day several children told me they couldn't believe how much work went into making a loaf of bread. They gained a new appreciation of the work that goes into making food."

TBA's educational model emphasizes three diverse learning experiences: classroom learning, experiential learning, and family learning. Upstairs, children practice Hebrew, their Torah portions, and trope in traditional classroom settings; downstairs, they participate in experiential learning, such as creating a work of art based on a favorite passage from their Torah portion. An art instructor teaches them micrography (microcalligraphy): to write the words they've selected over and over, in tiny block Hebrew letters, which together produce a drawing of a Jewish object such as a Torah scroll or Star of David. All artworks are framed and displayed at the synagogue before being taken home as keepsakes. "This way," Roberts says, "children personalize part of their Torah portion and seal it in their memory both through repetition and seeing it displayed." As part of family learning, 200 fifth graders and their parents took an imaginary trip with their families to "Destination Israel"—eating hummus, olives, Israeli cookies and chocolate; learning Israeli dances taught by a professional Israeli dance instructor; and experiencing army life by being put through physical and verbal drills by an IDF officer. And teams competed in locating Israeli cities by placing cards with the city names on a giant "walkable" map of Israel.

"We try to push the limits of creative and diverse Jewish engagement," Roberts says. "Every child has a different way of connecting—some love Torah study, others, cooking or art—so we build an environment where kids can find their spark, their personal connection to Jewish life. When parents report that their children want to come to religious school, and smiling children tell me that they didn't know religious school could be fun, it makes me feel we're doing something right."

A cacophony of voices fill the large social hall at Temple Adat Elohim (TAE) in Thousand Oaks, CA—conversation, laughter, singing in different keys and registers. On a typical Tuesday evening, about 70 pre-b'nai mitzvah students and about 50 of their post-b'nai mitzvah tutors, or tzofim ("scouts") gather for a dinner of pizza or pasta, followed by peer-to-peer tutoring in Hebrew prayers. "Organizing this is about 10 times the work of our previous system," says David Shukiar, who serves as TAE cantor. "We carefully match and monitor each relationship, to make sure the personalities and skills work well together. But it's worth it—the kids are learning more Hebrew prayers than ever. We have long asked students to learn at least 16 of 25 blessings, the last of which, the Ashrei, was rarely mastered. Today, most students lead all 25 prayers, including the Ashrei. They've become friends with their peer tutors, and want to do well to please them."

Peer tutoring has had a significant impact on TAE's post-b'nai mitzvah retention—now nearly 100% for the remainder of 7th grade and 60% for 8th grade, up from about 10% in the fall of 2008, before the program began. "By transforming the private process of studying prayers into a communal one, we gave the older kids a reason to stay," Shukiar says. "When kids become tzofim, they become essential; they have a valuable role to fulfill and an important place in the synagogue community. The problem we now have is one we never anticipated: too many volunteers."

How can a congregation transform its religious school program to capture the hearts and minds of Jewish youth? Here are expert tips:

1. "Consider scrapping the old school paradigm of learning in a classroom with rows of desks facing a teacher," says Rabbi Todd Markley of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA. "Kids want to get up and move around. When you give them the freedom to use their pent-up energy, they're more likely to enjoy the process, get involved, and want to learn."

Last Passover, Assistant Director of Education Vanessa Harper taught Ha Lachma Anya—"This is the bread of affliction"—from the haggadah to fifth, sixth, and seventh graders at Temple Micah, Washington, DC through a matzah-making mission symbolic of the Israelites' experiences of affliction in Egypt and haste during the Exodus. "According to halachah (rabbinic law), the entire process may not exceed 18 minutes, from the moment the water hits the flour to when the finished product is removed from the oven," Harper says. "The children had to mix, knead, roll, poke holes in and bake the matzah, in those 18 minutes. I added an element of 'affliction' by assuming the role of stern taskmaster, yelling at them to work faster, and throwing back unsatisfactory pieces. When they later complained that I wasn't mean enough, I knew they enjoyed it."

2. Engage the entire community in youth education transformation. "We began by asking lay leaders, faculty, parents, teens, educators, and professional staff to articulate a vision for excellence in Jewish learning for pre-school through grade 12," says Rabbi Markley. "Then, with our 'Vision for Excellence in Learning' in hand, our professional education team researched best practices of dynamic learning environments, everything from Jewish camps to Montessori schools. Now our parents, staff, and community support the temple's initiatives, and because they represent the 'audience' for the students, the children know their accomplishments are significant."

