experiments, instruments & measurement book

My In-SITE-ful Journey to Temple Israel Center’s Shorashim Model of Learning

3/20/15

By Suri Jacknis

This past Sunday, I was lucky enough to take advantage of an In-SITE-ful Journey to Temple Israel Center in White Plains where Nancy Parkes is the educational director. This visit was organized Susan Ticker, educational consultant as part of her work with Congregational Learning and the Coalition of Innovating Congregations at The Jewish Education Project.  We came to visit Shorashim, TIC’s innovative model for learners and their families in K-6.

Our visit to Shorashim took place on an ordinary Sunday, when learning was in full swing, but there was no special family learning program or large whole school event (which are frequent).  So it was just an ordinary day that turned out to be extraordinary in so many ways – an extraordinary day of powerful learning that happens each and every week.  How lucky I feel to have been a part of it for this one ordinary day.

nancy couch

What Stood Out for Me?

The atmosphere of intentionality and team.  It is clear that the learning is designed with thought and care, the staff is well-prepared and the environment is set to support the learning that unfolds.  Every educator had multiple colleagues to maximize the support for learning in every space. Each grade featured the presence of a caring lead educator, a co-educator or assistant teacher as well as three mature madrichim (teen leaders) who were invested and empowered to lead. There was a clear plan on the wall of every learning space that signaled what was to be expected.  In one classroom I saw that the wall highlighted the ‘big idea’ for the learning of the day and displayed a student -generated web of concepts related to Pesach that was probably a diagnostic tool to assess what the students knew, what could be built on, and what would be the next steps.  In addition, it was obvious that the learners were used to working in teams, to sharing responsibility, to giving everyone a role, and to listening to each other.

We saw the director as a teacher-facilitator sharing a classroom with a co-teacher who is a community educator, and with three madrichim just as the other educators were part of a teaching team.  The director models the way of being a part of her educational team by putting herself in the middle of the action as an active facilitator and partner on the learning team.IMG_1529

The staffing structure supports Jewish Learning and  in an Extraordinary way.  Community Educators make an extraordinary impact on education at TIC.  Young, dynamic, camp-counselor-type community educators are effective role models and educational leaders that build relationships and are truly present for the learners both during the formal learning times, and also on Shabbat and holidays, as well as at lifecycle and community events.  They are part of the community and live Judaism as part of the daily lives of the families at TIC.  They meet regularly as a team to plan learning that integrates with the whole of the Jewish journey and bring a level of creativity and positive energy to the community that cannot be underestimated.  Nancy explained that moving from having part-time teachers to full-time community educators was a “budget neutral move” that has created a new reality and sense of possibility that is truly amazing.

There was an overwhelming presence of authentic materials of Jewish life and the invitation to explore and discover. The materials and supplies to enhance learning were evident in every space.  The curricular materials, the ritual objects and, the art materials were in evidence everywhere.  Most were authentic Jewish materials –as we were in the pre-Pesach period, there were Seder plates, Seder table items, photos of the 12 steps, Pesach foods and actual parsley, horseradish roots, etc…  There were Humashim to find the story and Haggadot.  There was activity and discovery at every turn.  And there was conversation, and yes, it was not quiet but it was purposeful and it was clear that learners were engaged, that their questions and interpretations were honored and encouraged.  And that the center of learning was most clearly the learner.

The learning was largely experiential and featured opportunities to work in small groups, in pairs as well as in larger groupings or teams. Various groups of learners learned Torah in the Beit Midrash in small groups.  On this day, learning conversations centered on appreciating the importance of numbers in the Jewish tradition as a whole as well as in the Pesach story.  On other days, there is the experience of learning text in pairs or in small groups as our people have done for centuries as Hevruta learning.IMG_1498

We saw learners engaged in a Parasha scavenger hunt in teams and we saw learners have a chance to be up close and personal with a Torah Scroll in the sanctuary, guided by their teacher to appreciate the holiness of Torah. We saw kids who had just finished a unit on Shabbat that culminated in learning all about and making Challah— compare this Challah to Matzah and find as many similarities and differences that they could.  We saw younger students engaged in learning the steps of the Seder by actually “doing the steps” and being photographed doing each step.

