Staff at Bet Chaverim Religious School are looking forward to making their own mark on the new educational facilities their students will get to use in the coming academic year.
Starting in September, classes will meet in the synagogue’s new permanent location. The congregation has been gradually moving into its new space, located at 8930 Old Annapolis Road, Suite C, in Columbia. The synagogue entered into a five-year lease for the space last September.
“We are a school that doesn’t just learn about Judaism, but we are a school that’s immersive in doing our Judaism,” said Rabbi Faith Cantor, Bet Chaverim’s educational director and a resident of Baltimore.
Referring to their program as a synagogue or congregational school, Cantor explained that, as opposed to studying from textbooks, which are rarely used, classes often go out into the community.
“It’s an entire curriculum that’s based on doing and being a part of the community,” Cantor said.
Soon after Bet Chaverim Congregation’s founding, the synagogue determined that a school would be essential, said Phil Rogofsky, president of Bet Chaverim and a resident of Columbia. At one of the initial meetings to plan the school, attendees listed out the different things they’d found disappointing in their own Hebrew school experiences as children, in order to build a school from the bottom up that might avoid these negative experiences, Cantor said.
The school was established in 2016, with Alison Zimbalist, the wife of the then-congregational Rabbi Morris Zimbalist, acting as a driving force, said Rogofsky.
The school accepts children of both members and nonmembers from kindergarten through seventh grade. The upcoming academic year will run from Sept. 5 through May 22, and will have two faculty members, in addition to Cantor, who also teaches, overseeing more than 20 students.
Classes meet for three hours on Sunday mornings. Morning tefilot are done with all of the students together regardless of age. This is followed by Hebrew classes, with students divided based on skill level, then the Tanakh and Jewish value sections, where classes are split from kindergarten through third grade in one section and fourth grade and up in the other. The day normally ends with one-on-one Hebrew instruction, followed by several different electives available for students to choose from.
Every five to six weeks, classes are held out in the community, usually engaged in either social action-related projects or “culminations of a topic of study,” Cantor said. For example, the classes will go apple picking for Rosh Hashanah. One of the school’s upcoming social action projects will involve a painting workshop, where the students will create paintings that will be donated to senior assisted living facilities.
In 2020, the school began a new virtual Hebrew program called the Individual Hebrew Program. While the program initially began in response to the pandemic, it’s proven successful enough to continue into the coming year.
“Over the course of the year, we had students who did not read Hebrew in the beginning of the year, who are now rather good at it,” Cantor said. “So we saw that success of being one on one, and really being able to focus [on] how a specific student learns and tailoring Hebrew reading for that.”
Prior to the pandemic, Bet Chaverim Religious School classes would normally be held at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia. This heavily restricted staff when it came to what changes they could make to the space, such as how it could be decorated or what could be left behind after a class, Rogofsky said. The new facility gives staff the freedom to put their own stamp on their classroom environment.
“To be able to walk into a brand new building and have someone say, ‘Imagine what the classrooms are going to look like,’ it’s really fun to build that kind of space,” Cantor said. “And the shul’s very committed to that really reflecting, again, who we are as a school.”