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“What Do You Want?”

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Flickr Image by Roo Reynolds

by Pam Barkley

“What do you want?”

It’s a pretty straightforward question, and once in a while there is a pretty simple answer. Though I must admit I have sometimes been stunned when a waitress asks me this at let's say, a diner. So many choices! Do I want eggs or pancakes? The wrap or the sandwich? Even the simplest decisions can create anxiety and uncertainty.

So imagine being asked what you want out of your kids’ Religious School.

We knew this was not going to be easy. It is, after all, not as straightforward as eggs vs. pancakes. But as we worked with the Jewish Education Project’s LOMED program, we thought it was time to find out what it is our parents actually wanted from our school. What were their hopes and dreams for their kids? What did they want it to be? We were fortunate to have a professional Focus Group Moderator as an active congregant who volunteered her time and expertise. We sent out a sign-up genius to the entire K-6 parent population and figured we would be happy with one small group. We were however, pleasantly surprised by the response and actually had to turn away couples (we told them that only one spouse from a family could come). According to our professional moderator, a focus group is most successful at 8-10 people. We ended up with two, filled groups.

As you might imagine, these parents had a lot to say. They did not like non-Hebrew reading homework because their kids feel too pressured already. They did not like some of our Family Education programs because they were being asked to be too creative. They did not like having to come here for traffic duty. They were pretty clear – and vocal – about what they didn’t like, what they didn’t want.

And what did they want? Well turns out that was a whole lot more difficult for them to describe. They wanted their kids to feel good about coming to synagogue. They wanted their kids to have a positive Jewish identity. But what does that mean exactly? And how to get all those things? As Shakespeare famously said, “Ah! There’s the rub!”

It seems to me that most of us have an awfully hard time articulating specifically what it is we want out of Religious School. Because “Positive Jewish identity” may mean a love of the holidays to one parent, and mean a knowledge of Jewish history to another and mean an identification with Israel to yet another. There are so many meanings, so many possibilities, that like the feeling I get at the diner, it’s hard to know which way to go.

So we will keep trying to talk to parents to get more specifics. We have just sent out a survey to our pilot program class asking them very specifically what they want to learn about in relation to Israel. It seems like it has been helpful for people to have check off boxes with choices. Eggs? Check. Juice? Check? English muffin? No thanks. They can they say “yes” or “no” to something very tangible. Clearly, this is a work in progress.

Of course, no matter what they check off, there are still things I believe we, as Educators, need to insist are a part of any solid, core curriculum. That in itself is probably a topic for a whole other post. But for

the moment, I hope that we can continue to involve our learners – the parents and the students – in a conversation about what it is they want from our school. And then, I am hoping that it is something we can quickly add to our menu!

Pam Barkley is the Director of Education at Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, and has worked with LOMED since its inception. She has a loud voice, curly hair, and is always seeking the next big thing in Jewish Education. 


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