Guest Post by Daniel Silverman

People involved in supplementary or congregational school education – administrators, teachers, parents and even learners – know that instructional time is short and precious.  When describing the challenge of time, I often revert to the following analogy.  In our school at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, learners begin a two day per week program in 2nd grade for a total of three and three quarter hours of instruction per week.  Multiply this number by our 26 week school year, and then by 6 years until graduation in 7th grade, and the total is 600 hours.  This is equivalent to the number of instructional hours that a child in Jewish day school will receive in the Jewish Studies half of their curriculum in one year.  This succinctly sums up the challenge of maximizing available time.

It is clear to me that it is near-impossible to impart everything we want a Jewish child to know in only 600 hours.  This means that educators must make careful selections regarding subject matter (as stated by Rabbi Aaron Starr), but it also means that methods of instruction are built around different goals – we are now seeking ways to create interest in Jewish life so that learners will continue to seek out their own Jewish experiences once they leave the walls of our institutions.

Participating in the first ReFrame Design Lab at the Jewish Theological Seminary only reinforced my commitment to this principle.  Seeking innovative, experiential and informal (pick your term) ways to convey subject matter – and more importantly, create positive associations – is at the heart of what ReFrame is seeking to accomplish.  As easy as it is to agree with this logic, the Design Lab also demonstrated how challenging it is to move from logic to reality.

Take, for example, the challenge of teaching Hebrew, specifically reading and decoding Hebrew.  Unlike topics such as Jewish holidays or Prayer, or even acquiring a spoken language, learning to read presents challenges for experiential education.  Furthermore, many supplementary school settings tie reading Hebrew to the Siddur, meaning that a learner might figure out the tune and words to a prayer orally long before their reading becomes proficient.  By attempting to double-up content, a natural action given limited time, educators are assuming that learners are achieving proficiency when they may in fact be falling behind.  Additionally, in settings where modern conversational Hebrew and what I will call Mishnaic Siddur Hebrew are both being taught, we are asking learners to acquire one-and-a-half languages, as there are differences between ancient and modern Hebrew that are challenging for children to discern.

Our ReFrame working group attempted to tackle some of these challenges.  We first discussed the pros and cons of using the Siddur as a Hebrew text and determined that this doubling-up likely did more harm than good.  We then were left with the question of what text to use instead.  Our brainstorm produced a few interesting results, yet nothing approached the level of experiential-ness that can be achieved in other subject matters.  We also acknowledged the challenge of teaching two different versions of Hebrew, though we did agree that focus can be placed on the commonalities in each dialect.

What might be some ways to take the principles of experiential education and apply them to reading and decoding Hebrew?  How can learners be assisted in working towards the acquisition of both Siddur Hebrew and modern Hebrew, all in an environment that engrains positive experiences and puts them on the path for continued Jewish engagement?


Daniel Silverman is Director of Education & Family Programming at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto

Prompt: How does Hebrew at camp reflect larger issues about Hebrew literacy and education?

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Writer: Cheryl Magen

Wordle - CMagenOne of the greatest criticisms of Jewish supplemental education has been its failure to teach Hebrew as an active, living language. Instead, the importance of actual language acquisition was subsumed by a focus on acquiring “siddur-Hebrew,” which left students unable to use Hebrew to communicate. This sort of supplemental Hebrew education was generally tied into a short window of time that children were available to continue their education in much the same format as their public/private school education. It consisted of classrooms, teachers, books, lesson plans, homework and tests. Although this model proliferated for decades, the expanding world of experiential education has much to add to the way we view learning.

Experiential education in the form of camps, youth groups and the like, has been extremely successful in transmitting knowledge and creating deep connections to Jewish living. However, experiential education generally existed in parallel with more traditional supplemental education, with very little crossover between them.  Merging the two has value not just in strengthening one modality of education, but in strengthening the holistic and year-round approach to Jewish learning and living, resulting in a more symbiotic relationship than it has in the past.

With regard to mastering Hebrew language skills, the optimal approach is to merge the two seasons (school year and summer) in order to reinforce the acquisition of language. Language is acquired from an early age by immersion, environment, repetition, Total Physical Response (TPR)[1] and motivated need.

TPR is a language acquisition strategy that emphasizes on the coordination of language and physical movement. TPR’s goal is to mimic the way young children first learn language, in that early interactions between parents and children often often took the form of speech from the parent followed by a physical response from the child. Thus, in TPR, instructors give commands to students in the target language, and students respond with whole-body actions.

The method is an example of the comprehension approach to language teaching. Listening serves a dual purpose: it is both a means of understanding messages in the language being learned, and a means of learning the structure of the language itself. Grammar is not taught explicitly, but is induced from the language input.

Learning a language through traditional supplemental education curricula is, by comparison, much harder, because it comes from the outside in. Sitting down to learn a language through vocabulary, grammar, reading and testing is a much harder and less effective way to learn a language, although such activities are certainly important components of the educational process.

However, TPR can be effectively used in a supplemental education environment, to achieve positive results. For example, TPR can be used in synagogue schools, which often emphasize siddur literacy, by using it as part of the choreography of prayer. Standing up, sitting down, bowing from the knees or waist, twisting side to side, kissing your fingers to touch a sefer Torah are all examples of total physical response. If we teach the movements along with the words and/or music, the learning can be deepened and reinforced.

Language acquisition must be organic, systemic and holistic and focus on the acquisition of everyday linguistic rubrics that are natural to communication. From a young age, we are taking in all the language we hear and go through a “quiet period” until we are ready to say words and then put them together into short phrases and then into complete sentences. The people around us however, are not changing the way they speak; full sentences are being expressed, not just one word at a time, or even two or three words at a time. This exposure to natural language patterns is what helps us learn even before we, ourselves, are ready to be verbally expressive.

The AviChai Foundation granted the National Ramah Commission support for 5 years to increase active Hebrew language usage in all the Ramah camps (8 resident camps, 3 day camps) in North America. The resulting program, known as Daber, was instituted in 2009. Through Daber, we learned essential language acquisition strategies, all of which are more broadly applicable and could easily be translated for use in the supplemental school setting. Some highlight’s of Daber’s work thus far include:

  • · Trained a group of Fellows to speak, infuse and inspire Hebrew throughout the learning environment
  • · Used  תבניות – language patterns. Emphasize the use of phrases and patterns to engender Hebrew speaking and not just peppering a word here and there throughout a sentence
  • · Encouraged repetition in activities, games, songs, תפילה, play, eating, competition and everyday routine
  • · Trained staff in all aspects of the materials and methodologies so consistency was achieved
  • · Challenged participants to use the תבניות as they were presented
  • · Created male and female cartoon characters (Hani and Rami) that came to life and only spoke Hebrew
  • · Engaged a Hebrew specialist at each site to spearhead the program and coordinate content
  • · Enlisted others who were already Hebrew speakers to be דבר חברי and support the program.
  • · Shared best practices as the program was in progress
  • · Organized ongoing check-ins and troubleshooting with the staff

There are very few remaining “Hebrew-speaking” camps – places which promote and expect routine activities to be conducted in Hebrew.[2] In these remaining experiential learning laboratories, the emphasis has shifted from vocabulary words (single nouns) to whole phrases that can be used in a variety of settings. Instead of “It is time to go to the אגם , אוכל חדר, זריף “ filling in the one Hebrew word, the phrase, “_________ ל ללכת זמן.” allows the learner to master a phrase that can be repeated and used many times a day, rather than just the one word that is specific to a particular incidence. Even if you do not know the word in Hebrew for where you want to go, it is better to learn the תבנית first and then fill in the noun later.

Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), a liberal Russian Jewish thinker and a leading Eastern European Jewish essayist, was one of the first to recognize the necessity of using Hebrew as a modern-day language to unite Jews all over the world.  The Daber program’s Hebrew work does just that – working to ensure that Jewish children in a number of environments can be united by the common bond of language.

