Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.
BOSTON – Religious schools, once feared to be in decline in the face of the growth of the Jewish day school movement, are enjoying a resurgence through innovations in structure and initiatives intended to raise the level of teaching.
“It’s not by accident that the overwhelming majority of Jews around the world select a form of Jewish education related most directly to synagogues,” said Daniel Margolis, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Newton. “People are looking for places that provide them with a total context, a link among all of the avenues that a congregation provides to its membership, all wrapped up in one place.”
But the built-in constituency of being part of a “package deal” within a congregation does not mean religious schools are merely getting by. Today’s schools are centers of both learning and fun, with more innovation than parents might expect. A glance at the educational offerings at Jewish institutions in Greater Boston makes one fact clear: Hebrew schools have moved well beyond where they used to be and are exhibiting far more diversity than ever before.
The religious school at Congregation Mishkan Tefila of Chestnut Hill made a difficult decision three years ago, changing its long-held schedule of three days a week to a two-day schedule to better fit in with the busy lives of today’s children. Education Director Stephen R. Simons said he wanted to ensure that the content and quality of the instruction would not be diminished.
“Students still attend five and a half hours of academic learning,” he told The Jewish Advocate. He noted that they had six hours of instruction in the past, but it was often diluted with assemblies and other programs. Now, those programs are part of a burgeoning “Yom Hug,” or “club day,” an option available twice a month on Thursdays. Students choose from a range of activities, including Jewish arts, choir, klezmer band, student newspaper and even Jewish cooking.
At Temple Israel in Sharon, Evelyn Briar has seen a different trend, with her 10-hour-a-week intensive program expanding. “The numbers seem to be increasing in terms of the number of kids willing to make the kind of commitment the intensive program requires,” she said. “Our incoming fifth-grade intensive class will have 18 kids – over a third of the class!”
Briar sees benefits to the intensive program beyond the additional instruction. “Because the kids are together for ten hours a week, it creates a chevra, a sense of community,” she said. She also noted that her students in the intensive program continue their Jewish education in both formal and informal ways into high school and beyond in much higher percentages than other students do.
It is exactly that desire for continuation that led to a surprising move at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, where the congregation has moved its sixth and seventh grades into its high school Havayah (“experience”) program.
“We really wanted our b’nai mitzvah students to see sixth and seventh grade, and the whole b’nai mitzvah process, as the beginning of their education,” said Rachel Happel, Havayah director. “Last year, we moved our seventh grade into the Havayah program, with their own separate track. We had almost a 75 percent retention rate for this year from that group.”
One major source of so much innovation across schools in this region is the increasing professionalization of the schools’ faculties. Many school directors hold advanced degrees in education or Jewish studies, and more are seeking out teachers who hold certifications in teaching. However, most schools do not rest on their laurels once their teachers are hired.
“We’re seeing much more training of teachers inside the schools, making these schools a serious place to work,” noted Marion Gribetz, director of institutional and professional development at the Bureau of Jewish Education.
Kesher, a unique, independent Jewish educational after-school program with branches in Cambridge and Newton, is at the forefront of professional development for its teachers. Prior to the start of the school year, the schools this week held an eight-day staff orientation. The Jewish Advocate visited this year’s training at the midway point, joining a session led by Allison Cook, Kesher’s head of teacher development.
“Everyone is capable of developing as a teacher, and it’s an expectation for the sake of the students that we do,” said Cook. She also made clear to her teachers that professional development is distinct from curricular work, with professional development focusing on the teachers’ abilities and career growth.
Cook is a regular member of the Kesher staff, visiting classrooms year-round to observe the teaching. She has a dual responsibility of looking for emerging issues across classrooms, as well as analyzing individual teachers’ needs. “It’s more formative than evaluative,” she told the teachers. “I want to support you and help you become better teachers in an ongoing way.”
While other schools may not have a staff member devoted to professional development, many spend considerable time on “in-service learning,” paid working days set aside for professional development. At Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, teachers will participate in seven in-service days throughout the year, all focused on one overarching theme. Jennifer Rudin-Sable, director of congregational learning at Kehillath Israel, has committed funds to send her staff to professional conferences as well.
“Our staff has worked all summer, meeting regularly for five weeks, mapping our curriculum for the entire year and lesson-planning as a team,” said Rudin-Sable. “That’s key. People can bounce ideas off of one another and work together to really create meaningful experiences in the classroom.”