Sylvie Gordan and Noa Lewis are friends from temple. Sylvie, 10, lives in Beverly, and Noa, 11, in Gloucester, but on Tuesdays and Sundays, they find themselves in the same space at the Sylvia Cohen Family Learning Project at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.
On Tuesdays, it’s close to a 40-minute drive from the public school that Sylvie attends in Beverly, but it’s the only place that she gets to be with other Jews during the week. She knows only a couple of Jewish students at her school, and her teachers rarely teach Jewish history or mention Jewish holidays. But at SCFLP, she’s surrounded by community.
“I have a lot of friends here,” she said. “It’s not just sitting there and chanting Torah.”
“Yeah,” said Noa. “They make it interactive.”
This attitude does not reflect the image of the Hebrew schools that Phoebe Potts, director of family learning at SCFLP, remembers from her own childhood. “The parents would hold their nose and drop their kid off at the front of the synagogue and leave,” she recalled. “Like, ‘Look, kids, this is just something you have to do.’ ”
At SCFLP, it looks different. On the first Tuesday of the year, student ideas of kavod – respect – were listed on a poster sheet in a variety of children’s scrawls: “Don’t just say yes, invite them, too,” and “Be kind” and “Don’t take other people’s stuff.” Students sat in a circle together with Potts and her madrichim (teacher assistants) and played a game to refresh their memories on Hebrew numbers. When Potts told them what play they would soon start working on together – the story of Noach – the shouts of excitement could be heard in the next room.
As Potts defined it, SCFLP is not a Hebrew school in any traditional sense; it is a “joyful Jewish learning program,” grounded more in a spirit of love for a shared faith than in a desperation to ensure Jewish continuity.
“We’re not thinking about some Jewish future for them,” Potts said. “We’re thinking about their Jewish present.”
It may be supplemental education’s wavering attendance that has pushed toward this shift in thinking. Since 2006-2007, total enrollment in American supplementary Jewish schools has decreased at least 45 percent, and the number of schools has decreased at least 27 percent, according to an April 2023 report, “From Census to Possibilities,” by the Jewish Education Project. Hebrew schools across the country are struggling to keep their numbers up and their doors open, and so, rather than sticking with the strategies of the past, educators across the board are trying a new route: to instill joy and connection.
“My goal,” Rabbi Richard Perlman said of his conception of Temple Ner Tamid’s religious school in Peabody, “is to make sure that people don’t walk out the door and say ‘Oh, I hated that.’ ”
Ner Tamid and Ahavat Achim are not alone in this refocusing on the joy of being Jewish. Tracy Cranson, of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody, says, “We want our students to love being Jewish.” Einat Irelander of Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover said, “Our students come in with a smile and leave with an even wider one.” Rabbi Allison Peiser, educator at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, said, “[Our] primary goal is to have a positive association with Jewish identity and synagogue space, with some Jewish knowledge put in there.”
At Chabad of Peabody’s Hebrew School of the Arts, Raizel Schusterman emphasizes movement and art in her curriculums. Students gain a connection to Judaism through everything from cooking to racing around the classroom, organizing Hebrew letters.
“I feel like Jewish education really has one main goal,” she said. “And that goal … should be a love for Judaism. You should have joy in what you do. And you should know that there’s a G-d above you, who cares about you, and that you matter, that you have a purpose, and that you’re important.”
Since arriving at Temple Emanu-El in 2019, Rabbi Peiser has instituted a family learning program that gives parents an opportunity to engage with their children about what it means to be a Jewish adult. Peiser wanted to see the b’nei mitzvah process approached not as an isolated and individualized task, but rather, “as a family affair.
“People are seeking community more,” she said. “We are trying to foster those relationships, and encourage that as part of the religious school, so it’s being built-in for the parents as well as the kids.”
The incorporation of family and intergenerational programming into Hebrew school settings is a fairly new idea, and a somewhat radical one in a world where, increasingly, Jewish education and practice tends to happen in institutions rather than homes. According to the Jewish Education Project, even Jewish families that “still express pride in being Jewish” often choose to outsource traditional learning opportunities to schools and camps.
At Ahavat Achim, the school meets on Tuesdays and Sundays. On Sundays, both parents and students attend, sometimes learning together, sometimes learning in a parallel manner. On the opening Sunday this year, all the families learned pieces of text from Parshat Noach together. Naomi Gurt-Lind, the temple’s new Hebrew College rabbinic intern, led Torah study for parents, studying the same portion of text as the kids, who spent their time learning about and preparing a play about the story of the ark.
On Tuesdays, 4-7th graders like Sylvie Gordan participate in “Ivrit Chaverim,” (Hebrew friends), a program that brings in Jewish bubbies and zaydes to work with children on decoding Hebrew. Last year, Sylvie learned with Fern, a white-haired, smiling bubbie. When asked if she and Fern were friends, Sylvie grinned broadly. “Yes,” she said. “She would bring me gum … and she would tell me all about what’s going on in her life.” Sylvie was excited to get to know her new coach this year.
20 miles away, in Swampscott, the children and families of Shirat Hayam gathered after school one day in the temple Sukkah for “Pizza in the Hut.” Parents sat beside their kids as they built edible sukkahs, and Rabbi Michael Ragozin offered people the chance to say a blessing in the “hut.”
In all of these settings, supplemental religious educators are striving to give parents and children opportunities to be Jewish together, rather than apart.
“There’s no question that not just our children, but all of us, have some need for setting ourselves up for ‘the next normal’ as we begin to understand [COVID] going forward,” said Betsy Stone, a retired psychologist and author of a self-published book of essays, “Refuah Shlema: Reflections on Healing and Growth.”
“I think spiritual places are actually a really good place for people to learn how to process.”
In this vein, the Center for Jewish Education at Shirat Hayam does a lot of group work and project-based learning where students have opportunities to engage with each other. They make space for mindfulness exercises before they pray, said Janis Knight, director of the center, thus allowing them to connect Jewish spirituality to mindfulness practices that they see in their everyday lives.
“[Hebrew school] can play a role [in community building] by really working on socialization, and what it means to be a member of a class, what it means to be a member of a community,” said Stone. “At some basic level, I would say that communities are based on behavior and not based on just affiliation. So how do we help people understand … what that kind of behavior involves?”
In a time when children have lost years of social skills and development, having safe, unrushed, uninhibited spaces to explore and practice what it means to be in community with others is invaluable.
At CJE, Hebrew school is held on Tuesday afternoons and on Saturday mornings, during Shabbat. On these days, children enter the synagogue with the rest of the community, their parents and other adults who are going to services, or getting a cup of coffee before going to pray. At the door, they are greeted by name.
“They see the large community and the community sees them,” says Knight. “They feel their place in the larger community … and we know, from studies done on what makes kids resilient, one of the most important things is that they know that they are a part of a community and that they’re important to that community.”
For students, Hebrew schools provide a space to be Jewish in community, with room to think and process, and learn how to engage with each other.
Liora Stark, a first-grade student at Ner Tamid, seems to be a testament to this.
“I want to stay in Hebrew school forever!” she said. She talks about Hebrew school as a place where she sees her “besties” and was thrilled to share that she and the other students get to sit at the front of the sanctuary during services, “because we’re kids.”
And when she grows up, she wants to be a Hebrew school teacher herself. Θ