The key to any initiative is buy-in and modeling from the senior staff of the organization as well as thorough staff training and ongoing support. If it is a priority for the senior management team and they are willing to learn alongside their participants, willing to make mistakes and be vulnerable, willing to have fun and laugh along the way, then language can be built into the environment in important and intentional ways. In order for educators and leaders to succeed, staff members need to be trained to understand what language acquisition principles are and what the core components for successful integration look like. Appendix A provides the “10 Commandments” of successful implementation of training techniques. When staff members across the board utilize the same approach, the consistency reinforces the way language is acquired.

Other helpful elements that reinforced Hebrew:

  • · Taught cheers and songs (ם’ למורא) that can be used and repeated in all aspects of the program
  • · Developed a culture of linguistic goals for each session, activity, and program. Everyone learns the same linguistic goal and uses it consistently. No new program or learning unit is introduced without the linguistic goal being at the center of the objectives
  • · Provided resource materials (In Hebrew and English) to educators on etymology and history of Hebrew words and phrases that would be interesting and inspiring
  • · ( ת’עבר של רגע) Prepared a דברון “newsletter” to be distributed twice a week in all camps. This included facts about Israel, sports, camp, trivia, puzzles etc. again emphasizing the phrases and patterns (see Appendix B)
  • · Created card games to teach linguistic patterns and reinforce other basic vocabulary (3-4-5 and רבעות)

In 2012, The Jewish Learning Venture in the Philadelphia area, requested that the Daber method be taught city-wide to teachers in supplemental schools to begin to infuse those schools with some of the principles that were successful in the camp setting. Several of the schools whose Directors of Education were committed to the goal of Hebrew infusion were successful in utilizing the Daber approach. Although these supplemental schools will always have the challenge of time constraints, Hebrew language is the basis for Jewish education and must remain high on the list of educational priorities. In the future, a partnering program for these supplemental schools could help to ensure greater access to the language-acquiring lessons that Daber has yielded thus far.


Cheryl MagenCheryl Magen is on the education staff at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, serves as the educational consultant to the Ramah camps and is Director of the Master’s in Camp Administration and Leadership at Touro University Nevada. The official prayer book of Camp Ramah in the Poconos is Siddur Lev Yisrael, authored by director emeritus Cheryl Magen.




[1]  TPR is based on Dr. James J Asher’s Total Physical Response.

[2] The Ramah camps along with the oldest group at Olin Sang Ruby Union institute (OSRUI), a URJ camp in Oconomowoc, WI, are some of the only camps (still operating) where Hebrew is expected to be spoken.


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Prompt: How do we leverage the creativity of emerging adults deeply impacted by experiential education towards the future?

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Writer: Rabbi Josh Feigelson

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

~ Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Emerging Adulthood: Finding One’s Place

The blessing and curse of emerging adulthood is rooted in some basic biology.

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By age 18, human beings are at their physical peak—fully developed, ready to exercise power, ready to reproduce. But the pre-fontal cortex of the brain—the part that enables us not to act on every impulse, but to consider the consequences of our actions—isn’t fully developed until age 25. Add to this mix that most young adults don’t have young children or aging parents to care for, and you find the description that Jeffrey Jensen Arnett once offered at a conference I attended: emerging adults are at the height of their physical power and the low-point of their social responsibility.

The blessing of this reality is that the whole world seems open to many emerging adults (setting aside for the moment the real socioeconomic and political constraints they face). These are years of possibility and experimentation, often undertaken with a high degree of energy, seriousness, and skill. Consider where we find emerging adults: they are professional athletes, musicians, congressional staffers, corporate junior associates, Teach For America corps members, and social entrepreneurs. The things they can achieve are extraordinary.

But that very openness can also be a curse. The world can seem so open that these years can result in aimlessness, as emerging adults try out various career possibilities and relationships, but don’t commit to any one of them in particular, paralyzed by FOMO (fear of missing out). In the wake of the Great Recession, the image of the college graduate living at his parents’ home without a job is one that too easily comes to mind when we think of emerging adults.

Somewhere between the blessing and the curse lies the driving force of emerging adulthood: the trick of finding one’s place in the family of things. Our task, as their professional, educational, and personal mentors, is to help them find that place. If we can do that, we can empower them to bring their intelligence and creativity into communal life.

Mentoring Emerging Adults

Emerging Jewish adults are increasingly the products of experiential education. They have been campers and camp counselors, Birthright Israel participants, youth group members, engaged in various Hillel initiatives, and potentially involved in ongoing experiential education through communal living programs like AVODAH and Moishe House, community learning, prayer, and activism. This is a world many of them know, a world in which many of them are comfortable.

Experiential education, which partakes of certain characteristics of formal education but rejects others, aligns with one of the key realities of emerging adults: They are ambivalent about institutions. On the one hand, they rightly sense that legacy institutions frequently are more motivated by concerns about institutional self-preservation than mission or innovation. This leads to suspicion of institutional life. On the other, they are adept at navigating the institutional demands of large institutions (most notably universities and often large corporations), and some easily identify with institutional life.

All of this reflects the central motion of emerging adulthood, from what theorist Sharon Daloz Parks calls probing to tested commitment. The probing stage is one we recognize: trying out majors in college (even trying out colleges, or trying out time away from school); experimenting with internships, social networks, interests, romantic partners; testing professions, living arrangements, relationships. But eventually that probing settles down, and a firmer sense of commitment develops. “In the period of tested commitment,” Parks writes, “the self has a deepened quality of at-homeness and centeredness—in marked contrast to the ambivalence and dividedness of the earlier period.”[i]

We can choose to ignore this period of probing commitment, waving our hands as we say, “Our organization doesn’t have time for people who aren’t fully committed.” But that would be a mistake. Emerging adults have a great deal to offer: creativity unbounded by the constraints many older adults have; exposure to skills, theories, and approaches that they’ve learned in college; energy and enthusiasm. All of these can add a tremendous amount to our complementary schools, camps, and other educational settings.

Of course there are risks as well. Unboundedness by the past can mean that emerging adults aren’t aware of history. They may wind up reinventing the wheel. They may come to look at anything old as being obsolete, when in fact there’s plenty of old stuff (like Torah, for instance) of tremendous value.

The transition from probing to tested commitment is the work of mentoring, a word that is probably over-used these days. Mentoring isn’t a small thing. It is more than the occasional lunch or phone date with a senior colleague. Parks defines mentoring this way: “an intentional, mutually-demanding, and meaningful relationship between two individuals, a young adult and an older, wiser figure who assists the younger person in learning the ways of life.”[ii] A quality mentoring relationship creates the firm yet flexible space for emerging adults to probe, test, reflect, and develop a firmer sense of purpose and self, all the while developing respect for experience and tradition. That is, mentoring is the way young adults find their place in the family of things. Mentoring relationships also have positive effects on the older mentors as well, keeping them fresh, opening their eyes and ears. Older adults, too, need to reflect on their place in the world.

As Parks writes, the greatest success comes in not only one-on-one mentoring relationships, but developing mentoring environments, in which a network of mentors and mentees create a collective space in which to reflect together. Building such individual and communal relationships yields greater resilience, capacity for listening, and imagination, on both the personal and organizational levels.

We hear a lot these days about the crisis of twenty-somethings, the disconnect between older and younger generations. First I’d say that such talk of crisis is, as usual, overblown. But there is what to pay attention to. If we want to engage emerging adults in our communities and institutions, we have to do so not with the short-term aim of preserving our institutions, but with the more genuine aim of listening to and welcoming them into communal life. As individual educators and professionals, we need to become mentors. As a community, we need to develop an ethic and culture of mentorship, in which we welcome and value the gifts that all of us, young and old alike, bring to our collective work.

Rabbi Josh FeigelsonRabbi Josh Feigelson is educational director at Ask Big Questions, and before that served as Campus Rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel. Ordained by YCT Rabbinical School, Josh also holds a BA from Yale University in music. He is currently working on a PhD at Northwestern about higher education and American Jewish life.



[i]Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000). 69.

[ii]Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. 127.

How Would You ReFrame Jewish Education?


Why ReFrame Jewish Education?


Leveraging the Time Honored Approach of Experiential Education

By: Zachary Lasker, Ed.D.

