Beth Israel Congregation is shaking things up by implementing a new curriculum for third through seventh graders at its religious school, the Joseph and Corinne Schwartz Beth Israel Community Learning Lab.
“How I would describe what this turned into is a choose-your-own adventure, basically,” said Rabbi Ariel Platt, Beth Israel’s director of education and engagement. “You sort of get to choose your own track in religious school.”
After first joining the Beth Israel staff in July 2019 and getting to know the community and faculty, Platt and her staff decided to “try something new,” she said.
When first imagining the new curriculum, Platt explained, she began by recalling what it was like to start college and, for the first time, choose classes and “decide what you want to be when you grow up.”
Starting up in September of 2020, the new curriculum was based on an elective system, with students getting to choose the classes most interesting to them, Platt explained. Over time, the students will accumulate credits from taking classes on subjects such as Torah, theology, Jewish culture, Israeli startups, Jews and sports, Jewish food and even one on Jewish superheroes. The classes on Jewish food and Jews in the sports world, Platt noted, were proving particularly popular with their students.
“It was really important for us that students have the ability to really connect with the things that they’re interested in [in] Judaism and really start to identify what is calling out to them,” Platt said.
The students take one elective course per semester, in addition to taking a class on Hebrew. The students’ classes are normally held on Sundays and Tuesdays.
One additional change to the curriculum involved adapting to platforms like Zoom, Platt said, as, aside from a few outdoor courses, all classes now need to be done online. She expressed gratitude for her staff’s ability to put together an adaptable curriculum in the online space.
One goal Platt has is to “refuel the spark of Jewish learning within these kids, within the students and also their parents,” she said. Four times a year, she explained, the new curriculum includes family programs that are open to students’ parents. Besides one family program based around the opening of school, most of these programs focus on holidays such as Sukkot and Chanukah.
Platt hopes to make these family programs longer and more in depth once Beth Israel receives word that it is considered safer to gather indoors.
Some parents have given the new program strong praise.
“There’s a lot of fun activities or curriculum they’ve brought in that really brings Jewish culture to what they’re familiar with,” said Jennifer Gelman of Reisterstown. A member of Beth Israel, her daughter Abigail, 12, and son Ari, 10, both attend the shul’s Community Learning Lab. “They’ve really done a great job of trying to connect it back to what the kids are interested in.”