We noticed the flexible groupings of learners and noted that the typical ratio for learning was one facilitator for every 5-6 kids.  We saw a lot of learning stations and coaching by facilitators in support of the learning.  We also saw that there were learning materials that were well matched to the learning goals of each learning experience and that the learning experiences were all tied to the larger outcomes and big ideas that were posted on the walls.

There was a big emphasis on community and on spirituality in a Jewish context. The day began with a communal meeting for tefillah.  We were warmly greeted upon entering a prayer space, whose walls were covered with Mishkan fabrics that had been designed by the learners.  We sat in a circle to face each other and be part of the community.  On our chairs were bracha stones that the kids had made to give them kavana. They had words, colors and images which helped the kids get ready to pray… and they were around to touch and hold onto to ground our prayers with meaning and stability.  There was a lot of spirited singing, punctuated by prayers with motions and sign language.  The team of prayer facilitators were the educational director, the full-time community educators, the teachers and the teen madrichm who sat scattered as role models and guides throughout the kahal.  We had a Siddur to follow, but we also had an ashrei prayer supplement that showed a colorful picture/icon under words which were easily visualized.  Davening the Ashrei from this visual tefillah allows the person praying to experience the words in new ways— no translation needed.  The facilitator would offer occasional preview cues to create a framework of meaning for the coming prayer.  There were moments of quiet for individual prayer and many moments of clapping and singing and moving.  It was a prayerful start to our day.

It is obvious that spirituality and developing a relationship with God and prayer are part of this culture.  We could see that by entering a classroom to see a small group of young learners clustered around a computer with the teacher at the keyboard typing learner responses to conversation starters about a time when they prayed and when they felt close to God.

The atmosphere was one of a purposeful and welcoming community. We learned from the director that a big theme of this year is welcoming and inclusion and that many learners with special needs are part of the community.  We were introduced to the learning specialist who seemed so lovely, beloved and integrated into every part of the learning tapestry.  We heard from Nancy Parkes about her building community by using the techniques from The Responsive Classroom, especially the welcoming circle where children learn to listen and tend to each other, to make eye contact, to ask appropriate follow-up questions, and to value and appreciate each other.

The physical environment was inviting and beautiful and supported the learning. We appreciated that the walls of the entire educational space (and this space was the best part of the three floors of the building) were “an educational tableau.”  Nancy explained that the educational council had moved from prohibiting the hanging of things on walls to inviting the beautification of the walls as a rich opportunity to display deep learning and reflection.  Indeed the walls are adorned with magnificent and well placed works of art that are culminating projects, learning benchmarks, and educational resources that are so engaging that they invite further learning and exploration and engender pride in this learning community.IMG_1516

The Day of Learning is bookended by set-induction/connection and reflection. Nancy mentioned to us that the practice of welcoming and beginning learning with a connection and a trigger that sets the learners up for a productive day of learning has become part of the way that all meetings in the synagogue community open.  Similarly, the day of learning closes with multiple opportunities for reflection and processing the learning that happened that day.  I witnessed reflection happening in small groups where the learners drew and wrote a comment about what stood out to them from that day and what they want to think more about.  Learners wrote and drew with crayon on construction paper and the facilitator carefully collected and treasured each reflection.  You could tell that the learners were used to meeting this challenge each time they met.  Everyone sat quietly and wrote and drew something that was meaningful to them.  The teaching team reviews these reflections and builds some mention of them into the next learning session.

I feel lucky to have visited Temple Israel Center’s Shorashim on an ordinary day.  I will treasure my own powerful learning experience as an extraordinary opportunity to see learning that makes a positive difference in learner’s lives in a very Jewish context of everyday life.  Thanks to Nancy Parkes, to Lisa Schwartz, to Michelle Steinhardt, to Amy Rosenbaum, Ilene Bloom Cohen, and Alex Schostak and to the entire staff at Temple Israel Center for their warm hospitality and amazing work!

Jewish Educators: Dust or Angels?

3/17/15

By Cyd Weissman

Educator – who are YOU? Are you just below the angels and (if we could get it right) could you grow the next generation of Jews? Or are you poorly-trained-trapped-in-a-box-folks who are as helpful in growing the next generation of Jews as the dust in your pocket?

The answer depends on who is standing on the soap box.

Beth Cousens’ piece, “Can We Disrupt Religious School” in yesterday’s ejewishphilanthropy seemed to describe Jewish educators as both – a bit above the dust of Philip Roth’s basement and just below the angels, single-handedly able to make seven-year-olds understand the depth and meaning of Judaism.