Setting: Camp Ramah in California

Time: Nightfall, mid-summer

Each year a haunting melody ignites a distinctly familiar tingle; the feeling is a clashing mix of sorrow and serenity. This melody is invoked just a couple times each year – between renditions of Avinu Malkeinu, Oseh Shalom, and Eli Eli – to tell a story of mourning.  It sweeps through the outdoor chapel in which I sit with over 800 people for whom I care deeply, and bounces off the flashlights and paper-bag lanterns that dot the aisles.  We sit on the ground, inevitably damp, and are carried into a day during which we ponder the destructive nature of sinat chinam (senseless hatred) and commit instead to tikkun olam (repair of the world).  The melody is imprinted on my soul, along with the important messages of the holiday. It is Tisha b’Av, the annual day during which we recall a few distinct tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people.  …and I’m willing to bet that “camp Jews” are amongst the only non-Orthodox in North America who can tell you about it.

For 18 straight summers I had the honor of working at a Jewish summer camp. Camp is where I came to embrace my professional journey in Jewish education. When I was a 19-year old counselor a supervisor referred to me as a “Jewish educator,” and I almost fell over. Jewish educators were the day school teachers who called my parents to report that I was misbehaving in class. Jewish educators were the Hebrew high school teachers who tried in vain to teach me the definition of a shoresh and who marked me down for the incorrect conjugation of verbs in hefeel (still haven’t figure that one out). How could this supervisor possibly mistake me for one of “them”? I was a camp counselor! I organized relay races, broke up fights, hosted camp fires, and told bedtime stories. I also taught kids the prayers of the Shachrit service, explained and modeled the customs of Shabbat, got my campers excited to lead birkat ha’mazon, and figured out clever ways to sneak Hebrew words into our spirited cheers. My camp had a very clear mission to engage kids in the ritual of prayer, the use of Hebrew, the observance of Shabbat, acts of tikkun olam, and a commitment to Israel. I realized that my bluff had been called, and that like it or not I was indeed a Jewish educator.

I doubt I will ever find a job as fulfilling as directing a Jewish camp. In thxc at setting my audience was pretty captive. Kids enjoyed their independence from the pressures at home, made lifelong friendships, and really got into the groove of Jewish living. I was lucky to work with some of the most creative, passionate Jewish educators who – literally – worked from dawn through dusk to create a safe, vibrant Jewish educational community. I had it easy, despite episodes of homesickness, challenges of bullying, anxious parents, and some pretty nasty outbreaks of illness (the 2009 season affectionately became known as “Swine ‘09” due to a norovirus/swine flu epidemic). My campers and staff were hungry for the Jewish learning and living that the summer provided.

Between summers I spent a lot of time visiting the synagogues, Hebrew schools, and day schools which the kids in my catchment area attended for purposes of recruitment. This also provided a great opportunity to connect with respected colleagues and to see my kids in their year round settings. Visits to the Hebrew schools grew increasingly discouraging over time. While these schools were run by some fantastic educators, the cards seemed to be stacked against them. The regularity of class time diminished, advancements in technology and customer service presented wholly new expectations from children and their families that seemed unconquerable, and trends in individual and family identity widened the diversity of the children in a way that made it hard to establish common ground. These challenges diluted the quality of these schools and made substantive learning nearly impossible.

I began to feel “guilty” that I had it so easy at camp and felt that I was falling short in two specifics ways. First, it seemed that my fellow camp directors and I had an opportunity to extend the power of the summer experience to keep our campers and staff engaged in Jewish learning throughout the year with a similar amount of ruach. If (most) kids love camp, why restrict its magic to the summer – especially at a point in time where social networks and technology, the ease of travel, and the power of imagination are tools to bridge distances and convert almost any idea into reality.  I completely missed the boat when my phone calls to these schools focused solely on scheduling a recruitment visit, instead of  a conversation about how we could work together to engage Jewish families.

Second, I felt that we camp educators had a responsibility to study our approach to Jewish education with the goal of identifying those techniques that can be applied to other settings of education in order to achieve similarly powerful results. In short, how could we help take the best that Jewish camp has to offer through our experiential approach to education and leverage it in year round settings?

Jewish camps with a serious commitment to a fun-filled education yield results that look similar to what Hebrew schools aim to achieve. Studies have shown an association between camp and a commitment to lifelong Jewish practice, support of Israel, synagogue/community involvement, and Jewish leadership (Keysar & Kosmin, 2004) (Sales, 2011). Anecdotally, I am motivated by experiences like the one with Tisha b’Av.  Ask a camper or staff member who has observed Tisha b’Av a couple of times at camp to tell you about this holiday. Okay, so the first response you’ll get is likely: “That’s the day when we can’t eat, archery is cancelled, and we have to pray more.” Press them, and they will tell you about the reading of Eicha, the rituals of sitting on the ground and refraining from joyous music, the destruction of the Temple, and the importance of fighting sinat chinam. This seems like a learning outcome that any respectable Jewish educator dreams of achieving.

One primary reason for successes like Tisha b’Av is the staff members who work at camps like Ramah. From the trained professional Jewish educators who serve as directors and lead programmers to the emerging adults who serve as counselors – camp staff eat, live, and breathe experiential education. They get what it means to facilitate these experiences, they know how to set serious learning objectives using techniques that are active and fun, they honor the importance of community and friendship in the equation, they are emotional and spirited, and they blend Judaism into daily living in a way that is (Kress, 2013).  Most of them are summer-only staff members, and we must ask how more can be recruited, trained, and empowered to translate their work from camp to schools.

It was incredibly hard to leave the camp world in pursuit of new professional challenges, but I am excited to be part of a team at The Jewish Theological Seminary who are committed to supporting the educators who are entrusted to steward congregational learning.  Currently we are trying to reframe the approach in these schools to one that is more camp-like, or experiential, in nature. While I work with some truly awesome colleagues at JTS, we know that the best ideas for how to reframe our approach will come from the practitioners in the field who run and teach in these schools and/or who work at camp. Through our ReFrame initiative we will work with a broad scope of education leaders to more explicitly integrate the universal attributes of experiential Jewish education into congregational settings. We are bring a diverse set of stakeholders to the table so that what occurs in congregations will connect with other experiences through which families might navigate.  Social media and online platforms will allow us to connect with anyone interested in this endeavor, and we will also seek out certain school to serve as sites for action-research where we can design, pilot, and learn from new models.

Dr. Zach LaskerDr. Zachary Lasker is Director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education for The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California. Zach holds a doctorate in education leadership from the University of California at Los Angeles and a Masters in Education from the American Jewish University.




Works Cited

Cohen, S. M., & Kotler-Berkowitz, L. (2004). The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults’ Jewish Identity. Jerusalem: Hebrew University.

Keysar, A., & Kosmin, B. (2004). Research Findings on the Impact of Camp Ramah. New York: National Ramah Commission.

Kress, J. (2013). ReFrame White Paper: What is Experiential Jewish Education? New York: JTS.

Sales, A. (2011). Limud by the Lake Revisited. New York: Avi Chai Foundation.

Prompt: How Might Families Navigate Through the Range of Jewish Experiences to Secure a Robust Education?

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Writer: Dr. Gil Graff

Wordle - GGraffFrom the Exodus narrative to Moses’s exhortation to teach successive generations, the foundational text of Jewish life instructs parents to enable children to internalize the legacy of Torah.  Commentators have pointed out that Torah is identified in the Biblical text as morashah (legacy), suggesting the need for action on the part of the legatee, rather than yerushah (inheritance) a word denoting transfer to the beneficiary absent any required action on his/her part.  One cannot “inherit” Torah; each individual—parents and children—must make it her/his own.

