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.

Prompt: How can other settings of education be enhanced by the successful elements of t’fillah education at camp?

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What can schools and synagogues learn from the successes of tefilah education at camp? Or, How did camp help me become a praying Jew?

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by Rabbi Sarah Graff

I believe I was asked to write this paper because of my work at Camp Ramah Darom for the first several summers of its existence. There I was privileged to work with the staff to try to create a new approach to tefilah at camp – one centered around tefilah activities and a new siddur that I was writing for camp. The siddur has illustrations, explanations, and places for campers and counselors to write in their own insights, inspirations, and prayers. I will indeed share some of my reflections on this approach and how I have endeavored to bring elements of it into the school and synagogue where I now serve as a Rabbi. However, if I am going to write about the successes of tefilah in the camp setting, I really must begin with my experiences as a camper at Ramah.

Part I – Keva

When I was 11, my parents put me on a bus with a handful of kids from our small Jewish community outside Chicago and sent me to spend 8 weeks at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I was nervous and homesick and surely shed my share of tears going to sleep that first night. When I awoke the next morning, what did we do? We went to tefilot. Before even eating breakfast! I remember looking with awe at the knowledgeable kid who led us through the prayers that first day. And I remember finding comfort in singing together with all of these Jewish kids who would become my Eidah, my community for the summer, and many, my friends for life.

By the end of the summer, I knew the weekday shacharit service quite well. By the end of my second summer, I could lead it. The philosophy of the camp was: sing the words out loud and they will learn them. We sang all 3 paragraphs of the Shema out loud with trope. We sang the 2nd paragraph of the Aleinu (Al ken…) out loud, with great gusto. And we added on a new paragraph of the weekday Amidah to our communal singing every 2 or 3 days. It was a huge amount of recitation. As a prayer leader now, I tend to avoid such barrages of Hebrew words that so few people actually understand. Yet it gave me skills that have been invaluable in my life.

Before I turn to analysis of these experiences, I want to share one further memory from my camper days – the memory of Tefilah k’tzrif (prayer as a bunk) and even more importantly, Tefilah k’yachid, (prayer as an individual). When I was a camper, every Wednesday was Tefilah k’tzrif. We didn’t go down to the usual prayer space. Instead, two bunkmates would go get us siddurim, and we would pray in our bunk, or outside, or wherever we decided. Maybe we would even pray in our pajamas. In the privacy of our small, supportive group, less-knowledgeable girls would step forward to lead, less- knowledgeable counselors would find the courage to share something they found meaningful, and prayer became our own. For me, this feeling became even more powerful when one morning, our counselors declared, “Today, we’re each going to pray on our own.” We could take a siddur and go wherever we wanted in the area outside our cabin. No one told us what page to be on. No one told us what words we needed to say. We were trusted to pray on our own.

For me, these experiences ended up being life-changing. I didn’t know it at the time. But when, as a Junior in college, one morning I pulled a siddur off my shelf and davened for the first time, on my own (and in my pajamas), it was no doubt a testament to my years at camp. Twenty years later, I continue to daven on my own each morning, and it is the bedrock of my spiritual life. It teaches me to begin each day with gratitude. It is hard to think of anything more valuable.


How can we bring the successes I experienced with prayer at camp into school and synagogue settings?

What are the messages that camp communicated to me so powerfully?

1. Jews pray every day. Even the first morning of camp. Even the last morning of camp after everyone has been up all night. Even on a campout. It’s like eating and sleeping. It’s a vital part of who we are and what we do.


  • Have some prayer component every time school meets. It does not have to be an all-school service. It can be in the classroom. It can be individual.
  • Create family education programs encouraging bedtime and wake-up prayer rituals (Sh’ma before bed, Modeh Ani in the morning). Decorate pillow cases with Sh’ma on one side, Modeh Ani on the other side. Make artistic prayer cards/signs to hang beside one’s bed or on one’s nightstand.
  • Expose kids and families to daily minyan, if your community has one. Make it a class field trip or family homework assignment, perhaps as part of the bnai mitzvah preparation process. Incorporate minyan into teen/high school programs. Give teens a sense of being needed for the minyan, as well as it being an opportunity for them to pray.

2. We all need prayer role models. Often the most powerful role models are not rabbis, cantors, or teachers.


  • Expose kids to “regular” people who pray, who struggle with prayer, who come to shul regularly, or who don’t come to shul regularly, yet have a personal relationship with prayer.
  • Have Teen Madrichim or USYers play a role in kids’ services. Have them share things they find meaningful in tefilah. Have them sit with the kids and serve as role models in prayer (not just policemen).
  • Pair up kids and adults to pray 1-on-1. Encourage them to share insights into specific prayers, what they find meaningful, what they don’t find meaningful. This could be done on Shabbat morning or on a weekday, in the kids’ prayer space, in the main sanctuary, or let pairs choose any place they want to go, inside or outside. Ideally, have these “prayer chevrutot” meet multiple times.

3. You can pray on your own, and in small groups. You don’t need a rabbi, cantor, or teacher to lead you in prayer. Prayer belongs to you.


  • Following the Tefilah K’tzrif model, have kids pray some of the time in their classroom. Give each class a basic framework/matbe’a. Guide and nurture classroom teachers. Then trust them and their students to conduct their own tefilah, with freedom to make it their own.
  • Periodically, break up Jr. Congregation services into smaller prayer groups. (We call ours “mishpachot.”) Keep the same groups each time you do it. Empower Teen Madrichim, oldest kids, or any kids to lead the group in prayer.
  • Send everyone off to pray on their own (outside or in regular prayer space). You can also try praying with partners. Trust! Some may goof off, but for some, it could be life-changing.

4. If a prayer is important, sing the whole prayer out loud.

This is counter to my spiritual instincts. As a congregational rabbi and Jr. Congregation leader, I tend to want to give people silence, so as not to overwhelm them with Hebrew words, and to give them more time for their own personal prayers. It also just takes a long time to say every word out loud. But I fear that for kids, “continue silently” translates as “this part isn’t important.”

If we want Jews to know that the Sh’ma has 3 paragraphs, not just 1, and that the Amidah is more than Avot, G’vurot, and Kedusha, then we must actually say those parts out loud. I cannot count the number of times I have led a bar/bat mitzvah rehearsal and listened to the bar/bat mitzvah student lead a beautiful heicha kedusha for musaf, only to then ask me, when the quiet part starts, “how long should I wait?” I understand that they just want to know when to sing again. But it’s clear that many of us need to be taught what to do with the quiet part – how to continue with the traditional words, or how to continue with our own private prayers. We need practice and guidance in how to do it.