Points I feel we need to consider:

1. There is no Jewish educational experience that can counter familial and societal norms. Let’s humbly recognize that family values, practices and expectations, not educators, are the prime operating system for the Jewish development of 6-12 year olds. When families check-out and drop-off, there is no Holy Grail of education to counter the family.

2. Religion itself is having a challenging time in 2015 in the USA – ala Pew and the rise of the nons. America at large is not having a religious field day. By overwhelming numbers Jews are still proud, but their knowledge and participation is far less. Again, how could Jewish education counter predominate societal norms?

3. Synagogues, Federations and much of the existing organizational Jewish landscape is still standing for Torah, avodah and gemiliut chasadim, but parents are simply asking: How do I raise a whole child in a seemly broken world?

Jewish education is one component of the larger ecosystem that grows a child. The truth about families, societal norms and reshaping religious ideas that speak to people’s real lives is complicated. It is not as easy as pointing the finger at Hebrew school (the whipping boy of Jewish life).

At our best, using wisdom, rhythm and the comradeship of Jewish life, Jewish Educators are able to connect the questions Jews have when they wake in the morning and when they go to bed at night. When we are at our best, we make possible, each person’s birthright for children and adults to discover their unique path and responsibility of making our challenging world better.

Next month, I’ll have the results of interviews with 100 parents whose children participate in bolder new models of Jewish education emerging across the country. In these interviews, we hear parents who talk Torah with their children, change their hectic schedules to meet Shabbat, and act out Jewish teachings in their lives. I’m glad to add this new body of research to the narrative.

It is not helpful to say in the same breath that Jewish education can make all the difference and makes little difference. Let’s instead talk about addressing the complicated landscape that makes the difference in a child’s life.

Jewish educators are neither dust nor angels. At our best, we are… well what would you say from your soap box?

A Happy Coincidence: My Third Josh Nelson Performance will be at Yachdav

2/26/15

By Jessica Rothbart

“You’re from Toronto? Do you know my friend Jared?”
“ I know you from Boston University’s Hillel!”  
“Don’t I remember you getting bat mitzvahed with my baby cousin?”

Jewish geography is an amazing game. As I have moved through my life, Jewish geography has been a common theme. I was brought up in an involved Jewish home, then I chose Jewish extra-curricular activities and now I work at a non-profit Jewish organization. How do I continue to be surprised when familiar faces pop up?

Lucky for me, one of those familiar faces is Josh Nelson. Heading up the Josh Nelson Project, he is a singer, song-writer musician who is leading the charge of making beautiful, creative music that defies how Jewish music fits into the modern landscape. He will be performing as our “opening act” at this year’s Yachdav Gathering. I was excited to hear that he was chosen to kick off our wonderful day of communal learning. Yachdav is our annual day of learning with member congregations from the Coalition of Innovating Congregations. We welcome education directors, lay leaders, clergy, and teachers to come together to network, learn, celebrate, and grow in a cumulative experience that shares our accomplishments from the year and builds connections to each other. Some people may know Josh from his recent turn as Shlomo Carlebach in the Broadway musical Soul Doctor. Others may recognize him from his shock of jet black, curly hair. josh nelson

Good news, fans. I don’t think the hair is going anywhere. In fact, I remember that hair in two distinct performances from my adolescence (as a curly girl myself, I’m always on the lookout for others in the curl club). The first was at camp. One Sunday at Camp Ramah in New England, we were told there was going to be an evening performance of a band called Yom Hadash. This band featured two brothers who were not trying to make Jewish music cool – they were actually doing it! The rock infused beats got hundreds of campers off their tuchases and had us dancing until what felt like the wee hours (probably 9pm). A fan was born!

The cover of the Yom Hadash album “When We Were Young” featuring the red sun that was featured the band’s shirt.

The cover of the Yom Hadash album “When We Were Young” featuring the red sun that was featured the band’s shirt.

The next time I saw Josh with Yom Hadash, it was at a USY event in Weston, Florida. There was a critical mass of us high school aged, Floridian Ramahniks who piled onto the yellow school bus to get a dose of the excitement that Yom Hadash had brought to camp. We danced in the social hall with other audience members, hearing a mix of original Yom Hadash songs and some fabulous covers. “Mustang Sally” stands out in my mind – it was the first time I had heard it. At the end of the night, I bought a black t-shirt with a glowing red sun, the design from their album over. I’m pretty sure I still have it somewhere.