The Talmud places the origins of school-based Jewish education in the first century, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple.  The Talmudic account (Baba Batra 21a) includes a fascinating turn of phrase.  In referencing Joshua ben Gamla, the community leader who is reported to have initiated schooling because there were too many households in which parents lacked the requisite learning to educate their children, the Talmud notes: “b’ram (nonetheless: though the word can also be translated as ‘accordingly’) he (Joshua ben Gamla) is remembered for good.”  Put otherwise, Jewish education is ideally, conveyed and internalized in the home.  In the face of the erosion of capacity on the part of parents to directly “deliver,” however, “alternative frameworks” are laudable.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century: the universe of Jewish education has expanded beyond books and schools to include camps, youth groups, museums, Israel experiences, movies, social media, digital games and more.  It is this proliferation of modalities and settings that calls for “navigation.”  As with every aspect of children’s education, well-considered parental choices in Jewish education are vital.

In reflecting on these choices, the four “commonplaces” of education—the learner, milieu, subject and teacher—framed by the late Professor Joseph Schwab serve as a helpful navigational device.  Engaging each learner in a manner most appropriate to his/her needs is, by no means original to Schwab.  Its importance was recognized millennia ago in the Book of Proverbs and emphasized by John Dewey early in the twentieth century.  The learner is a central actor in educative experiences, but s/he interfaces with other commonplaces, observes Schwab.

The milieu within which children experience Jewish living and learning is ever-changing.  That said, in the United States of the twenty-first century there are pervasive values, and structures within which children spend their time that must be considered in thinking about Jewish education.  For those (overwhelming majority) of Jewish children of school age not attending a Jewish day school, there is both a “regular” school day that runs more-or-less 8:00 a.m.—3:15 p.m. and a whole host of extra-curricular activities competing for time and attention.  A (small) minority of Jewish students is prepared to engage in Jewish learning experiences on a consistent basis several late afternoons/evenings per week, plus weekends.

In this connection, several observations are in order.  Though substantial numbers of children (or their parents) may not be prepared to dedicate multiple blocks of time on a weekly basis to Jewish educational pursuits, opportunity for the same ought not be “written off.”  If, for example, there are a few congregations in a reasonably proximate geographic zone (and, not unlikely Jews in that zone who are not affiliated with any of these congregations), there might be a group of families interested in a program of study offering more time-on-task than that of any set of learning experiences provided by a single, area congregation.  Exploration of consortia of Jewish educational providers—extending beyond synagogues to include JCCs, day schools and other area resources—can, potentially offer expanded and enriched opportunities for broader and deeper Jewish educational engagement, meeting the needs of diverse learners.

The above is noteworthy in reflecting on parents’ navigating Jewish educational experiences, as such initiatives can be “market driven.”  Consortium arrangements among clusters of Jewish educational providers are, already, in place.  Recently, I was invited to speak at a well-established, Conservative congregation of nearly 1000 families.  During a question and answer session, several congregants wondered aloud why every synagogue needs to independently operate an “after school” Jewish education program.  In Los Angeles, where a “Concierge for Jewish Education” helps connect families with programs meeting their particular needs and interests, inquiries for particular sorts of programs not yet available in the community have led to various providers filling the void.  It is a plastic period in complementary Jewish education, and parent “seekers” and advocates can help shape the landscape of Jewish educational opportunities.

Rabbis and educators are, by and large, attuned to the milieu.  Challenged by the reality that many, many children at his congregation are active in a Saturday morning sports league (notwithstanding the availability of a Sunday alternative) one prominent rabbi I know initiated a one hour, Shabbat morning synagogue experience for children (welcome to come in sports uniform) and their parents. The program was scheduled so as to enable timely arrival at the morning’s “main event.”  Recognizing the mid-week challenge of late afternoon traffic congestion—an impediment to consistent attendance at synagogue school—another congregation conducts synchronous, teacher guided, computer-based instruction as an educational option.  Other congregations have arranged “at home” Hebrew tutoring with an eye to 100% attendance on the part of each student, and a likelihood of heightened parental involvement.  In Los Angeles, pioneering work is underway in deployment of digital, game-based learning as a vehicle of Jewish education.  Each such strategy represents a creative response to the milieu and an effort to meet learners “where they are.”

Schwab’s commonplaces include special attention to the subject of curricular focus.  “Judaism” is not only a body of knowledge but a way of life; the subject calls for the acquisition of skills and their application; for identity development as well as cognitive learning.  That said, visions of the educated Jew vary.  Developing such a vision with respect to children’s education stands as a parental decision that walks hand-in-hand with how Judaism is expressed in the home.  “Robust” education is, in the final analysis, defined by the parent-navigator of Jewish educational experiences.  As in other dimensions of learning and growth, parents’ vision of what it means to be an educated Jew and their aspirations for their child(ren) relative to that vision will significantly guide educational choices.

Jewish educational institutions have, in turn, increasingly refined and clarified their vision and mission.  Over a recent, fifteen year period, BJE-Los Angeles worked with forty congregations to help them articulate clear mission statements with regard to complementary Jewish education and to align educational experience with well-defined goals.  The Experiment in Congregational Education, NESS and other such initiatives have called upon and enabled institutions to more clearly identify the aims of the learning experiences they provide.  On this backdrop, parents can more effectively explore and access those Jewish educational experiences that most closely reflect the parental vision of Jewish education.

Among Schwab’s commonplaces the teacher stands alongside the learner, milieu and subject.  Teachers are mediators of knowledge and sources of (Jewish) wisdom. With information so readily available today, the role of the teacher in helping learners make sense of data is increasingly significant.  When it comes to Jewish education, it is often the teacher who translates knowledge into experience.  Shabbat, tefillah (prayer) and hesed (acts of kindness) may, for example, be transformed from words or ideas to lived experience through teacher-designed and/or implemented curricula.  That teachers possess the tools and reflective wisdom to connect learners, milieu and subject is vitally important; it is a reality that drives significant investment in teacher education, pre- and in- service “Robust” Jewish educational institutions are characterized by ongoing staff development.

The history of Jewish education in the United States is marked by an ever-expanding array of frameworks for and approaches to Jewish learning.  A multiplicity of options makes for considerable choice.  The parental responsibility for Jewish education expressed in the instruction to “teach them diligently” is today exercised through carefully selecting—with well-conceived vision and consideration of learner, milieu, subject and teacher—among the myriad Jewish educational experiences available to children and families. As we are reminded in Avot (5.26): “According to the labor is the reward.”


Dr. Gil Graff is the Executive Director of Builders for Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles since 1993. During his tenure, BJE has earned a national reputation for innovation and excellence in advancing the mission of encouraging partnership in, enhancing the quality of, and promoting access to Jewish education. He is also Professor of Jewish history at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA.

Prompt: What Forms of Challenge and Support Create an Ongoing Commitment to Excellence and Innovation?

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Writer: Cyd B. Weissman

Wordle - CWeissmanNaming and Assessing Learner Outcomes for the ReFrame Initiative

Even the best of congregational schools, like those highlighted in Jack Wertheimer’s 2009 book, Schools That Work, lack a practice for naming and assessing learner outcomes. Wertheimer found that assessment has generally been a subjective random activity guided by individuals’ instincts or by publishers. Connection between a congregation’s vision and what counts as learner success is rare.  This finding led Wertheimer to recommend that, “all educational efforts, would do better if  they were clear about their goals and honest with themselves about how well they are succeeding in attaining their stated goals (p. 33).

During the past four years, The Coalition of Innovating Congregations, over thirty congregations in New York, has taken Wertheimer’s recommendation seriously. Working with The Jewish Education Project and the Experiment in Congregational Education, The Coalition experimented with a method for assessing learner outcomes aligned to their congregations’ visions. This practice, referred to as Whole Person Learning and Assessment, I believe, can be useful for the ReFrame project. You will want to answer the question, “Is the ReFrame Project successful?”


What Counts as Success?

Coming to agreement on what counts as success is challenging. Without an outside body having the authority to dictate measures, in the way state and federal governments do in public education, a diverse group representing multiple perspectives can be mired in a motley crew of outcomes. The Coalition Congregations began their practice of Whole Person Learning and Assessment by excavating essential documents of authority, their educational vision statements.

Educational teams within congregations unpacked their visions with questions like: “What are the main themes expressed? Is there one component that ties together the various ideas of our vision? If we were successful, what would we observe in learners today and in the future?”