  • Sing all of the major prayers out loud together. Favor group singing over having the shaliach tzibur lead alone.
  • You can start small and add on. For example, start with only the first paragraph of the Amidah out loud, then add a paragraph every week.
  • Read or sing English out loud together. It doesn’t have to be all Hebrew. Praying the traditional words out loud in English also communicates that it’s important. Experiment with singing English words to the traditional Hebrew melodies.
  • Share personal prayers out loud. I know this is radical, and will feel uncomfortable for some. But if we want to encourage and validate praying from the heart, we need to model it. Choose points in the service where, periodically, people will share things they are thankful for, what they are praying for, etc. Make it part of your prayers, rather than something that seems like a diversion from traditional prayer. Perhaps take time at the end of the Amidah, or in the midst of Birchot Hashachar.

Part II – Kavanah

My years as a camper at Ramah Wisconsin gave me a wonderful dose of Keva – a sense of the importance of fixed prayer, a comfort and fluency with the traditional words. I realize though that part of why I took the position of Rosh Tefilah at the founding of Ramah Darom in 1997 was that I wanted to experiment with the Kavanah side of prayer at Camp Ramah. I wanted to teach kids what all these words mean, and how to make prayer their own, not just someone else’s words for them to recite.

My focus, as Rosh Tefilah, was on the counselors. Back when I was a counselor at Ramah Wisconsin, few people wanted to be on Va’ad Tefilah, the committee of counselors in each age division that would coordinate all the tefilot, find kids to read Torah and lead services, and make sure that services ran smoothly. Personally, I never wanted to be on Va’ad Tefilah. Instead, I wanted to be on the committee that planned Yom M’yuchad, all-day thematic programs with simulation games and experiential learning. And if not Yom M’yuchad, then I wanted to be on Va’ad Shabbat (planning Shabbat activities) or Va’ad Peulat Erev (planning fun evening activities). Spending my days begging kids to read Torah did not seem nearly as fun.

When we created Ramah Darom, I insisted that Va’ad Tefilah would be a programming committee. The counselors on this team would be asked to create activities to make tefilah come to life for their kids. Yes, they would also get kids to read Torah. But their main task was to brainstorm crazy ideas to make tefilah meaningful, memorable, and fun.

I modeled several tefilah activities during staff week. The first day we began with calisthenics. I asked people to take their pulse and count their breaths before and after, and used that as an introduction to Asher Yatzar and Elokai Neshama, starting the day with gratitude for our bodies and our breath. Over the next few days, we used some of our davening time for small group activities and discussions on specific blessings of Birchot Hashachar. The staff wrote and talked about why they were thankful to be Jewish (she’asani Yisrael), what qualities they had that they thought God would be proud of (she’asani b’tzalmo), and what kinds of freedom they enjoyed (she’asani ben/bat chorin). Another day, I asked them to put on a blindfold and go for a trust walk with a partner, to then reflect on hamechin mitz’adei gaver, God as the One who guides the steps of human beings, and their guiding roles as staff-members.

It was a paradigm shift for Ramah – to interrupt tefilah, in order to get into the tefilah. And the counselors embraced it. Many signed up to work on Va’ad Tefilah, and I got to spend my summer talking with college students about how to make tefilah meaningful for their campers (and for them). I am still amazed by some of the activities they thought up. Perhaps the most memorable for me was the day one of the counselors, who was also a DJ, used his black light for a tefilah experience. First, all the kids took part in painting pictures of Jerusalem, using laundry detergent on white posterboard. The next day, the whole aidah was asked to wear white shirts and come into a pitch black room after Barchu. After everyone crowded in, the counselor flipped on his black light and two things were all aglow – Jerusalem and our shirts. “Or chadash al Tzion ta’ir,” he declared, “Shine a new light on Zion, “V’nizkeh kulanu m’heirah l’oro,” “and some of that light can come from us,” he offered, as his own brilliant interpretation.

Another group of counselors got permission to have a tefilah option at the pool one morning. They wanted to use swimming metaphors for parts of the service. They had the kids do laps and sing Halleluyah (Psalm 150), symbolizing the warm-up function of Psukei D’zimra. They had the kids do Sh’ma floating on their backs, giving uv’shoch’b’cha, “when you lie down” a new meaning. For Mi Kamocha, they had everyone line up in the water, legs spread apart, making a tunnel, and kids got to take turns swimming through the tunnel, symbolic of coming through the narrow straits of Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. Once everyone had swum through, they got out of the water, sang and danced Mi Kamocha, highlighting its Song of the Sea context, and then stood on the deck for a more traditional Amidah.

I have recapped two of the more elaborate tefilah activities we did. Most days the activities took just a few minutes – a brief opportunity to write or draw, to discuss or act something out.

For the second summer of Ramah Darom, I created a new spiral-bound camp siddur, which the kids and counselors could actually write in and keep. I wanted us to be able to write our interpretations, illustrations, and personal prayers directly in the siddur, and to feel that they were an authentic part of Jewish prayer, not just little one-off activities that would be forgotten. I am hopeful that the siddur has helped kids retain some of the camp tefilah spirit and meaning, long past their summer/s at Ramah Darom. I know there are many kids (now twenty-somethings) who have held onto a whole collection of their camp siddurim from throughout the years.

As I reflect further on this activity approach we took to tefilah at Ramah Darom, I believe the largest impact was on the counselors. The counselor who came up with the black light Or Chadash experience was not someone with a strong Jewish background. He was a 17-year-old guy who came empowered to teach kids about tefilah. This is the tremendous power of the camp model. It makes 17-year-olds into Jewish educators. It relies on them to be role models and teachers, to be owners of Jewish tradition, and by and large, they step up to the challenge.

When my synagogue was re-envisioning its Shabbat morning education program for kids 10 years ago, we asked ourselves what wisdom we could bring from the successes of Jewish summer camps. My conclusion was a serious Teen Madrichim program. I advertised it among the teens as a prestigious leadership development and community service opportunity, and 16 high schoolers applied. To apply, they wrote essays about what was meaningful to them in Judaism, ideas they had to improve our Jr. Congregation, and what they appreciated in a favorite teacher. By late-summer we had our first cohort of Teen Madrichim and a pretty ambitious agenda for what they would do. They would teach our 3rd and 4th graders tefilah for an hour on Shabbat morning, spending part of the time working 1-on-1 with the kids on Hebrew reading and prayer skills, and the rest of the time they would lead camp-style tefilah activities and games, that they would plan on Tuesday nights, with my supervision. They would also play an important role in our 3rd-7th grade Jr. Congregation service – sitting among the kids, participating actively, sometimes doing skits or leading discussion in there, and partnering with a staff person in bringing new energy and dynamic leadership to the service.