Now as a professional and mother, it’s so exciting to be able to relive these memories for the first time watching him perform as his solo act. I’m especially excited to hear his piece L’Dor Vador live, which rings especially true now  with two infants at home. Thanks to the good fortune of Jewish Geography I doubt this will be my last run in with the performer.

Hope to see you at Yachdav!

 

All Greek To Me

2/18/15

By Susie Tessel

Have you ever asked yourself why do we pray in Hebrew? Why do we pray in a language different from our native language? I have heard the following answer: We can pray to God in any language, and we know that our heartfelt prayers will be heard voiced in any language. But there is something special about Hebrew that other languages do not have, and Hebrew has a spirituality not found in other tongues. Moreover, many concepts and ideals of Judaism are best expressed in Hebrew, and translations can be inexact. For some, praying in Hebrew allows them to explore the richness and layered meanings that each word conveys. However, many people feel confounded by the different alphabet, and don’t speak Hebrew at all! Is there really a difference in using Hebrew or English in Jewish prayer and ceremony? Does the Hebrew language enable us to relate to God and the Jewish people differently from the way we might in Spanish or French or English that each word conveys? The following story helped clarify some of these questions for me.

download (1)I spent my “Junior Year Abroad” studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Each holiday break, my friends and I tried to explore, a different country or place. Over winter break, we went to Greece. We had been to other countries, but Greece was a completely different experience for us. All of the signs were written in Greek letters. NOT ONE of us spoke Greek, and seemingly none of the locals spoke English. There were no signs in English except for trademark logos like Coca Cola. It was very difficult to get our bearings. We got lost repeatedly! When we finally decoded the intricacies of the subway system, we felt thoroughly triumphant! Athens is a physically beautiful city, and standing in front of the Parthenon, the birthplace of Democracy, was very inspiring. But, all in all, we were foreigners exploring a foreign land, and nothing about that changed. Everything felt different. The people seemed to be warm and friendly, but they spoke so little English and we only spoke the couple of words in Greek our guide book provided. By the end of the week, we felt like we had gleaned about as much as were going to from Greece. The Parthenon at Dusk

We were going to leave early Sunday morning. On Friday night, we went to the large Athens synagogue. It was beautiful. We picked up the siddurim provided and it was, of course, in Hebrew and Greek. Needless to say, the Greek pages were useless to us, but the Hebrew was strangely comforting and familiar. As the Hazan started chanting the Friday Night Service, a spell was cast. We felt like we were surrounded by a warmth we had not felt. Everything looked brighter and felt friendlier. We knew we were finally at home. Most of the tunes were unfamiliar, but we could follow along, and learn the unfamiliar tunes to prayers we said in Atlanta and Chicago and New York and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and sing along together with the locals. The new tunes were fun. The words bound us together.

We exhaled a sigh of relief. This was better already. Then, the Hazan got to the Shema. The entire congregation shouted out the words with such fervor! We knew the Shema! We could participate just as fully as anyone else! And we did! And when we did, the congregants sitting around us moved closer, and smiled wider. We had met new friends. We were all one people and, at that moment, language did not divide us. Instead, language united us!

It was such a wonderful and powerful experience – and one that I would have missed if I had not learned to pray in Hebrew.
The following morning, a family who lived in Athens invited us to join them for lunch. It was the highlight of our trip.

I felt like a member of the global Jewish club, and it was amazing!!!

Tu Bishevat Analogies

2/4/2015

By Susan Tessel

Tu Bishevat, the Jewish New Year for the trees, is here.  Since Biblical times, the Jewish People have been compared, at different moments, to one of a variety of trees.  Such comparisons abound in the book of Psalms and may be found throughout Biblical literature.  The date palm, olive trees and even walnut trees all evidence characteristics which we, as a people, also exhibit.

