Dollars and Sense


Walk through any number of the area’s supplemental Jewish educational programs and it’ll be quickly clear that these aren’t your parents’ Hebrew schools.

For them, or perhaps in your own Hebrew school experience, upward of six agonizing hours a week were devoted to rote memorization of prayers and traditions. As The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Learning Commission noted in its “Spotlight on Supplementary Jewish Education,” “[there is an] awareness that there has been much significant negative review of supplementary schools in the latter part of the 20th century.”

Today’s supplemental schools — also known as Hebrew schools, Sunday schools, religious schools and congregational schools — have changed dramatically in the new millennium. The changes range from what they’re named — you don’t dare call Beth Am Synagogue’s program a Hebrew school, for instance — to when, where and for how long classes are held to the adoption of effective secular teaching techniques.

In such programs, educators see a wealth of opportunity, if not always a wealth of monetary resources. Innovative programming is great, they say, but field trips and special guest appearances cost money, and funds are frequently tight. No educator interviewed for this story said that the price of tuition actually covered the cost of a religious school education.

And yet, the general desire not to overwhelm parents forces programs to seek alternate forms of funding.

“A family of five with three kids in third through seventh grades may pay up to $5,000 between tuition and dues, not including all the other extras — camp, donations, Shabbat dinners,” said Rabbi Daniel Plotkin, education director at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia.

No family is ever turned away for inability to pay, he was quick to add, a sentiment echoed by other educators.

As a result of fiscal realities, congregations end up supplementing the budgets of their religious schools, sometimes in excess of 50 percent of the school’s operating budget. Principals, therefore, turn to communal organizations for a financial boost, but some of those funds are becoming scarcer.

Last week, the Jewish Federation of Howard County approved a budget that changes how religious schools will be funded come September.

In years past, explained Michelle Ostroff, the federation’s executive director, the religious schools located in Howard County received funding in two ways. Each institution received a block grant and an allotment for scholarship money on a per-capita basis.

Last year, $32,000 was disbursed to religious schools, with a small portion of the money designated for needs-based scholarships for families sending their children to day schools in Baltimore or Montgomery counties. There are no day schools in Howard County.

But as of the budget vote on May 21, schools will no longer automatically receive funding. Instead, they will have to apply to the federation for grants for specific programming. The exact amount that will be made available was not disclosed as of press time, but Ostroff stated that the pool of money available for religious schools come this fall will see “a slight reduction.”

This reflects the fact that the Jewish Federation of Howard County raised $605,000 in its most recent annual campaign. To be commensurate with similarly sized federations, such as the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania and the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater in Virginia, Ostroff estimated her federation would need to manage a $1 million campaign.

Howard County is a growing Jewish community with limited resources, Ostroff explained, home to 17,500 Jews across 7,500 Jewish households, according to a 2010 community study. Fewer than 800 donors contributed to the 2014 campaign.

Speaking anonymously, members of the community expressed frustration and concern at the cutbacks and change in how funds will be awarded to Hebrew schools. Ostroff, though, asserted that “the federation is absolutely dedicated to teaching our children. That’s one of our core values and will not change.”

“I would encourage federations not to give up on supplemental schools because that’s the main way that non-Orthodox students get their Jewish education,” said Plotkin.” In Howard County especially, the religious schools are important if not the sole source of Jewish education outside the home. Or at least the source that’s available [nearly] year round.”

The funding switch approved in Howard County dovetails with a decision made by the Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated, more than a decade ago, according to the agency’s CEO, Larry Ziffer. That move, he said, was in response to shifting priorities and a decline in enrollment.

“We had to realize that we [couldn’t] fix the schools, the challenge was too great,” said Ziffer. “In order to turn the CJE into a successful model, we had to turn the priority of the schools over to the congregations, to the movements.”

He further asserted that educators who express a desire for the good old days of more teaching hours, stipends and incentives for professional development and a widely advertised community-wide teacher salary scale may be looking at the past through rose-colored glasses.

“There are ample resources,” said Ziffer. “The problem isn’t a lack of resources, it’s a lack of participation.”