I invested several hours each week in leading the weekly Madrichim training sessions, emailing back and forth with the madrichim who were writing the lesson plan for that week, and providing some supervision of the actual class they were teaching. I felt it was a worthwhile use of my time though, as I watched these 14-16-year-olds become owners of their Judaism. Two years before, many of them had been sitting in Jr. Congregation complaining they were bored. Now they were having heated discussions about the meaning of prayers and how they could bring them to life for “their kids.”

Applications – with a focus on Kavanah

  1. Integrate tefilah activities and discussions into the course of services. Use drama, music, physical activity, games. If it’s not Shabbat, use art, writing, videos…. Focus on prayer themes, choreography, structure, individual words. Use metaphors from sports, art, music. Get others to join you in brainstorming “crazy ideas” to open up tefilah in new ways. Adding activities does take more time. Choose some prayers to move through more quickly or omit, in order to make time for focusing on other prayers.
  2. Find ways to capture and preserve insights from tefilah activities/discussions. If you have tefilah that’s not on Shabbat, consider making your own siddur that allows kids to personalize it and add to it. If your tefilah is only on Shabbat, create artifacts (posters on the wall, bookmarks in the siddurim, journal entries written during the week) to preserve the messages/inspirations of the Shabbat activities.
  3. Create a Teen Madrichim program focused on tefilah – both to invigorate programming for younger students and, perhaps more importantly, to empower teens and change the way they think about their relationship with tefilah and Judaism.


Rabbi Sarah Graff grew up in Olympia Fields, IL, a small Jewish community outside of Chicago. She studied psychology and Jewish studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and then earned her Rabbinic ordination at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She has served as a Rabbi of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, CA since 2001.

Prompt: What steps need to be taken to give Hebrew language acquisition velocity and attention?

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Writer: Johannah Sohn

It is hardly news that teaching Hebrew in complementary schools is challenging.  Traditional religious school models with five to seven hours of frontal instruction a week struggle with the endeavor.  The difficulty is only amplified for schools that have attempted to integrate experiential education into their philosophies and deviate from traditional teaching methods.   With a national push toward making religious schools more fun, innovative, relevant and dynamic, schools are incorporating experiential methods of instruction that may remind you of that excellent summer you spent at camp.

How then, can we move forward with traditional instructional goals as they pertain to Hebrew in experiential settings? What steps need to be taken to give Hebrew language acquisition velocity and attention?

The Hebrew language goals of complementary school programs vary greatly.  Some schools include conversational Hebrew, giving the students a taste of what the spoken language sounds like and feels like as a living language.  Others work on writing or understanding Hebrew for fluency in prayer. Many students graduate from religious school with the ability to read Hebrew but with little to no understanding of what they are reading.  Many parents have told me that they have no connection to t’fillah, despite completing religious school and enjoying their b’nai mitzvah experience. Nobody ever taught them what they were saying, only that they needed to be able to say it. The majority of schools are concerned with ensuring reading fluency, because- let’s face it- our students need to be able to read in order to prepare for b’nai mitzvah.

At the Jewish Learning Community of Adat Ari El, we have experimented with a number of curricula available to complementary education programs, none of which harmonize well with our program given their intense focus on b’nai mitzvah preparation.  Asking the students to listen to a teacher lecture for twenty minutes and then sit down with a textbook and pencil is an approach that works for many programs, but not ours.  Reading drills and repetition are appropriate methods for traditional religious schools but do not align with the philosophy behind our program.  The over emphasis on preparation for b’nai mitzvah, in my view, is the Jewish version of “teaching to the test,” and perhaps the least effective way of inspiring a life-long love of learning. However, inspiring a life-long love of learning is precisely the goal of my complementary school program.  We aim to provide students with opportunities to experience Judaism, to grapple with and extract their own meanings from our history and Texts, and to create a space for our students and families conducive to living inspired, committed Jewish lives.

What pieces of this challenging Hebrew conundrum are needed in order to give the endeavor the attention and velocity it deserves?   We have been searching over the past several years and can say we have some pieces in order and still others need more work.  In our Jewish Learning Community, the Hebrew language is a serious part of our curriculum.  We view our educational mission as an opportunity to “create culture” rather than “transmit knowledge[1],” with several pieces making up the puzzle:


We spend more time praying than teaching about prayer and we familiarize our students with the siddur rather than textbooks.

We begin each session with t’fillah led by our rabbi and cantor.  After reviewing our curriculum, the three of us (rabbi, cantor and myself) sat down together to develop a list of t’fillot that our students should know by the end of their time with us.  Every week our students enter the sanctuary and prepare for their day of learning with a twenty minute prayer experience.  We do understand that this is not a new idea and certainly not one unique to our model.  We looked at the camp experience and thought about the incredible benefits of student’s immersion in Jewish life and attempted to emulate that.  When our teachers introduce t’fillot in the classroom, they hand out siddurim and encourage the students to read the English and begin a conversation of what the essence of the t’fillah might be.  We intentionally use siddurim and not textbooks that distill the information down to the “appropriate level” for the students. This gives the student an actual source to embrace (or not), create their own meaning and become familiar with the structure of the authentic text.


We present our students and families with authentic experiences, such as shabbatonim, when the need for Hebrew is critical and provide a safe space to learn and experiment.

Beginning in fourth grade, we take our students on two shabbatonim during the year, once in the fall and once in the spring, and spend the weekend together davening, eating, learning, and celebrating Shabbat.  These weekends reinforce the t’fillot our students have heard on a weekly basis, and provide opportunities for genuine participation and leadership.  Just as summer camp immerses students in the language, culture, and traditions of Judaism for multiple weeks at a time, our retreats afford our students a similar (albeit briefer) experience.  Along the same lines, the winter family retreat for the entire community is an integral part of our program.  This retreat reminds parents (or introduces the idea) that the Hebrew language can help create a communal prayer space and to connect them to their children’s Hebrew learning experiences.


We subscribe to a theory of language acquisition called Total Physical Response and implement Hebrew Through Movement.

Hebrew Through Movement[2] is one piece of our Hebrew language puzzle that perfectly fits our program and philosophy.  With the theory of language acquisition called Total Physical Response at its core, Hebrew Through Movement focuses on the coordination of language comprehension and induction with physical movement.  For example, instead of telling the children that the word likpotz means “to jump,” our teachers model the action for the children and they figure out what the word means.  We have two Hebrew specialists who visit each classroom every week for a twenty minute, high energy, exclusively Hebrew lesson.  The students are active, engaged, having a fantastic time, and learn a tremendous amount.