There are olive trees in Israel that are 1,000 years old and still produce fruit. It is very difficult to destroy an olive tree. The roots of the olive tree go down deep into the soil, anchoring it and preventing erosion. If the branches are cut off, and only the stump remains, that stump will send forth new saplings to grow again. Tu-BShevat

The date palm is also an extraordinary tree.  Every part of the date palm can be used, and every part is needed. That means that no part of the date palm tree need be wasted. The dates are for eating; the lulav branches are for Sukkoth blessings and for thatched roofs, its fibers for ropes, its leaves for sieves and its resilient trunk for building. The date palm is able to bend with the wind without breaking.

Rabbi Tarfon compared the Jewish people to a pile of walnuts in a most singular fashion:  he observed that if even a single walnut is removed or falls, every walnut in the pile is shaken. When a single Jew is in trouble, every Jew is shaken and affected (Avot de Rabbi Natan chapter 18).  Likewise, when a single species is endangered the entire ecosystem is shaken and affected.

What do you think about this analogy?

I have used these analogies successfully in a variety of settings, asking both young and old to select an analogy describing the Jewish People that resonates most.  I have also added the following questions for a gallery walk and follow-up discussion.

The Jewish people have a special relationship with olives and dates – just as olive oil brings light into the world, so do the people of Israel bring light into the world –Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah (1:2).

What are some ways we bring light onto the world? How are you like an olive tree?  How are the Jewish people like the olive tree?

Give an example when you felt like a date palm.  Which do you feel like more –a palm tree or an olive tree – and why?

I ended the discuss with the following bracha:

May we be like a date palm, buffeted by the winds of challenge and change, so that we bend but do not break.   May we know when to accept what cannot be changed and let it go with the wind, and know when to stand firm.

Upcoming!

Introducing Project 613

1/29/15

By Ellen Rank

We often hear, “It takes a village.” At a recent Long Island Educators Peer Network meeting, Faye Gilman of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills shared the fascinating story of her community coming together to imagine, design, create and implement a new way of learning and building Jewish identity. Faye described how a team of educators, parents, clergy and students have created Project 613, a new digital badging program that extends Jewish learning from the religious school into homes. Part of the process is to continually ask: “Where are our families? Where can we get them to?” Faye underscored that the congregation understands and values experimentation.  To learn more about Project 613, visit: www.rtfh.org/Project613

Congratulations to The Reform Temple of Forest Hills for receiving a Covenant Foundation Signature Grant to continue developing and implementing Project 613.

You can learn more about the Project 613 Badge Categories below:

 

 

Riding the wave of change in part-time Jewish education

1/28/15

By Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx/JNS.org

Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences.

The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also means making the necessary investments to further models that already have proved successful.

Pictured here, the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Sholom offers students project-based chugim (electives), an example cited by Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx for an innovative new model in Jewish education. Credit: Provided photo.

Pictured here, the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Sholom offers students project-based chugim (electives), an example cited by Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx for an innovative new model in Jewish education. Credit: Provided photo.

On the ground, these new models resonate with today’s learners and their families. Such educa-tional approaches build relationships between families, integrate technology, and move the learn-ing outside of classroom walls. This is big change we’re talking about, and big change takes part-nerships and collaboration across the Jewish community—partnerships with synagogue profes-sionals and lay leaders, educational agencies, funders, and most importantly, parents.

Nancy Parkes, director of congregational learning at the Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., recently offered important recommendations to advance the congregational educational experience. We would like to call attention to two of her suggestions: “stop the negative narra-tive” and “be our partners.” Opting for part-time “supplementary” Jewish education has been a very good choice—indeed, the right choice—for thousands of families. But it’s time to tell a new story. One of experience, of possibility, of real impact. It’s time to work together.

Five Jewish education agencies from around the country—including New York, Cleveland, Hou-ston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—are engaged in these important efforts through “Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Education,” created with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The stories coming out of our communities are inspiring real change that other com-munities can model and adapt.

One example of an innovative model is the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Shol-om, whose premise is to offer students project-based chugim (electives). One parent comments, “My son retains so much more because teachers now focus on a few core areas for a longer peri-od of time. And the fact that he can choose a chug makes for a more personal experience and gives him a chance to explore a subject that he wants to.”

In San Francisco, Shalom Explorers is a vehicle for families to form neighborhood learning groups and customize individual lesson plans. Now in its second year, the initiative has expanded to multiple sites in the Bay Area. An Explorer parent says, “Shalom Explorers provides parents with an amazing toolkit of resources to bring great lesson plans to life. We were able to select the activities and content that worked for our group of families, and the children were able to learn in fun and exciting ways—through drama, art projects, outdoor activities, and more.”