Answers to these questions enabled educational teams to articulate priority goals. These priorities in turn provided a focus on what is most important to accomplish with learners. In a moment of candor, we have to say we can’t achieve the laundry list most often expected of congregations. Priorities are hard to set, but once in place, guide decisions about the learning experience and the learner outcomes.


Samples priority goals have included:

• Learners will be on a journey of applying Torah to daily life.

• Learners will be on a spiritual journey rooted in Jewish tradition.

• Learners will be in an ongoing dynamic relationship with Am Yisrael and/or Eretz Yisrael/ Medinat Yisrael.

• Learners will be on a journey of mending the world guided by a Jewish moral compass.


A few worthy, reasonable, long-term outcomes for learners — priority goals derived from vision – equip leaders with a “north star” for making decisions. Replacing an unruly list of disparate outcomes, priority goals focus on long-term lived outcomes. (LOMED Handbook for Powerful Learning Experiences, 2011)


Long Term Priorities Guide Short-term Measurable Outcomes

Priority Goals tend to be articulated in terms of life journeys. Educators can be left with a nagging question, “Do I have to wait until my learners are thirty years old before knowing if we were successful?” The answer is simply no. Rather, we see Coalition Congregations using long-term, life-transferable goals to guide the articulation of short-term (e.g. for a unit) outcomes.

Short-term outcomes intended to support a person’s life journey require attending not just to the mind or the feelings of a learner, but the whole of a person.  Steven M. Cohen points out that “sociologists of religious identity speak of the three B’s: Belief, Behavior, and Belonging” (Cohen, 2006). Knowledge surely serves as an indispensable basis for the three B’s. Therefore short-term outcomes for learners need to be articulated within a whole person framework.

Short-term whole person outcomes address growth in Knowledge (K), Doing (D), Believing/Valuing, (B) and Belonging (B).  Whole Person Learning and Assessment honors the personal alchemy of each individual. Some individuals, for example, connect mostly through action/doing, while others connect through knowledge or relationships. We’ve heard educators reflect that prior to using the whole person spectrum for naming outcomes that they tended to focus on one or two areas, like knowledge and values. The whole person framework effectively expands the focus for teaching and assessment.


A Guide for Setting Whole Person Outcomes

Educators identify short-term outcomes for:      Educators ask when creating an experiential unit:

KnowledgeNames the essential knowledge and

skills that learners will acquire in a

unit so they can participate

in a real life Jewish experience or practice.

What knowledge and skills areneeded to participate in a real life experience grounded in Judaism?
DoingNames the authentic lived

experience grounded in Judaism that learners will engage in.

What real life experiences grounded in Judaism will learners participate in and shape?
Belief/ValuesNames the core belief and/or values

that students will be able to explore

and articulate according to their own

perspectives and understandings.

How will learners use their knowledgeand reflect on their experience to

express emerging beliefs and values?

BelongingNames the opportunities for caring,

purposeful connections to others,

to God, and to Am Yisrael.

How will learners build long lasting and caring relationships in the community/with God?


KDBB enables teachers, in conversation with one another, to name markers of success that speak to the whole of the learner. Educational teams also often work with learners to set measurable outcomes for a unit of study. Educators begin the conversation with questions like: “What relationships do you want to build? Describe the Jewish life practice you want to try. What are you passionate about? What questions do you have from your daily life?”

Short-term whole person outcomes are like mile markers on a journey telling educators, learners and educational designers how far they’ve gone and what’s ahead. Every participant in a learning and change process needs to answer “Where am I going and how far have I traveled?”
”How do we need to adjust course?”

Sample: Ten year old learner,  Short Term Outcomes- Priority Goal:  a Child’s Spiritual Journey

Knowing Doing Believing/Valuing Belonging
*Uses key vocabulary of Jewish blessing at designated times to explore and express gratitude (keva) 

*Name the stories of key people in Jewish tradition express gratitude to God in their own words (kavanah)

*Uses brachot at fixed times within the learning experiences and independently outside of fixed situations 


* Expresses what it is like to be in conversation with God 

*Explores the benefit and challenge of using brachot in daily life and within community


*Talks to God at bedtime using her/his own language and the language of tradition 

*Regularly meets with teens and seniors to share the experience of expressing gratitude to and talking to God with fixed blessings and personal conversation


How Can Growth Be Documented Over Time?

Once short-term outcomes are articulated educators then select assessment tools and prompts to collect data. Assessment tools include journals, blogs, video essays, recorded interviews and online portfolios. These kinds of tools capture the full range of learner outcomes. A journal, for example, can document a learner’s knowledge, action/doing, expressed values/beliefs, and growing relationships/belonging. Educators often give learners a choice about what tool to select. The role of learner choice in naming outcomes and assessment tools can’t be underestimated.

We’ve seen in New York that assessment tools like journals and blogs are well suited for documenting events and fostering reflection that is at the core of meaning making. A collection of these tools creates a portfolio for a child’s growth over time. One Conservative congregation in Westchester taught parents how to create portfolios of their children’s Jewish journey for a year. Children were given “Jewish teddy bears” to take with them when they celebrated holidays and did mitzvot. Parents photographed their children and reflected with their children. ( One could imagine the portfolios showed growth and became precious family artifacts.

Assessment tools are incomplete without prompts. Prompts are questions, sentence starters or instructions created by educators so that learners can express their growth and learning over time. Each short-term outcome for a unit should have a prompt to focus data collection and reflection.


10 year old Sample: Short Term Outcomes- Priority Goal: Child’s Spiritual Journey

Use a Journal and answer the following questions throughout the unit

Knowing Doing Believing/Valuing Belonging
Prompt: Describe the times you used three brachot. Use the words of blessing in your description.Prompt: in your own words tell how Hannah and

Moses expressed gratitude from their heart.

Prompt: Place in your journal four photos of times you used brachot to express gratitude. Explain when and why you used a particular blessing. 


Prompt: Your parents or friends may ask why you are experimenting with adding brachot to your life. Explain what it is like to talk with God. Share how Hannah, &Moses or the senior or teen you meet with  also spoke to God. Explain the challenge & the benefit of saying brachot regularly.  What questions are do you have about this practice that you can ask them? Prompt:  What have you taken away from the time you’ve spent with the seniors and teens? Create a series of photos, songs or drawings that capture their experience with talking to God and expressing gratitude.How will you keep the conversation going with God? With the seniors? Teens?


Learning from the Assessment

Educators often have a “sense” of how well a group is learning. Personal observations are important, but not sufficient to guide educational plans or to enable learners to see their own growth over time. Documentation and analysis works to confirm or challenge teacher observations. Documentation also enables an educator to use what is learned to inform plans for future experiences. Vivid evidence of growth enables learners to mark their progress and set new goals.


When reviewing learner products, educators ask three critical questions:

1. How do you know if your learners are growing and reaching identified short-term outcomes?


2. What can you learn from the patterns of how individuals and/or groups are reaching short-term outcomes?


3. What can you learn from their journeys that will inform your teaching?

• How can you help learners get closer to the destination?

• What changes might you need to make in what you do?


Reflecting on the work of learners is a team sport. We see educational teams helping one another discover how close or far learners are from reaching the outcomes. And then they work together to reshape the learning experience to better reach outcomes or recognize that the outcomes require editing.

We see children and parents appreciate visible meaningful demonstration of learning. It kills the word “nothing” when the question is asked “what did you learn today?”


Not Easy, but Possible and Valuable

Whole Person Learning and Assessment is a methodology that is alive and well in New York in Conservative Congregations like Park Avenue Synagogue, Hollis Hills Jewish Center, Temple Israel Center of White Plains, and Temple Beth Sholom of Roslyn. These are just a few examples of congregations that have dramatically changed their assessment practice over the last few years.

To do this they have created teams of educators who have learned and used this method of assessment in their own teaching. These leadership teams in turn work with the rest of the staff to create short-term outcomes, collect data and reflect on them to direct teaching and learning. Educators in these congregations meet regularly for ongoing professional learning.

These congregations report dramatic cultural change. Educators now have shared language and direction about what counts as success. They use these outcomes to shape the learning experience. Learners and leaders have evidence of growth, now, not some time long in the future.