While the Hebrew Through Movement curriculum does include conversational Hebrew, the creators[3] have expertly woven holiday terminology, brachot, t’fillot and high interest modern Hebrew together to create incredible learning experiences.  Just as many camp settings integrate Hebrew language into their announcements, everyday vocabularies and culture, we too have adopted these tools.  Once words are introduced in Hebrew Through Movement, teachers, administrators and students exchange the English word with the Hebrew vocabulary.  Our students love this part of the day.  More importantly, this allows them to connect personally (and physically) to the Hebrew language.


We reinforce Hebrew decoding using relevant, exciting technology.

The final piece of our experimental Hebrew puzzle is the use of web-based reading tutoring in our fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes.  We acknowledge the importance of Hebrew reading fluency not only in conjunction with language comprehension, but also with the feeling of connection to the language.  Our time in the classroom is limited and our students are committed to a number of other activities.  This year we are using WebEx, an online meeting platform, to match small groups of students with a tutor to practice Hebrew reading.  We focus all of our reading fluency on t’fillot and use scanned pages from the siddur as the text in the sessions.  (I would prefer to use the actual siddur; we are limited by the virtual nature of the session.)  Our students participate in reading drills, as they would in a classroom, and are mesmerized by the technology.

For me, this endeavor presents a philosophical struggle; on the one hand it is clear that this element of our program reinforces and supports reading skills introduced in the experiences of the other pieces of our Hebrew puzzle.  On the other hand, reading drills are on my personal list of “reasons why religious school was a terrible experience to which I would never want to subject my own child”.  Hence, I was shocked when we received such positive feedback about the reading drills! Initially our concern had been to ensure that our students had a level of reading fluency that connected them to the actual prayer experiences we offered in person, using a method of instruction that felt interesting and significant.    However, as it turns out, they enjoy the computer time so much that that they happily complete thirty minutes of reading drills and to my great delight, have even requested more.

I believe that we are heading in the right direction to ensure the Hebrew language component of our program is given the attention it deserves, while continuing to attempt to provide a setting conducive to meaningful learning experiences.  There is a significant amount of work to be done to continue refining our process but we know one thing; our students are happy to likpotz into our educational program each week, and that is half the battle.


Johannah Sohn is the Director of the Jewish Learning Community at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, California.  She holds a Masters in Education from the American Jewish University and is pursuing a doctorate at Northeastern University and Hebrew College in education with a focus on the use of gaming in complementary school programs.






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

[3] “Hebrew Through Movement” was developed by r. Lifsa Schachter, Professor Emeritus, Siegal College with the support of Nili Adler, Marcia Anouchi and Gloria Grischkan, and the Hebrew teaching staff of The Temple – Tifereth Israel & Temple Emanu El, Cleveland, OH.   It is based on Dr. James J Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR), as well as the work of Bina Guerrieri who was one of the pioneers in applying TPR to the teaching of Hebrew.

Prompt: How Do You Build an Ecosystem of Jewish Education?

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Writer: Jeffrey LasdayWordle - Lasday

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Parshischo said that every person should have two slips of paper in his pocket. On one should be written: “The world was created for me.” On the other should be written: “I am but dust and ashes.” The trick is to have the wisdom to know which slip of paper to read at the right time.[1]

An ecosystem is a community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. These components are regarded as linked together.

Most ecosystems are open i.e., open to outside influences and surrounding ecosystems. A desert might be surrounded by farmland for instance, the two different ecosystems will affect one another. A closed ecosystem is an island or other isolated area. [2]

There is a reason why congregational schools were called supplementary schools in the past and have come to be known as complementary schools in the present. Something that is supplementary or complementary implies that something is incomplete on its own. The names beg the question; “Supplementary/Complementary to what?” The names indicate that the whole picture is bigger than just the one supplementary/complementary piece of the puzzle. Both words imply the need to work in partnership with other entities with shared visions and goals. Yet, despite these names, our complementary schools, for the most part, take on sole responsibility for the total Jewish education of their students. In order to build a robust ecosystem of Jewish education we need to let go of the misperception that a complementary school operating on its own can or should take full responsibility for a student’s Jewish education. We know that complementary schools work best when they complement additional forms of Jewish education (family, youth group, camp, Israel trips). The question is how can we move away from our existing incomplete programs and build an ecosystem of Jewish education that acknowledges and consciously integrates the multiple Jewish educational opportunities available to our students into one complementary system?

Below are five steps toward building a robust ecosystem of Jewish education:

  1. 1.    Systemic Alignment: Know Who You Are and Where You Want to Go

A critical first step toward building a robust ecosystem of Jewish education is establishing where you currently are and where you want to go. Lessons learned from the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE) sponsored Congregational School Improvement Initiative (CSI2),[3]demonstrate the importance of systemic alignment. CSI 2 is a three year school enhancement program that is designed to provide congregational schools with the opportunity to examine, enhance and/or redesign their education program. The process begins with an overall school assessment followed by organizational development of educational mission and vision. Once leadership have determined the program’s mission and vision, teacher training, curriculum development, and leadership development for school directors are then aligned with the school’s mission and vision. On-going school and student assessment provides feedback for adjusting the educational program and measurements for success. Once a program has internally defined and aligned itself it can seek complementary partners who possess similar missions and visions.

  1. 2.    Focus On Our Students, Not On Our Institutions

A second step toward building an ecosystem for Jewish education is to consider all of the other possible Jewish educational opportunities available to our students and determine which programs will complement the school’s mission and vision. Though many educational programs speak about wanting to be student centered, at the end of the day we still tend to be institutional centered. We feel a need to have sole ownership over “our” students learning in “our” settings. We allow institutional ego, pride and politics get in the way of thinking about the whole child. This institutional thinking ends up limiting educational opportunities rather than expanding them.

For example, in Metropolitan Detroit we have a wonderful community sponsored Jewish camp[4] that serves approximately 1,300 campers each summer. Focusing on the 1,000 campers from Detroit, for 300 of these campers, the Jewish summer camp experience will be their only Jewish educational experience in a given year. We know these campers names, ages and contact information, yet we don’t (currently) have a system for providing them with other Jewish educational experiences during the year. On the other hand, the remaining 700 campers are all enrolled in our community’s day schools and congregational schools. Yet there is no connection between the Jewish educational experience that these campers receive during the summer at camp and the learning that takes place during the rest of the year. The camp site is only an hour drive from Metropolitan Detroit. Focusing as we do on our institutions we are bound by camp ground, buildings, time, season, academic year and limited resources. If we were to shift more of our focus onto our students and place less emphasis on pride of institution, then we could expand year round complementary education that follows students from school to camp to youth group and back again.[5]

  1. 3.    Expand Our Perception of Community

A third step in building a Jewish education ecosystem is to broaden a sense of our community. Early on in my career as a Jewish educator I had the good fortune of working at two wonderful Young Judaea Camps. Though both of these camps were part of the same Zionist youth movement, followed the same educational philosophy and pursued the same peer led ideology, the way each camp operated on a day to day basis was very different. A clear example of their different operating cultures could be seen in how each camp built their staffing structures. During staff orientation, prior to the arrival of campers, it was the tradition at both camps to provide the merakzim (unit heads) time to meet and informally evaluate the madrichim (counselors) before assigning them to different chugim (units). At both camps the merakzim would then meet together with the camp director and go through a staff drafting process, with each merakez trying to recruit the strongest staff as possible. Up until this point both camps operated in the same manner. The difference came after the madrichim had been divided amongst the chugim.  At one camp, the staff draft ended. Each merakez perceived that it was his/her responsibility to select the best staff for his/her own chug. These merakzim defined their chug as their community.

