Old Concepts, New Approaches

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When fall comes around, Rabbi Faith Cantor plans to begin the new year of Sunday school at Ellicott City’s Bet Chaverim Congregation in the great outdoors. Among the activities she’s prepared, Cantor, Bet Chaverim’s educational director, will erect a series of targets and give students objects to throw at them.

It is likely that frustration will ensue because none of the students will be successful at hitting the marks. Not because they lack the strength, or accuracy, per se, but because Cantor will intentionally set the demonstration up this way.


“They’ll have to go back and try again and again and again,” said Cantor. “All of us miss targets, but do you just walk away from it and say, ‘I don’t care’? Or do you return to the beginning and try to do it differently?”

This demonstration, which might sound like the human equivalent of cats chasing a laser beam, is meant to illustrate the Jewish principle of teshuvah, or returning to the beginning. Taking a Jewish concept and demonstrating it to children in an active and engaged way is just one example of reaching students through experiential learning. A far cry from rote memorization, experiential learning emphasizes children learning from experience rather than from didactic approaches like lectures or textbook readings.

Amian Frost Kelemer (File photo)

“This is not only a trend in Jewish education but across North America in general education, too,” said Amian Frost Kelemer, the CEO of the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore.

“We’re trying, in the educational community, to be more intentional about what we teach because of the speed of learning and the easy access kids have to facts now,” Kelemer said. “We shouldn’t be teaching kids anything they can Google.”

But what should educators teach their students instead?

For many Jewish institutions in the Baltimore area, emphasis on problem-solving, collaboration with other students, completion of long-term projects, and instilling a sense of responsibility and ownership have become the tenets of religious education. Moving outside of the classroom — literally and figuratively — has become a standard mode of operation.

On Aug. 5, the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown completed its second annual Tiyul Overnight Adventure Camp. Through activities such as building fires, identifying animal tracks, participating in farm-to-table food preparation and celebrating Shabbat in the forest, campers made Earth-based associations with Jewish traditions without reading Torah.

“I went to a Jewish elementary and middle school growing up,” said Miki Levran, Pearlstone’s Tiyul Adventures director. “We prayed to a siddur every morning, there was a little bit of choice for Torah study, but we were never outside. Learning straight from the Torah, just reading it and translating it, I didn’t have a personal connection.”

For Pearlstone and other institutions that employ immersive learning opportunities, the techniques are meant to work in tandem with traditional forms of education.

“We would never take the place of Hebrew schools — they are equally important,” said Sonja Sugerman, Pearlstone’s director of programming, who’s beginning to evaluate which basic texts will serve as a foundation for the curriculum. “But again, that may not be on paper. Kids remember stories when they are told well. If it’s told verbally with excitement and a way to connect, they’re going to remember it.”

Such experiential approaches are not new to Jewish education, which experts note has often diverged from traditional American classroom-style learning. In fact, the embrace of immersive learning techniques is less of an adaptation to new protocol as it is a reclamation of tradition.

We’re trying, in the educational community, to be more intentional about what we teach because of the speed of learning and the easy access kids have to facts now. We shouldn’t be teaching kids anything they can Google. — Amian Frost Kelemer, CEO, Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish
Education in Baltimore

“These kinds of educational models are a sort of tikkun,” said Rabbi Jessy Dressin, the senior director of Jewish learning and life at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC. “In large part, we think of Jewish education as formal learning. But inherently, organically and holistically Jewish education has always been immersive.”

Dressin and the JCC are about to roll out a new family-based education program called My Tribe, which is funded by the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds for the next three years.

So far, 15 families have signed up, but as many as 30 can participate in the first year. The program has three “tribes” — eight to 12 families — that agree to meet six times per year to participate in a series of customizable events. Dressin is currently creating My Tribe’s menu of options.

The events can be anything from building a sukkah on Sukkot or planting trees on Tu B’Shevat to celebrating “Shabbat Around the World,” a dinner at which each family learns about Jewish communities in places like India or Yemen and cooks a representative dish for the group.

My Tribe programming is for families with children in kindergarten through third grade. It is Dressin’s intention to have families enter the b’nai miztvah stage with a communal, collective mindset.

“I believe that a rabbi who is trying to engage a liberally observant Jewish person needs to work really hard in showing them that what’s available to them doesn’t necessarily have to result in the tradition that they picture when they picture what it means to be a good Jew,” said Dressin. Like Pearlstone’s Tiyul camps, My Tribe is not attempting to take the place of traditional Jewish learning. Rather, the idea is to build a foundation for the students that will encourage their engagement later on.

Rabbi Kelly Gludt, director of congregational learning at Beth Am Synagogue. (Justin Tsucalas photo)

When Rabbi Kelly Gludt joined Beth Am Synagogue six years ago as its first director of congregational learning, she was tasked with revamping the congregation’s approach to Jewish education. The result was the Beth Am Jewish Discovery Lab, a project-based approach to religious school — but don’t let Gludt hear you call it that.