Anna Marx

Anna Marx

These stories show that part-time Jewish education presents one of the greatest opportunities to engage, inspire, and connect with families. No longer are students learning prayers and stories simply to “check them off the list.” Instead, educators across the country are wrestling with how the learning experiences they offer can best support children and their families, and make a true difference in their lives. In those precious few hours of part-time programs, teachers are parents’ partners in raising children to become mensches.

With this understanding, more and more congregations around the country are trying new models to invigorate the educational experiences they offer. The Jewish community still must do more to help this change happen in a serious, sustainable manner. Fortunately, many are answering this call, and important changes are happening in Jewish education: learning experiences that involve the entire family, deepen connections to Israel, teach Hebrew in more meaningful and relevant ways, and bring the summer camp experience into our schools.

Rabbi Phil Warmflash

Rabbi Phil Warmflash

We see these changes in the Shinui-affiliated communities, and we invite others to be a part of this change—to help build today’s narrative of part-time Jewish education. Together, we can cre-ate and sustain major changes across the country.

Rabbi Phil Warmflash is executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia. Anna Marx is project director of Shinui.
This piece was originally posted on JNS.org. See full article here.

I Admit It, I Miss Camp

1/21/15

By Abby Knopp

I admit it.  I have missed camp these past few months since moving from the Foundation for Jewish Camp to serve as Chief Operating Officer at The Jewish Education Project.  In fact, it has caused me no small amount of angst as I have come to understand how the ground beneath me has shifted.  Merely mentioning what I do for a living no longer elicits knowing smiles accompanied by comments like, “Oh, you have my dream job,” or “I loved camp – what a great way to bring more children to Jewish life.”  Now the conversation is much more complicated.  Because now I am representing parts of the Jewish educational sector that, though widely viewed as critical to our future, very often engender skepticism.  Is the high cost of day school really correspondent to its value?  Is it actually possible to provide engaging and inspiring learning in a synagogue setting? 

This past week I crossed an important threshold into understanding what is possible in synagogue settings.

That’s because last week I was privileged to sit among a group of parents of elementary age children and listen as they spoke with profound gratitude about their new found love of Judaism and about the strong Jewish community they are building, together with other families and within their synagogue, Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.  As participants of MASA, a congregational education model that revolves around the family as the learning unit, these parents agreed to be part of a focus group and to share their experiences.  I hadn’t expected to be moved to tears but I was. 376372_10151116853179026_1763883360_n

There were parents in the room from a variety of Jewish backgrounds.  One gentleman acknowledged that he had been raised in a home that distanced itself from Judaism even though he was sent to Hebrew school.  He has chosen to become part of MASA so that he and his son can experience Jewish growth together and so that his son can be exposed early to Judaism.  Another parent, the mother of an 11-year old girl, talked about the fact that – for her – the time of day when MASA meets (3 – 5:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoons) connects her more closely to the change of seasons and, by extension, to the Jewish calendar.  During the winter months, she and her daughter leave for home in darkness and bundled up in hats and scarves.  With each passing week, it is just a little bit lighter when they walk out of the synagogue doors and, by the end of May, she said, they’ll join friends for ice cream and look forward to several more hours of daylight.

People often refer to camp as a place where “magic” happens.  How true that is.  And last week, I was reminded about the many other places where Jewish magic can happen, too.  For this group of parents, at least, their synagogue-based communal experience brings together a “magical mix” (their terminology) of Jewish learning, friendship, family, and community.  In their own words, they feel “enveloped by Judaism” for the first time in their lives.

And all of this is happening, not at a lake, but on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Building Community at Park Avenue Synagogue

1/15/15

Sarah Lipsey Brokman is an inspiring educator from Park Avenue Synagogue who actively participates in Titchadesh, a Coalition of Innovating Congregations Peer Network made up of Jewish educators who support innovative advancements in congregational learning. With the support of their peers, the Titchadesh network empowers young, dynamic professionals to experiment with fresh ideas and bring their visions to life. All of the educators in the Titchadesh network are full time educators in congregations.  This new staffing structure enables congregations to adapt new models of education – like fully engaging parents as well as children. Our network congregations now have a better capacity to launch programs that fulfill the hopes and dreams of their communities.  