At the second camp, the staffing process however would then proceed to a second level. One of the merakzim, who had been able to draft a very strong staff would say to a second merakez, who had a perceived weaker staff, something like “My staff seems a little too strong compared with yours. Let’s make a trade so that your overall staff will be more effective”. And so the trading would continue until there was a consensus among all of the leadership that staff had been distributed in a way which was best for the whole camp. Here each merakez perceived that it was his/her responsibility to create the best staffing possibility for the good of the whole camp. These merakzim defined the whole camp as their community.

We need to ask ourselves, “How do we define our community? What are the boundaries and what is included in our ecosystem”?

  1. 4.    Think Outside Our Own Four Walls

In my mind, this difference in perception of community and culture epitomizes the challenge in trying to create robust ecosystems in Jewish education. It comes down to perception, where leaders feel their responsibilities lay, and what is included (or not included) in the immediate system. When I was a classroom teacher, my community, my immediate ecosystem was my classroom. As an educational director my ecosystem was on my school. As a director of a central agency for Jewish education my sense of ecosystem expanded to include multiple schools, federation, JCC, and youth group. For the most part existing Jewish complementary education systems tend to limit their ecosystem to all that happens within the walls of their own institution. We tend to operate as if we are in closed ecosystems, rather than within a larger open ecosystem. If we only look inward we face a shortage of limited resources. If we look outward we can discover potential partners which may surprise us. Examples of thinking beyond organizational walls can be found in New York City’s Jewish Education Project’s Lomed program and the Jewish Journey Project sponsored by two Manhattan JCCs and several congregations. When we change our perspective and look outward, broadening our concept of our community, our resources expand exponentially.

  1. 5.    Think Network

The fifth step in building a robust Jewish education ecosystem is to build a network of like minded organizations. Building a robust ecosystem of Jewish education is bigger than what any one organization can accomplish on its own. Both networks and collective impact initiatives can be powerful resources for creating vibrant ecosystems. Jane Wei-Skillen and Sonia Marciano, describe the power behind networked nonprofits which work together toward a common cause[6]. They found that greater success is achieved when organizations share their load with like-minded long term partners, rather than working alone. (p.38).The success of these networked nonprofits suggests that organizations should focus less on growing themselves and more on cultivating their networks. (p.38). By mobilizing resources outside their immediate control, networks achieve their missions far more efficiently and sustainably than they could by working alone. (p.40). Effective networks enable organizations to focus on the services that they can do best and take advantage of other similarly mission driven services and resources.

Recently Jonathan Woocher has written about and championed both the importance of and power of networking and collective impact for Jewish education.[7], [8] Collective impact is defined as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants. … Successful examples of collective impact are addressing social issues that, like education, require many different players to change their behavior in order to solve a complex problem”.[9] Erie Together in Erie and Strive in Cincinnati are two examples of where collective impact has been used to bring together a large array of organizations, non-profits, government agencies and philanthropists to tackle educational challenges that were too big for any one organization to solve on its own. Collective impact is too complex a concept to fully describe in a brief thought paper however it is a BIG idea which can significantly impact our perception and reach of our Jewish education ecosystem and deserves further attention.

  1. 6.    Start Small and Go Big

Building a robust ecosystem for Jewish education requires us to start first and foremost with our students. We need to understand who they are and what their needs are. From our students we need to think about our own individual Jewish education program, develop a clear sense of mission and vision that aligns with our curriculum, teacher development, and leadership development. Looking outward we need to think beyond the four walls of our own institutions, expand our boundaries and perception of our community to broadly include other potential like mission driven partners. Once we identify potential partners we then need to creatively develop networks that will enable us to expand our reach and impact.

In today’s age of multiple identities, social media, time demands and disappearing boundaries we need to create a Jewish education ecosystem that is as complex, flexible and multifaceted as our student’s lives. No one school, camp, or youth group is able to meet this challenge alone. They never have. Today’s ecosystem of Jewish education needs to begin with the individual and then broadly include as many networked Jewish education providers and Jewish education supporters as possible.


Dr. Jeffrey LasdayJeffrey Lasday is the past Executive Director of the Collation for the Advancement of Jewish Education and currently serves as the Director of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Alliance for Jewish Education.





[1] Laura Geller, Not More Than My Place; Not Less Than My Space. Reform Judaism Online, Spring 2011.

[2] Wikipedia

[3]Started in Philadelphia as NESS and later adapted in San Francisco, Detroit and Pittsburgh

[4] Tamarack Camps located in Ortonville, MI.

[5] In August 2012 a Think Tank on Experiential Jewish Education was sponsored by the Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education and convened at Camp Tamarack with formal and informal Jewish educators. Ideas from this think tank on how to create greater collaborations between schools, camp and youth groups are in the process of becoming realities.

[6]Jane Wei-Skillen and Sonia Marciano, The Networked Nonprofit. Stanford Education Review, Spring 2008.

[7] Jonathan Woocher, (9/8/2011): Collective Impact, Guest Blog- Builders of Jewish Education Site.

[8] Jonathan Woocher (2012): Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century, Journal of Jewish Education, 78:3, 182-226.

[9] John Kania and Mark Kramer, Collective Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review Winter, 2011.

Prompt: What parts of the summer camp experience can be extended beyond the bounds of the summer and lake?

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WriterRabbi Mitchell Cohen

Wordle - CohenOne of the most important overarching goals for Jewish education is to inspire within our learners a lifelong commitment to Jewish living and learning. While the particular practices and values may vary according to a number of personal or denominational beliefs, most educational experiences are designed to help our students develop Jewish community and social networks, understand and engage in various ritual practices, establish a relationship with Israel, and to accept their responsibility to care for the world. These goals transcend the different settings of education, and include both Jewish summer camps and congregational schools.