What I have shared, I hope, can help educators and designers respond to the question: “Is the ReFrame Successful?” The Whole Person Framework will enable you to say with confidence, “These are the ways children are growing in knowledge, beliefs/values, lived action and relationships. And these are the areas we need to adjust.” You can also say to Jack Wertheimer, “We are clear about our goals and honest with ourselves about how well we are achieving them.”


Your thoughts:

1. What long term goals does your congregation set for learners?

2. What evidence do you collect now to show that learners are growing toward those goals?

3. In what ways would it be helpful to attend to outcomes that include: Knowing, Doing, Believing/Valuing and Belonging? What additional important domains do you imagine?

4. What kind of professional learning/support would you need to deepen your practice of learner assessment?

5. What evidence will you take that the ReFrame is working in your community?

6. Are you interested in learning more about Whole Person Learning and Assessment?




Download for free:

Webinars on Noticing:

LOMED Handbook. /resources



Cohen, S. (2006) “What We Should Know About Jewish Identity” Retrieved from:

LOMED: Handbook for Powerful Learning Experiences (2011) The Jewish Education Project, The Experiment In Congregational Education, and the Leadership Institute of Hebrew College and The Jewish Theological Seminary, funded by UJA-Federation of New York.

Wertheimer, J. (2009) Schools That Work: What We Can Learn From Good Jewish  Supplementary Schools, p. 33. Avi Chai Foundation.


Cyd B. Weissman, is the director, Innovation in Congregational Learning, for The Jewish Education Project where she leads a team to support the creation of Jewish learning environments that positively nurture the lives of learners. Cyd also works with the Leadership Institute, a joint program of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the partnership is designed to create a landscape of congregational education that nurtures the lives of Jewish learners.

Prompt: How are we preparing complementary school teachers in the 21st century?

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Writer:  Gila Hadani Ward

Wordle - GHWardIntroduction

Integration of experiential learning is a growing trend in complementary schools.  Whether it is called “creating Jewish memories,” “camp inspired learning” or some other catchphrase, the idea of connecting Jewish learning to Jewish life is becoming more of a priority in the synagogue school setting.  This represents a significant paradigm shift for schools, synagogues and most pointedly for the school faculty.  What teachers don’t often understand is that integrating experiential learning and activities into a school’s curriculum can be seamless and unbelievably rewarding but it requires a great amount of preparation and a great deal of thought needs to go into the preparation and execution of learning plans.

This white paper will discuss how teachers need to be trained and prepared to meet this challenge and to succeed in making an impact on their students.


Professional Learning

The idea of professional learning is not new.  It has been an essential and often overlooked component of complementary school education for many years.  However, as the expectations that synagogues hold for its teachers change, synagogues need to be prepared to support its vision with professional learning.  Professional learning in this setting does not mean a random seminar with a guest “specialist” teaching in a frontal manner.  Professional learning should be ongoing with a set of desired outcomes and with consistent follow up and reflection.

At Temple Beth Sholom, as our school changes and evolves, so too have we asked the teachers to take this journey with us.  As such, we made a choice to embed weekly professional learning into the schedule of our Religious School teachers.   For one hour each week, teachers are asked to think about the classroom learning, the students and their families.  We rarely talk about logistics, report cards or who will supply challot, grape juice or any other food symbolic of the next Jewish holiday.  There are other meetings and times for those conversations.  Professional learning time has become just that – a time to focus on the learning agenda that has been set.

It is important that a complementary school be clear in its learning outcomes for the faculty with professional learning.  First, it helps the teachers understand what is expected of them.  Second, it shows teachers, lay leaders and other key stakeholders the seriousness and importance of professional learning.  Learning outcomes and expectations are a visible sign that there is a level of expectation, professionalism and accountability.

In integrating experiential education and camp-inspired learning into professional learning, there is a great deal to consider.   Teachers need to think not just about developing skill sets and knowledge, they need to look at what they want students to feel and believe.  According to Barry Chazan, the experiential educator is a total educational personality who educates by words, deeds and by shaping a culture of Jewish values and experiences[1]Teachers need to think about how to both create a learning environment while at the same time creating memories for their students and creating a ruach, a spirit that will encourage  and empower students to be engaged and want more.  Teachers need to think about the relationships that they create with their students.  On its surface, creating the ambience for enthusiasm and excitement about Judaism and Jewish experience sounds much easier than planning a lesson sounds, but for some teachers, the forging of relationships is much more difficult and complicated.  In experiential settings, teachers are not just teachers.  They are Jewish role models to their learners and with this incredible opportunity also exists a responsibility to share from their own experiences.

Setting, where learning takes place, is also an important component of experiential learning.  There is a joke (I have to believe it is a joke) where a child comes home from a life-changing summer at Jewish overnight camp.  The first Saturday evening at dusk, the child’s parent asks if the child wants to say the Havdalah prayers, since the child wrote home about how amazing it was.  The child declines and says “we can’t do Havdalah.  There is no lake.”  How do we create meaning for students when we don’t have the same trappings as camp or the backdrop of Jerusalem?  We can’t replicate it and we shouldn’t even try.  What we need to do, however, is learn about the qualities that make Havdalah at camp so special or a zimriyah (song festival) so memorable.

Some teachers will have that frame of reference and will be able to draw on their own powerful Jewish memories and experiences at Jewish overnight camp or Israel programs.  Other teachers, however, in their professional development, will need to be exposed to modern examples of powerful experiential learning.  That means they will need to visit Jewish overnight camps or experience teaching Torah through drama by attending a Storahtelling workshop.  Instead of teaching “about” experiential learning, teachers may need to be immersed in and participate in that learning as learners themselves.  This will show them, first hand, what makes experiential learning so powerful.

Along those same lines, it is important to be cognizant that different teachers will inevitably need to focus on honing different skill sets.  This means that a “one size fits all” model of professional learning will probably not work.  It will require creativity to figure out how to structure the learning.  It may mean taking an individual approach to the learning – each teacher embarking on his or her own path of professional learning.  However, this can also be a great opportunity for collaborative learning.  Placing teachers in collaborative groups with a common goal of learning specific skill sets can be very empowering for the teachers as well as beneficial for the overall school program.


Knowing The Students

John Dewey, one of the great thinkers in education, advised teachers to get to know their students.  The “present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction” (p. 339).[2]   A child’s surroundings informs his or her learning.  With experiential education this holds true as well and is even more important.  The degree to which we get to know our students in experiential Jewish learning has the ability to take a good learning experience to one that is transformative or life-changing.

In addition to knowing a student’s learning style, it is important for teachers to know who their students are.  It is important to know details about a child’s family, what a student is passionate about and what interests him or her.  It is important for a teacher to understand that our students lead incredibly busy lives, certainly busier than we ever led as children.  It is important that a teacher use that understanding when working with our students, when planning activities and lessons, and when speaking to students.

In a camp setting, staff literally live with their campers.  This creates a connection and a familiarity that bonds staff and campers to each other.  In the complementary school setting we do not have this intimate contact with our students.  We have to use the time with them teaching in a way that will build relationships with our students while at the same time giving students powerful learning experiences.


Hiring Decisions

As schools move toward a model which integrates experiential learning, this will inevitably need to become a factor in faculty hiring.  Teachers should have experience in Jewish camping or be willing to learn from those models.  Moreover, teachers should be willing to cultivate relationships with students and their families.  These relationships are integral to the creation of powerful Jewish learning experiences.  These qualities should be taken into consideration when hiring teachers.



Teachers in complementary settings underestimate the power that they have.  For the most part they assume that their students do not want to be in Hebrew School and want nothing to do with their teachers.  I just don’t believe that is true.  In my experience, the right teacher who cultivates a relationship with his or her students makes the after-school challenge of Religious Education much more pleasant.  It also opens the door to a dialogue between teacher and student, creating a trust and an understanding that will lend itself to powerful learning and a lifetime of memories.


Gila Hadani Ward is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, New York. She is a graduate of the University of Florida where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science. She also holds a Juris Doctorate Degree from the University of Florida College of Law. Gila also currently serves as a mentor for the Master’s Degree students in Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS.