Ziffer and his chief operating officer, Amian Frost Kelemer, pointed to the financial, educational and professional resources that continue to be made available to congregational schools and educators in greater Baltimore. Resources include a free lending library, Sulam Salon classroom trade books, Gratz College-NEXT: The Professional Learning Program for Supplementary School Teachers — a professional development program developed in Philadelphia which CJE will supplement up to 75 percent — Crane Professional development stipends and Jewish Education Enhancement Projects. According to a report by The Associated, $110,500 was distributed through JEEP.

For her part, Ostroff noted that beyond direct funding, religious schools in Howard County, like those in Baltimore’s orbit, also benefit from federation programming, such as a Jewish Agency for Israel emissary who works in the religious schools on Israel-related education.

But at the end of the day, those on the front lines of providing Jewish education continue to stress they need more.

Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation, said, “I think that it’s mandatory for large Jewish communities as a whole to support and
enhance Jewish education for future generations [and] to make it affordable for young Jewish families. We are commanded l’dor vador, to teach future generations.”

[pullquote][we’re trying] to build in more immersion experiences. It’s continuing to evolve depending on the wants and desires of the families and congregation.[/pullquote]Such support, though, needn’t come solely from Jewish federations. Other philanthropic foundations, like the Blaustein Philanthropic Fund, award grants for innovative education, while in Baltimore, the Charles Crane Family Foundation, Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Study, alongside The Associated, provide funds for Beit-RJ, a Jewish educational program for teens affiliated with the Reform movement.

These funds are seen as crucial to the continuing evolution of religious school education.

Some of that evolution has been as simple as doing away with the terminology of the past.

Starting this fall, Har Sinai Congregation is rebranding its school as the Judaic Education Magnet, or JEM, as in “the crown jewel of the congregation,” explained Jo-Ellen Unger, director of congregational learning. Likewise at Beth Am, Rabbi Kelley Gludt developed the Jewish Discovery Lab, known as the Lab for short.

And rebranding is just the start. When and for how long students are in the classroom has changed dramatically, particularly within the Conservative movement, Plotkin explained. “Religious school has changed a lot. Twenty years ago, three day a week programs were the standard and today those programs are exceedingly rare.”

One of the challenges of meeting two days a week, he said, is that the children arrive right from school and they’re tired or they’d rather be playing sports or participating in the school play.

To address the reality, Plotkin and his staff created Jewish Experiential Wednesdays. Third through seventh graders are given a theme for the semester that is broken down into subtopics. The theme this semester is Jewish history and a recent subtopic was life in the shtetl. Students learned about the shtetl — there were even some snippets of “Fiddler on the Roof” involved — and created their own model shtetl out of clay, down to the tiniest detail: little braided challahs went in the baker’s cart.

There’s also been a shift to meeting families where they are. For Beth El Congregation in Pikesville that means in the physical sense; the synagogue has seven satellite Hebrew schools where teachers travel for the benefit of students who may live too far away to attend the regular weekday class. Jill Eisen, director of the Hebrew School in Your Neighborhood initiative, was recently feted by the CJE for the development of the program.

Over at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s religious school, under the leadership of education director Brad Cohen, families can choose an education model that meets their schedule and the children’s educational needs.

The student who doesn’t do well in a classroom setting can participate in Jewish Outdoor Education with his or her family on select weekends and work with a tutor during the week. The program will likely evolve into a family and mitzvah program, according to Cohen. Though the BHC religious school meets on Sunday mornings, students who want to explore Hebrew more in-depth can partake in a midweek Hebrew class or Skype one-on-one with a language tutor.

“[We’re trying] to build in more immersion experiences,” said Cohen. “It’s continuing to evolve depending on the wants and desires of the families and congregations.”

Hands-on, engaging field trips and activities have also been incorporated into religious education alongside history, Judaics, prayers and Hebrew. In its pilot year, Hebrew School on the Farm brought 70 students from Beth El, BHC and Beth Israel Congregation to the Pearlstone Center to learn about Hebrew blessings, tzedakah, avoiding waste and communal responsibility.

“Immersive,” “engaging,” “hands-on” — these are not the experiences of previous generations of religious school attendees, but through the best use of public school best practices, incorporation of innovative experiences and intentionally probing curricula, Unger said educators like her are beginning to see positive results. All of her b’nai mitzvah students have returned to class within weeks of their ceremonies, she pointed out, and she has 22 counselors in grades eight through 12 who volunteer their time in younger students’ classrooms.

“In 10 years when these kids who had a positive experience are out in the world,” she said, “I wonder how that will change Judaism?”

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