I am fortunate to work with the Ramah system of Jewish summer camps affiliated with the Conservative movement. At Ramah, we have cultivated a wealth of research and anecdotal evidence which demonstrates a close link between the camp experience and the passion for Jewish living and learning that we see in our campers and staff members. This is manifested in many ways, including an increased desire to marry a Jewish spouse, greater participation in synagogue life, increased positive identification with Jewish philanthropic causes, better knowledge of Hebrew language and Jewish rituals, and much stronger positive feelings toward Israel than found in the general North American Jewish population. Perhaps most significantly, Ramah alumni tend to maintain strong networks of camp friends throughout their lives, a crucial factor in maintaining strong Jewish identification.

The transformational power of Jewish summer camp is undeniable. Greatness can be achieved when you combine summer vacation, supportive peer group living away from the pressures and restrictions of home life, young role models and challenging, nurturing activities. Children and teens grow in innumerable ways, developing greater self esteem, deeper friendships, and depending upon the camp program, significantly strengthened Jewish identity.

These achievements need not be limited to the summer camp setting. Summer camps have huge advantages over synagogue, JCC and school settings, but experiential, identity-building educational methodology can thrive outside of summer camp, perhaps in different ways. Obviously, camps have a number of distinct advantages that cannot be replicated during the school year. Length of time away from home, freedom from the pressures of school peer groups and academic responsibilities, and certain aspects of the natural setting of summer camp (beautiful lakes, extensive forests, star-filled skies) all combine to make camp unique.

Nevertheless, four key aspects that make summer camp effective can indeed be replicated in year-round settings: accessible staff role modeling, nature and the outdoors, creative artistic emotion-filled Judaic expression, and laughter. It is up to the imagination of year-round educators and the resources of the institutions to extract these aspects from the camp environment and apply them to their settings.

  1. Accessible staff role modeling – Children and teens respond best to the influence of older teens and young adults in their early-mid 20’s. While this age cohort tends to be less trained than older teachers, they are crucial to the formation of closer bonds with students in supplemental settings, whether as teacher’s aids, madrichim, or some other important role. At camp, the relationships that form between campers and staff are a key ingredient in Jewish identity building, as children want to be just like their counselors! Throughout the year, in alternative settings, young people need to be hired to fill important roles, need to be empowered to develop meaningful relationships with the students, and need the opportunity to express themselves and their Judaism as individuals, not just teach a curriculum that is handed to them. More than any other factor, these relationships help children grow up with a desire to emulate their role models and are a very powerful influence in Jewish growth.
  2. Nature and the Outdoors – Obviously an urban or suburban setting cannot match the rural nature of camp. But even in a city, so many programs can be run outdoors, where fresh air, no walls, open skies and trees can combine to provide a much more meaningful educational experience for students than in the confines of a classroom. Games in the fields, hikes in the woods, star gazing, standing near a body of water, and numerous other ways of using nature and the outdoors can radically impact the nature of education, making a student’s experience much more “camp-like” all throughout the years.
  3. Creative artistic emotion-filled Judaic expression – So much of the power of camp relates to the sensations associated with beautiful song, theater and dance. Tefilah, Hebrew language, and Jewish values and customs can be taught so much more effectively when the spirituality of artistic expression is combined with the substance of a text. Schools have effectively run zimriyot, rikudiot, camp-like theater performances, and other simple programs which combine many of the sensations of artistic expression with Jewish knowledge. Since these programs tend also to be associated with so much more fun that schooling in general, it has a huge advantage over the basic classroom setting.
  4. Laughter – It may sounds simplistic to emphasize laughter in Jewish education, but I firmly believe that laughter is a key ingredient in camp for effective Jewish growth. The science of laughter confirms its importance in (1) social and emotional development, (2) the deepening of interpersonal relationships, and (3) in the building of self-esteem. When Judaism is associated with these three elements, there can be life-long impact. Teachers need to consider the importance of simple humor, games, and fun in every lesson plan, as simply getting their students laughing together can greatly increase the power of the educational experience.

All four of these elements – young role modeling, nature, arts and laughter – are normally associated with camp activities. The more they are emphasized in a school setting, and year-round, the greater the possibility for camp-style growth and development, and the solidifying of Jewish commitment.

The National Ramah Commission has piloted the Ramah Service Corps, which takes young educators in supplemental school settings and trains them to emphasize these four elements throughout the year. This initiative aims to bring the best of summer camp to children and teens year-round. We are convinced that while camp is by far the best venue for deepening Jewish commitment, we also recognize that so much of what is accomplished at camp can be transferred to school settings.

One obvious way for year-round settings to accomplish these goals is through student or family retreats. Shabbatonim, week-long retreats at a local Jewish camp or retreat center, or even a day long outing can have an outsized impact and should become an integral part of any year- round educational program. Stronger experiential learning taking place throughout the year incorporating the four points enumerated above, combined with a month or longer of intensive Jewish camping in the summer is a great model for inspiring our children to become active, proud, practicing Jews, with strong Jewish friendship networks and a desire to take leadership roles as they develop into emerging adults.


Rabbi Mitchell CohenRabbi Mitchell Cohen is the Director of the National Ramah Commission. He has been in that position since 2003, having served previously for eleven years as the Director of Camp Ramah in Canada. He was the founding principal of the Solomon Schechter High School in Westchester County, New York, and was a corporate litigator before receiving his rabbinic ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary.

A Thought From Jane Shapiro

It is gratifying to see so many fine practitioners and educational leaders taking up the challenge of a new vision for congregational education. Optimism that we will find good answers to meet the challenges can be felt. In that light, a shout-out to Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan, for his post on EJewish Philanthropy.

Rabbi Starr’s work is a model of ReFrame-style thinking. Before we rush to strategies and methodologies, let’s rethink the world of our students and our families. Our schools do not “supplement” anymore. They are often the “primary” source for Jewish families.
More specifically, ReFrame thinking looks deeply at content. What do we want to teach? What do we want our students to know and feel and do? Once we grapple with a definition of content/curriculum we are posed to consider how we go about it. The specific ideas that have already been implemented at Shaarey Zedek are well worth exploration and further discussion.

Jane Shapiro

What is a “Camp-Like” Approach?: Bringing the Magic from Cabins to Classrooms

GUEST POST BY: Michelle Shapiro Abraham

Twenty years ago, I walked in to my first Religious School teaching job.  I had just finished an amazing summer as a camp counselor at URJ Camp Swig and was filled with ideas.  On that first day of school I covered the walls with giant posters of text, created a massive pair of sunglasses hanging from the ceiling, handed out black ray-ban knock-offs, and challenged my students to “wear their sunglasses at night” as they went on a scavenger hunt by flashlight to uncover how the Torah could “shine light” on their daily lives.   During that school year I would use every programming technique that I had learned at camp – basketball games with changed rules to explore Jewish leadership styles, group art work to imagine modernized Torah scrolls, and wrap-up discussions around fake camp fires.   My students enjoyed themselves and learned, as did I.  But in the end, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing something.  Despite integrating the best informal and experiential education models that I knew, in the end it was just religious school.  A good year for everyone – but still just a better-than-average isolated year of supplemental education.