[1] Chazan, B. (2003), ‘The philosophy of informal Jewish education’  the encyclopedia of informal education,

[2] Dewey, J.  John Dewey on Education:  Selected Writings.  New York:  The Modern Library, 1964.

Prompt: What is the range of goals for t’fillah education in a supplemental environment?

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Wordle - WagnerWriter: Cantor Marcey Wagner

Bringing the Benefits of the Experiential Approach into T’fillah Education in an Supplemental Environment


Background information on My Experience with Supplemental education

Having experienced Jewish education is ALL it’s forms and settings- overnight camp (Ramah), day school (Schechter), Family Education, Retreats, supplemental education (Hebrew School and Hebrew High), I have seen many success and failures in all these iterations.  There is no doubt that most students report positive, long-term effects and influences resulting from experiential education in camps and youth groups.  So, naturally, as a teacher, principal and curriculum writer, I wanted to re-create as much of this experience in supplemental school as possible. The big question is what elements can be transferred easily and successfully while still accomplishing the goals of supplementary education? The other important issue was to create a school that reflected the values and goals of the congregation as well.

As the Education Director of a large supplementary school, my assigned mission by the congregation was to infuse the Hebrew School (I’ll use that term since that is what we call the school, and frankly, that is the term used by most congregations as well) with the values held dearly by the congregation: community, intellectual achievement and knowledge acquisition, social action, and individualized learning.  The congregation had conducted a survey of parents and these were the most important goals that parents wanted their children to achieve.  There were, of course, many differing opinions on how to accomplish these goals.


The two Dilemmas

I decided to examine what was NOT working well first.  It seemed that there was a disconnect between the curriculum currently followed at the school and the goals expressed by the parents.  Other than the one goal of “knowledge acquisition”, the school was doing a poor job of nurturing the values of community, social action and individualized learning.  There needed to be a systemized way to have all four of these goals integrated into the curriculum.

Another major problem I discovered was the isolation that the school had from the life of the synagogue.  So many children entered the synagogue building only for Hebrew school, which was Sunday and one additional day per week.  Many did attend with their families and on the High Holidays, but this setting was very unique and had little impact on the students in connecting to the school or synagogue.  It was difficult to enforce the Shabbat attendance policy and there were no consequences for children who did not fulfill these requirements.

The “rest” of the congregation had little or no contact with the students of the Hebrew school.  Even the few students who attended Shabbat services spent an hour at a separate “Jr. Congregation service”, and the rest of the time wandering through the building.  There was babysitting set up for the younger children, but many of the Hebrew school age children ended up “helping” in babysitting for much of Shabbat morning.  Friday evening services were very adult centered, children came and sat with families but were often in and out of the service.  Occasionally, families did stay for a Shabbat dinner, and here again, the children spent most of the time running freely (and quite happily) throughout the building.

It is not that I opposed children feeling comfortable enough in their congregation to roam and play, I just felt that their had to be a better way to integrate them into the heart and soul of the congregation the actual prayer service.  I saw these two worlds- that of the Hebrew school children and that of the praying adults- very far apart and rarely intersecting at all.

The isolation of the children from the major life of the synagogue was not unrelated to my other dilemma- integrating the other values of the congregation into the educational framework of the supplemental school curriculum.  I began to think of ways to accomplish both of these problems simultaneously.  I set up a system with well-defined and articulated requirements of all of the Hebrew school students based on the congregational values described above.  I divided the school year into trimesters.  For each trimester, Hebrew school students had to attend a minimum of 3 services at the synagogue (Shabbat or chagim) and one non-prayer related synagogue event (such as a social action project, an art fair, a Purim Schpiel).  In addition, respecting the importance of individualized learning and letting students take ownership for their own learning, each student was allowed to pick 2 activities to complete per semester; either performing a mitzvah, reading a book, creating a piece of art work, attending a museum exhibition or watching a Jewish video.  For each activity in this category, a student had to complete a log explaining the activity, why s/he chose it, and how s/he felt after completing the activity.

For each of these various accomplishments- synagogue service attendance, synagogue activity attendance, and individualized activity- each child was given a point we named “Peulah Points”.  There was a file box placed in the foyer of the synagogue by the entrance containing a file folder for each child.  It was the child’s responsibility to mark the folder with a sticker each time s/he completed on of the requirements.  We made a point to include folders for the day school students in the box as well.  This was with the purpose of opening the tent as wide as possible and trying to overlap the Hebrew school and day school communities.

There were no negative consequences for students who did not fulfill the point requirements.  There was LOTS of positive reinforcement.  Every month at a school wide assembly, the students who had the greatest number of point values were announced and cheered by the whole school.  At the end of the trimester, several prizes were given to students who had the most points overall and in each category.  Finally, at the end of the year, there was a “mystery trip” for all students who fulfilled the minimum requirements.

The system had many positive effects.  It brought families into the synagogue building and to programs that they might not have attended otherwise.  Active students were praised frequently and became role models for all students.  The individual choice component honored students who learn and experience their Judaism differently from others.


How This Approach and Programmatic Ideas reflects the advantages of “Camp” in a Complementary school.

The benefits of the Peulot Point system was that it allowed for freedom of choice, many of the activities were experiential, many of the activities spanned various age ranges, the activities felt like “fun” and not “school”, and children felt completely competent in performing the activities associated with the program.  Many of these benefits are similar to the positive and successful aspects of camp settings.


Prayer and the Supplemental School

The major goals most often identified concerning prayer education in supplemental schools are fluency and the ability to participate (and perhaps lead) the prayers of the Shabbat service.   The expected learner outcome of the 5 years of Hebrew schools is the ability to easily and comfortably lead the prayers at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service.  While these are the expectations of the majority of parents, other parents expect more- they would like their child to truly feel comfortable as a participant in all services, attain the ability to be a shaliach tzibbur and become a capable and successful Torah and Haftarah reader.

A secondary and for some, equally important goal of tephillah education in Hebrew school is the ability to understand the text of the prayers, if not every word, certainly the basic underlying ideas and values conveyed by the text.  This is tangential to the educational goal of establishing a personal connection to the text.

Limited time available for Hebrew school is often given as the main reason this goal is not addressed.  Hebrew schools have fewer and fewer hours to actually teach more and more material.  With parents of Hebrew school students less knowledgeable than the previous generation, more general Judaic knowledge, i.e. the Shabbat table service, the 4 questions and even the Chanukah candle blessings must be taught to the students in Hebrew school.

Here is where I believe a HUGE mistake is made.  If the students are not taught how to connect to prayer, then all of the skills and content knowledge associated with prayer will never stick with the student.  The motivation of the bar/bat mitzvah goes just so far these days.  Students are actually leading less and less of the service when they become a bar/bat mitzvah, and this phenomenon is totally acceptable to most parents.  It is left to the school to provide the motivation for prayer skill acquisition and understanding.


How I addressed Challenges in Teaching Tephillah in Hebrew School

I addressed this challenge several ways as principal.  First, I instituted Family Services for every grade for Shabbat evening.  These services (contrary to ALL of my statements above about integrating the school life into the life of the synagogue) were separate from the ‘regular’ Kabbalat Shabbat service.  This was done so as not to disrupt the flow of the ‘regular’ service which was VERY important to the frequent participants, and also to allow me to tailor the service to the particular age group, keeping their interest and maintaining their involvement.  Students had certain prayer goals that they needed to master in order to lead parts of the service ‘for their parents’.  Students also studied the meanings of each prayer and presented mini-divrei tephilah as introductions to the various prayers.  There was often an artistic element involved.  Students made siddurim for the service and decorated the prayers with designs and pictures that reflected their understanding of the text.  As facilitator, I was able to craft the service to the level of knowledge of the children AND their parents.  We paused often during the service to allow for parents and children to discuss a question relevant to a text.  For “ma’ariv aravim” we asked why dark was important, and why do we need to thank God for the nighttime?  We used choreography as well.  For L’cha Dodi, we actually rose from our seats and walked to the back of the sanctuary to physically welcome Shabbat into our presence.