3. Integrate camp-like experiential learning. "Many adults who are Jewishly engaged identify summer camp as a source of positive, formative Jewish experiences, so it makes sense to apply the model to religious school," says Alan Edelman, associate director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, who co-created a Sunday school alternative at The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah that combines a two-week student summer camp session with family Shabbat and holiday programs year-round. He points out that "Jewish camping experiences can be particularly effective replacements for traditional learning, since most goals for Jewish education are about behaviors practiced in a living environment."

4 . Reimagine Hebrew education. Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz, senior director of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and B'nai Mitzvah Revolution consultant, advises starting Hebrew language learning in a new way. "While for decades we've taught Hebrew via decoding—no understanding expected—humans learn our first language by listening and reacting. A number of congregations have found success by beginning instruction with Hebrew Through Movement, where children first learn to respond to basic action commands (stand, jump, walk, point) and then they engage with objects. There is also more emphasis on reciting prayers and blessings. So, once students learn the words for 'candle' (ner) and 'to light' (l'hadlik), they find themselves suddenly understanding l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat ('light the Shabbat candles'). It's like a secret code has been unlocked!"

David Shukiar recommends involving teens as peer Hebrew tutors because "children and teens relate better to their peers than to other adults. They will try harder to learn Hebrew, and enjoy it more, when coached by a peer."

Rabbi Daniel Septimus of Temple De Hirsch Sinai has found that "children learn more quickly in small, informal chavurah-style groups in each other's homes." The congregation is providing a teacher for any group of three to seven kids who wish to study Hebrew at one of their homes. "While this costs parents about 30% more because of the higher teacher-student ratio," he says, "the 25 offsite students are learning faster, perhaps in part because more advanced students are coaching their peers."

Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, DC recommends individual tutoring via Skype. "Each of our third graders has a one-on-one 15-minute weekly session with a private tutor via Skype; in 4th grade, a second 15-minute session is added," he says. "Our kids learn more at home on their computer spending just 15 minutes a week, once or twice a week, with an individual tutor than they do in 90 minutes with a group. In individual sessions, each child can proceed at his or her own pace."

5. Teach what children want to learn: "The former public school model of classrooms, desks, and textbooks does not attend to our lives in the 21st century," says Dr. Evie Levy Rotstein, director of the HUC-JIR New York School of Education. "To actively engage children, we need to respond to their questions, explore what matters most to them, and invite them to be part of the Jewish community."

Recognizing that children want to learn about themselves, Central Synagogue (CS) in Manhattan helps young learners to acknowledge their uniqueness through a series of family ceremonies which mark their progress along individual Jewish journeys. In 4th grade, students begin recording their personal journeys in a journal; parents also tell the stories behind their children's English and Hebrew names, and together they make "My Name Is…" T-shirts with Hebrew names on the front and acrostics on the back (each letter of the name representing a personal characteristic, such as N-neat; A-athletic; T-tall; E-excellent). Fifth grade students, parents, and clergy co-design a brit (sacred covenant) committing to their personal journeys; sixth graders and parents immerse themselves in learning at a weekend retreat where parents present children with their Torah portion booklets in front of the entire community. This personal approach to Judaism has had demonstrable results: Since 2010, CS religious school enrollment has increased by 20+%, and Confirmation class size has skyrocketed by 60+%.

6. "Experiment, and don't be afraid to fail," says Dr. Isa Aron, co-director of the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint URJ-HUC-JIR project that is partnering with 14 Reform congregations which are experimenting with new approaches to b'nai mitzvah preparation and observances, and will be offering the fruits of that learning to other congregations. "If you're afraid to fail, it will prevent you from taking risks or making the big changes that are sometimes the most beneficial," she says. "Take the freedom to explore new models. Then you can evaluate what works best and build on that. The key is to use what you learn from experiments to constantly realign your vision. And if things really don't work out, you can always start over."

Julie Schwartz is a freelance writer, public speaker, licensed New Orleans tour guide, and president of the New Orleans Chapter of Hadassah.