In my professional life now as a Jewish Camp Consultant I am often asked how to bring the magic of camp in to schools and synagogues.  Indeed, recent articles on,, and other blog rolls suggest that this is a “hot topic.”  When people ask this question, they often share with me stories much like my own – stories of bringing in the best experiential programming, but still falling short of the life-impacting outcomes that they crave.   Despite bringing in the program, the “magic” is missing.

When we began the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator, Adam Weiss (Cohort 1 Project Director) and I talked a lot about the magic of camp.  Indeed, we had a unique opportunity to work with camp directors to create new cultures and new camps.  To be successful, the Specialty Camps needed to intertwine high level specialty education with Jewish celebration and learning in a seamless synergistic relationship.   In order to support them in this task, we needed to break down, articulate and plan what was usually accepted as just the “magic” of the camp experience.

As we worked with the Incubator camps, we realized that there was a continuum of strategies at play. On one end of the continuum was what we came to call “Surface Strategies.”  Surface Strategies refer to the planned camp activities that campers and staff organize.  Activities that fall on this end of the continuum have overt goals and occur at a scheduled time of the day or week.  These activities can be isolated, one-shot programs, or “linked curriculum” with ongoing activities that occur regularly and seek to foster accumulated knowledge or developing skill.  When driven by outcomes and meaningful content, Surface Strategies can be powerful tools for building Jewish identity and knowledge.   They can and often do utilize the best of experiential education – they are active, learner centered, have opportunities for growth and challenge the campers.   These Surface Strategies are relatively easy to integrate in to synagogue settings and are often held up as the model when schools try to be “more like camp.”  Indeed, it is this type of programming that I introduced in my first classroom, and that many have referred to in their articles and blogs.

However, when we stop at Surface Strategies, we miss the other end of the continuum that camp people know is where the “real magic” lays – Embedded Strategies.    Activities on this end of the continuum are not on the daily schedule, but lie below the surface of camp and define the camp environment and experience.  When utilized with intentionality, like Surface Strategies, Embedded Strategies are powerful tools for forming identity.   Indeed, without them, camp loses its impact.  Strategies on this end of the continuum include intentional role modeling, relationship building, rituals, utilizing Jewish teachable moments, aspirational arcs and creating sacred spaces.    Making schools more like camp is not just about integrating experiential education techniques (though these are important), it is about wielding the power of Embedded Strategies and taking advantage of every asset camp offers, to create communities where Judaism is a living, vibrant reality.

At intentionally crafted camps, counselors are prepared not to just teach, but to create meaningful relationships with their campers and fellow staff members.  They are told the importance of getting to know the kids, and are encouraged to share their love and excitement for Judaism casually throughout the day.   Campers are told that camp is a place you make “life-long friends,” and the entire institution supports this goal.   Rituals are intentionally crafted to touch souls, and frame days and weeks.   The Dining Hall is the Chadar Ochel, and Hebrew becomes the “secret language” of camp.  Campers know that when they come back every year they will have more privileges and responsibilities, from later bedtimes to running Maccabiah.  Staff tell campers that they are “being a mensch,” and “showing kavod” when they help a friend, and everyone cries while they pack their bags and head home.  These Embedded Strategies don’t happen by chance – they are intentionally crafted, outcome focused, and reinforced in staff development and daily decisions.

If we truly hope to learn from camp how to create synagogues and school based education programs that impact lives, than we need to utilize the entire continuum of intentional strategies.   We need to go beyond just program, and ask ourselves questions such as:

  • Who do we hire to work in our congregations and schools and how do support them in building relationships, being role models, and sharing their own Jewish journeys?
  • What rituals do we craft that frame the experience and are impactful, relevant and engaging?
  • How do we foster a community that views Jewish learning and celebration as positive, meaningful, and on-going?
  • How do we build aspirational arcs where students and adults see the potential for growth with expanding learning opportunities, privileges and responsibilities?
  • What unique assets do schools and congregations have and how can we leverage these assets to impact Jewish identity building?

From Family Education tracks to hybrid Daycare/Hebrew Schools, new models of supplemental education are emerging across the Jewish world.  Though these new models and approaches are exciting and hold great potential – they are no more or less powerful than trees, lakes and cabins.   What creates “summers that last a lifetime” isn’t just the setting or program model.  Summers that last a lifetime are intentionally crafted below the surface, cultivating magic, interaction by interaction.

Ray-ban knock-offs, however, are always helpful.


Michelle Shapiro Abraham holds a Masters Degree in Jewish Education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education – HUC.   She currently works as a Jewish Camp Consultant with individual camps and organizations including the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jewish Teen Funders Network, Ramah and URJ.  In addition, Michelle serves as the part-time Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ.

Prompt: What are the implications of experiential education on curriculum design?

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Wordle - LitmanWriter: Lesley Litman

It is not unreasonable to assume that the term “curriculum” evokes in most listeners images of schooling, textbooks and lessons arranged in a sequence that are then imparted to learners in a classroom.  In this white paper I will challenge that image and make an argument for a more expansive understanding of the term “curriculum”, one that has value in the world of experiential education.  Underlying this argument is a core assumption based on a “both/and” stance in which all education, no matter the setting, should include both high quality content-rich experiential and didactic elements.  For the discussion below, I have culled from the thinking of a broad range of educational theorists.  I am not claiming that the understanding of curriculum I have outlined is the only one.  Rather, I am suggesting that we have not given the concept of curriculum the credit it is due nor have we fully explored its multiple iterations.    What follows is my understanding of what our work in Jewish experiential education might draw on in order to produce deep, high quality and meaningful learning.

Some background on the development of the notion of curriculum may be useful in creating context.  The field is relatively new, beginning in earnest in 1893 when the Committee of Ten, appointed by the National Education Association, made its recommendations for a uniform curriculum to serve as a basis for high school education preparing students for college.  The first textbook on the topic of curriculum theory written by Franklin Bobbit was published in 1918.   In the ensuing century, curriculum has been studied (more intensively at some times than at others), designed and implemented, argued over and, as a discipline, despaired of due to its complexity and lack of agreement around what constitutes curriculum.  Indeed, I would like to suggest that the term “curriculum” as it has developed in the past century, might be seen as falling into social theorist and philosopher W.B. Gallie’s (1965) category of “essentially contested concepts”.    An essentially contested concept, according to Gallie, is appraisive and internally complex lending itself to multiple interpretations, open in character and malleable in how it is defined and used.