 As the facilitator of Titchadesh, I have the pleasure of engaging regularly with these young leaders. Through our protocols and shared conversations, I witness the incredible work taking place at our participating sites. To widely share their successes, I recently asked participants to share their stories by submitting a blog post to InnovatingCongregations.org,  and I am so thrilled that Sarah heeded this call.

You will enjoy “meeting” Sarah in this post and you’ll gain a glimpse into the amazing model she and her colleagues have built. Here is her powerful story. 

– Suri Jacknis, Associate Director of The Coalition of Innovating Congregations

 

Building Community

By Sarah Lipsey Brokman with an introduction by Suri Jacknis

As a kid, I was lucky enough to grow up in a vibrant Jewish community.  I loved being in shul and spent many hours of my childhood feeling loved by my shul community.  One winter Shabbat, when I was nine years old, both of my parents went home separately after kiddush, thinking that the other parent had taken me home.  They arrived home twenty minutes later to realize that they had left me at synagogue.  My dad drove back in a panic, sure that I would be sitting outside of the building terrified that I had been left alone.  When he arrived, he couldn’t find me because I was inside playing hide and seek with all of my friends.  Since I was so comfortable at my shul, I hadn’t even noticed that my parents had left.  In the event that I had noticed my parents weren’t in the building anymore, there were a dozen other adults I could have gone to for help.  Being connected to this type of synagogue community is why I decided to become a Jewish educator.

Four years ago I began working at Park Avenue Synagogue (PAS) as one of the Assistant Directors in the Congregational School.  I walked into an environment of creative innovation and change at PAS, where the leadership challenged me to dream as big as possible.  I began to reflect on why I became a Jewish educator and I knew I needed to find a way to create that feeling of “home” for the families of PAS that I had for my home shul.  I envisioned a group of families with children in third and fourth grades who were looking for a deeper connection to both the PAS synagogue community and their own individual Jewish identities.  The goal would be to bring these families together to share their values, feelings and thoughts about raising Jewish families.  I decided to call this group, The Covenanting Group because, I wanted people to know that they were joining a group which honored their brit, their covenant, to their Jewish identities and to the PAS community.  I spent the summer reaching out to families and advertising to the whole community. By September, twelve families signed up.  Since I had already decided that I would have run the program with five families, this was a huge success!

The first Covenanting Group event took place in the sanctuary with Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove.  As Rabbi Cosgrove and I welcomed the group, a shiver of electricity ran through me.  The idea had come to fruition.  Rabbi Cosgrove asked each family to spread out in the sanctuary and discuss their goals for the year in The Covenanting Group.  The families all expressed one common value: community.  The group’s purpose became clear.  We spent the year learning together and creating a community within our already vibrant PAS community.

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As we began to plan for a second cohort of The Covenanting Group, I reflected back on the pilot group’s experience.  I realized that we needed to increase the time spent doing Jewish learning – so we partnered with ShalomLearning and made once-a-month online learning part of The Covenanting Group experience.  The communal programming was centered on Shabbat and holidays, a decision which helped our group connect to the Jewish calendar in a more meaningful way.  The biggest learning from that first year was the recognition that the group needed an immersive experience to culminate the year.

This capstone experience was a retreat that occurred in April filled with learning, food and fun.  The adults were able to schmooze, while the kids played and intensified their already strong friendships.  During one activity, the families created a “values map” using strips of paper with 15 different Jewish values, which each family ordered according to the importance in their family’s life.  These conversations were by no means easy, but the buzz of immersive family learning was one I had never experienced before.  After the families finished working with their own values maps, each family shared their map with another family.  I watched as a major goal of The Covenanting Group came to life: families sharing their Jewish values with one another. Since we grappled with big questions of Jewish identity, values and meaning, the families were now able share their answers with each other, in hopes of inspiring more meaningful Jewish engagement as a community.

As I work with the 21 families in the third cohort of The Covenanting Group, I remember being a 9 year old child playing in shul.  Creating a space within the synagogue community to play, learn and connect is a necessary component of Jewish life.  As we look to find ways to keep Jews involved in synagogue and communal life, these connections are at the core.   Helping people connect to one another on a deep Jewish level is the most rewarding and important thing I have done thus far in my career.  This group is a vehicle for connection, a way for families to find “home” at PAS.

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