Day school students were encouraged to participate in the service as well.  The students were engaged and this helped provide motivation for the learnings that took place in the classroom weeks earlier.  After the service, the families attended a Shabbat dinner along with the “regular” congregants from the parallel service.  In between dinner and dessert, we often had an activity that involved ALL participants- children, their parents and congregants.  It could be a trivia game, or a Bibliodrama activity based on the parsha.

The Friday night services were geared to students of a certain age group- usually 1-2 grades of the Hebrew school.  A similar Family Service was held on Shabbat morning, but this time the service was open to families with children of all ages.  Prayers were not given out in advance, but volunteers were often called up to lead prayers.  We acted out several prayers to bring out their meaning- recreating the Red Sea for Mi Chamocha, and sounding out all of the instruments for Psalm 150.  There was a special presentation of the parsha- a skit or game, and volunteer students actually read from the torah.  During Hebrew school, students volunteered to prepare a few p’sukim to read during this Shabbat Morning service we called TGIS (Thank God It’s Shabbat).  After the service, we had a small Kiddush for the families, but many stayed and joined the larger Kiddush for the entire congregation.

This service accomplished many goals- it brought families into the synagogue together to experience tephillah and a Shabbat service in an enjoyable, informative way.  It was “user friendly” for children and even for adults who were not knowledgeable of the service, it gave the parents a chance to ‘kvell’ over their children who led prayers or read Torah, and it inserted fun, personal elements into the Shabbat service.  I was always made sure to add something unique and meaningful to the service or explanations so that even my knowledgeable parents could learn something new.

This service formed the foundation of the prayer curriculum in the Hebrew school.  We worked “backwards” and taught the students the prayer skills necessary to participate an eventually lead the TGIS service.  The students who attended also received a peulah point which enabled them to fulfill some of the requirements mentioned in the point system described above.  Day school students were also integrated into the service and many led prayers and also read Torah.


Integrating the Students Even MORE into the Shabbat Experience

The Family services were successful, but the goal of truly integrating the school into the life of the synagogue was still one that needed to be addressed on Shabbat.   We developed a program, called Shabbat-in-Shul, where students met me (the principal) in the MAIN SANCTUARY on Shabbat morning, right before the Torah service.  We sat together (although students who wanted to sit with their parents were certainly allowed to do so).  The students listened to and occasionally sang with the davening.  Then the students joined the hakafah and really enjoyed singing and escorting the Torah.  We stayed for an aliyah or two and then we left the sanctuary during the d’var torah.  The students, of all ages, then spent some time doing an age appropriate d’var Torah activity involving skits, poetry, Shabbat-appropriate art, etc.  The students went back into the service and participated in the concluding prayers, leading Adon Olam.  The students then had a kid-friendly Kiddush, with food and treats especially geared for their age range.  After lunch, the students stayed and played Ga-Ga and other games.  In nice weather, we took a Shabbat hike.  Parents either lingered at the adult Kiddush or returned later to pick up their children.

This program achieved several goals- it intermingled day school and Hebrew school students on an equal level.  One BIG problem in “classic” Jr. Congregation services is that there is a large discrepancy between the level of knowledge and competency of the day school and Hebrew school students.  Shabbat-in-Shul leveled the playing field, so to speak, making the program enticing to both skill level groups.  This skill discrepancy issue is one that pops up in camp settings as well, though usually after a few weeks the Hebrew school students do achieve a similar level of competency and comfort with the prayers.

The next goal Shabbat-in-Shul accomplished was making the students visible to the general congregation.  I received many comments and complements from adults who were not connected to the school at all on how lovely it was having children in the service, how well-behaved the students were, and how the presence of the children elevated the hamish factor in the sanctuary.  This integration also mirrors a camp setting- where there are no compartmentalized programs, but a more cohesive whole.  Unlike camp, the students received immediate reinforcement from adults on the importance of THEIR presence, actually a plus.

By making Shabbat-in-Shul a non-parent program, we eliminated the reluctant parent from preventing the student from participating.  When discussing our numerous family Shabbat programs with a parent, I received the comment, “Why are you people always shoving Shabbat down my throat”.  The fact is that children do not drive themselves, so we end up “punishing” students who do not participate in mandatory Shabbat programs, when it is NOT their fault.  This often created a negative feeling in these students toward Shabbat.  By providing a ‘drop-off’ program in Shabbat-in-Shul, we are able to accommodate parents who have NO desire to attend services themselves, and still provide the student with a meaningful, educational, and fun Shabbat experience.  Again, this mirrors camp settings- we have completely eliminated the reluctant or negative parental influence.

Finally, Shabbat-in-Shul was a mixed age program.  I always felt that one of the benefits of Shabbat, was getting out of the classroom and into the synagogue community.  By creating a program that successfully mixed age groups, keeping everyone engaged in the activities, we were slowly able to build community- one of the key values of the congregation.  Again, creating the feeling of proudly identifying oneself as a member is a hallmark of Jewish camps.  By instilling that feeling in Hebrew school and day school students, we can increase levels of satisfaction and boost participation in all synagogue activities.


Summary: Successful Tephillah Education in Supplementary School

I truly believe that one cannot look to camps as a role model for tephillah education and replicate the experience in the supplemental environment.  You cannot capture the grandeur of a lake for havdalah, or the sanctity of hundreds of youngsters dressed in white walking quietly to a Kabbalat Sahbbat service.  What I did in trying to strengthen the tephillah education of my supplemental school was look to the expressed values of the congregation and try to see how the school could reinforce these values through prayer study and actual prayer experiences.  It turns out, that many strategies and activities that we utilized to achieve our goals mirrored the camp tephillah experience.  I do not think that this replication is a coincidence; we are dealing with the same target population.  But, the “camp child” and the “Hebrew school student” are really two different species, which is why I feel you truly need to develop programs unique to each and their special needs.

In summary, here are the goals that we addressed in our (and I say our, because most of these innovations were done by the principal in constant consultation with a School Education Committee- a factor usually NOT included in camp settings):

  • Providing multiple opportunities and modalities for student attendance and participation in Shabbat prayer experiences
    • Friday evening grade-specific Family Shabbat services followed by congregational dinners
    • Shabbat morning family services with Torah reading component (TGIS)
    • Shabbat morning programming just for students of mixed ages (Shabbat-in-Shul)
  • Creating these programs as a result of studying the expressed values of the congregation and tailoring them to fit in well with the life and functioning of the congregation
  • Creating a prayer attendance requirement that was attainable and reasonable and providing multiple opportunities to reward students for fulfilling these requirements
  • Creating a culture of compliance, and more than that, making Shabbat programs “cool”
  • Linking the prayer curriculum taught in the Hebrew school directly to the Shabbat programs allowing students to demonstrate mastery for their parents, to participate comfortably, and enjoy the prayer experience.
  • Mixing the day school and Hebrew school populations in the prayer programs allowing for greater feeling of community and for increased opportunities for new friendships and relationships
  • Making compliance with prayer requirements and the actual prayer experiences easy for parents
    • Making sure to scaffold non-knowledgeable parents in Family programming
    • Making sure that knowledgeable parents always had an opportunity for new learnings in Family programming
    • Providing options for student Shabbat experiences that did not require parental participation
  • Creating an atmosphere of shleimut between student tephillah and congregational tephillah

Like camp, tephillah was linked to genuine services much as possible.  The motivation for studying tephilah in class was to be able to participate, lead and enjoy coming to the various services we offered.  For some, coming to services was merely a way to fulfill their peulot point requirements.  But for many, these services became a regular part of their Shabbat routine, and an enjoyable part at that.


Cantor Marcey Wagner is the Elementary School Principal of Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County. Cantor Wagner was a co-writer for Project Etgar of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, a curriculum designed to actively engage students in the Jewish education. Cantor Wagner served for ten years as a pulpit Cantor on Long Island and also served as the Director of Education and Jewish Learning at a successful congregation in Westchester. She has a Master’s in Sacred Music from JTS with a specialty in Jewish education.