The term “curriculum” is from the classical Latin term referring to “a running, course, career” (also “a fast chariot, racing car” conjuring an image of travel). The precise make-up of the course or trip is not clear.  Instead, one gets a sense of movement over time, not one of a static and unyielding document as the term later came to be used.  Kilpatrick’s (1918) and Dewey’s (1902) writings align more with this early etymology.  Dewey describes the relationship between the child and the curriculum as a map to be traversed in directions to be determined by the interests and developmental stage of the child.  The learning experiences, guided by an adult (the teacher), becomes the route taken in the context of the larger map.  Curriculum, as I understand Dewey, is more constructivist, a continual moving back and forth between the subject matter and the child, each informing the other, mediated by the teacher.  This notion of curriculum is a dynamic one expressed as an emergent journey shaped by the teacher in conjunction with the learner’s emerging interests and experiences.   To be fair, Dewey (1938) rails against the “progressive” educators of his time some of whom he saw as misinterpreting him in suggesting that the learning process be completely child-centered, fluid and unplanned.  Therefore, even though curriculum is dynamic and emergent, it is, according to Dewey, somewhat paradoxically carefully considered and designed to reflect the authenticity of the subject matter and the current needs and state of the learner.

Sizer (1984, 2004) reinforces Dewey in his warning that what appears as a neatly ordered curriculum is neither neatly ordered, nor a curriculum.  He suggests we think of curriculum not as something to be delivered but, rather, as an ongoing enterprise, one that ultimately seeks to uncover ideas and build intellectual skills using an integrated and evolving body of knowledge.   Macdonald (1986) unpacks Dewey’s (1902) image of the curricular into three units of discourse:  situations, events and acts.   Situations, he writes, have boundaries such as organization of time and space, materials, resources and instructional patterns, add character to events and acts and are expressed in the planned environment in which events and acts are embedded. Events are patterns of interactions with beginnings and ends and acts are the transactions within events that are either observable or inferred.   Macdonald is emphatic that his conception of curriculum is not about a curriculum plan, nor does it include objectives and clearly measurable evaluation.  Rather it is, at its core, relational as expressed in the transactions between the parties.

Before concluding, I want to address the issue of subject matter and suggest that we not dismiss its systematic articulation as unimportant.   Because, Jewish education is, at one level, about knowledge acquisition.  However, this knowledge acquisition is valuable only if it is in service of students living a Jewish life and developing a strong Jewish identity (Woocher, 2012, Aron, 1996 and others). This is distinct from perceptions of curriculum such as that of The Committee of Ten where the ultimate goal was to prepare students for additional study in the university setting.   Jewish educators often cite “lifelong learning” as a core goal but, again, only as it leads to a deepening of Jewish living and commitment.  Hence, any decision-making around which subject matter to include in a given educational experience or framework, should be informed by these larger goals.

In sum, I would like to suggest the following understanding of the term “curriculum” that can inform both experiential and more formalized education frameworks:

Curriculum is an emergent process that is best understood in hindsight, not a final product on paper

At the heart of curriculum is the quality of relationships between its constituent elements which are continually informing one another in an iterative manner

Curriculum is a planned environment (Macdonald’s “situation”) in which a series of events occur in which learners and teachers are the actors

Curriculum seeks to uncover ideas and build intellectual skills

Subject matter is a tool of curriculum, not the core learning unit

Curriculum is a journey towards the betterment of society and self that uses the tools of learning: teacher, environment, relationships, time, space and more.

From the above discussion, we can conclude that curriculum is more than subject matter and teaching and learning materials.  It is, in a Deweyian way, a journey towards the betterment of society and self.  Congregational education frameworks (both complementary schools and experiential youth programming) might be enriched by this more expansive view of curricular thinking.  Too often in considering curriculum we think about the subject matter and books we will use.   Concern about students’ preparation for Bar and Bat Mitzvah animates curricular decision making along with a concern that the children won’t “know” enough, that we will not have “covered” enough material.  We might as well state it up front: We will never be able to do all that we would like in terms of conveying subject matter.  And that is okay.  Instead, as Dewey and Sizer suggest, let us spend more time thinking about our learners, the relationships we want them to build with each other and with us, and the Jewish and life journeys we want to enable them to travel.  Subject matter is determined in dialogue with the realities of our students’ current and future worlds.  Thinking about curriculum in this way might require us to re-visit our core assumptions about all aspects of learning in our congregations.

The following are some questions that can guide us as we embrace a broader understanding of “curriculum”:

  • What is the optimal setting that will allow children to explore and engage deeply with subject matter?
  • What is the most effective unit of time for learning?
  • What setting and context will be most conducive to building relationships?
  • What will be the role of the purveyors of knowledge (I hesitate to use the term ‘teachers’) and how will these individuals’ voices be included in curricular decision-making?
  • How do we hear the learners’ voices in our decision-making about what to teach?
  • What subject matter will enrich children’s lives today and enable them to traverse, as Dewey might say, their life learning maps of tomorrow?
  • How do we balance the need to articulate a course of learning with the need of the learner to emerge into his or her Jewish identity with us as their guides?

Answering any one of these questions alone does not constitute curricular decision- making. Rather, when we simultaneously explore a number of them, pushing our thinking and challenging our assumptions, a more robust and meaningful curricular experience might emerge.



Aron, I. (1996). From the congregational school to the learning congregation: Are we ready for a paradigm shift?  Avar ve’Atid: A Journal of Jewish Education Culture and Dissonance, September 1996: 66-81.

Dewey, J. (1902). The child and the curriculum.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education.  New York: Touchstone

Gallie, W.B. (1956).  Essentially Contested Concepts. Proceedings of the Aristotelian

Society, vol. 56, pp. 167-198.

Kilpatrick, W. (1918). “The project method”. Teachers College Record, 19(4), 319-335.

Macdonald, J.D. (1986). “The domain of curriculum” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 1(3), pp. 205-214.

Sizer, T. (2004). The red pencil: Convictions from experience in education.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Woocher, J. (2012). “Reinventing Jewish education for the 21st century.” Journal of Jewish Education 78(3), pp. 182-226.

Lesley LitmanLesley Litman is the Coordinator of the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and works with the Experiment in Congregational Education as the coordinator of its Boston-based initiative. She also consults to The iCenter in the area of curriculum design and professional development in Israel education. Lesley served as the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel in Boston. Prior to her work at Temple Israel, she was the Regional Educator for the URJ and the URJ’s national specialist in Hebrew and Day School education and served on the staff of Jewish Day Schools for the 21st Century, a project of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education. Lesley was a founding member of Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava where she was the first treasurer and headed up the kibbutz’s search for an industrial project. She is a doctoral candidate in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.