“I kind of banned the words ‘religious school’ and ‘Hebrew school’ because it draws a clear connotation, to a certain generation, that doesn’t represent our approach to Jewish education,” said Gludt, who describes Beth Am’s approach as a sort of “sacred chaos.”

“A student at Lab doesn’t need to know what year the Second Temple fell. They need to know that there was a Second Temple, what that meant to our people and what their Judaism looks like in this moment because of that event,” she said. “If they want specific details, they all have phones.”

Beth Am is a small enough congregation that it can be nimble in its approach to programming — testing out new ideas, keeping what works and abandoning what doesn’t. For example, Beth Am does not have a designated school building, so one of its programmatic experiments was testing out an open-classroom model that doesn’t separate students based on grade. Once this method proved successful, Beth Am began implementing processes that allow students to take responsibility for their own education.

Before a unit on a particular topic begins, faculty and students have discussions about what the students already know, what they think they should know, and what they would like to know, in order to map out learning goals. Out of that process comes the development of a particular learning environment — perhaps a makerspace where students work on long-term projects, like building replicas of the Second Temple.

“Makerspaces are a big trend,” said Kelemer. “Educators should be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage. By being on the side, you get much better achievements from the kids.”

At the Ohr Chadash Academy in Park Heights, Randi Orshan has been employing experiential learning techniques with both the academic and religious courses, including interdisciplinary makerspaces for middle schoolers. A project like clothing production, for example, can be taught from a number of perspectives, including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), history and English.

Beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, kindergarteners will no longer be expected to read before moving into first grade. Ohr Chadash will instead implement play-based learning, which encourages students to inquire about topics rather than having a teacher tell them.

“There is research to dispute research, but everything we do, whether it’s progressive or not, there has to be a basis of understanding for it, and a willingness to say let’s try it,” said Orshan.

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Many of the approaches that seem controversial, Orshan said, turn out not to have negative effects. For example, outside of reading assignments, Ohr Chadash does not assign homework, which can be a significant source of stress for both students and parents.

“We’ve had nothing to show that not assigning homework has caused any problems,” Orshan said.

Moving away from textbooks, classrooms and homework in the Jewish classroom doesn’t mean everything is all fun, all the time. The hard work is far from over. Hebrew education, for example, has proven to be difficult without the same amount of classroom hours devoted to it.

“When I went to Hebrew school, I had six hours a week of education,” said Kelemer. “Nowadays, most kids who are enrolled in Hebrew school are attending one and a half, maybe two and a half hours a week. You can’t make a promise that you’ll have conversational Hebrew unless you do something outside of the classroom in a creative way to make an immersive language experience.”

Temple Isaiah in Howard County recently completed a two-year overhaul that led the congregation to revise its religious school programming.

“What we had was falling short,” said Rabbi Daniel Plotkin. “First major change was to eliminate Hebrew decoding through third grade.”

Instead, they adopted a program called Hebrew Through Movement, which teaches young students basic Hebrew vocabulary by having them respond physically to spoken commands.

In addition, Temple Isaiah will separate the skill of decoding from the understanding of prayer. Fourth- through sixth -graders will have a separate period of time during which they study prayer.

At Bet Chaverim, Cantor will employ a more whimsical strategy: a turtle puppet that speaks to students entirely in Hebrew, prompting them to help him get tasks completed. Jewish concepts and vocabulary will be taught along the way.

“I kind of banned the words ‘religious school’ and ‘Hebrew school’ because it draws a clear connotation, to a certain generation, that doesn’t represent our approach to Jewish education.” — Rabbi Kelly Gludt, director of congregational learning at Beth Am Synagogue

“So we have this very nice turtle who moved all the way from Israel to hang out with us in Howard County,” said Cantor. “He wants his very own bayit, his very own house. So the kids throughout the year are going to learn all the rooms of the house and build Bentzi a bayit. He’s going to have a mansion.”

Cantor recognizes that not all schools have the resources to devote to such programming.

“The challenge is that it is much easier to give students and teachers a textbook and when they finish on page 18, they know the following week they pick up on page 19,” said Cantor. “This is going to take a lot more preparation. I’ve been working all summer and I’ve planned what the kids are going to do through November.”

At the Pearlstone Center, educational programming is not assessed in traditional classroom ways. Without test scores or evaluations, quantifying a camper’s experience can be difficult. But assistant director Sarah Shalva remains confident that staff and family alike can see the campers’ transformations.

“When you’re evaluating experiential programming, it’s complicated to quantify inspiration,” she said. “People come out here and they sleep and eat in a sukkah and it transforms the way they understand the holiday of Sukkot. We’re providing transformational experiences, but measuring that change is challenging.”

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But perhaps the biggest challenge for educators has been the secularization of young Jewish families, which has caused a decline in religious school registration.

Rabbi Dressin said several young Jewish families that have signed up for My Tribe have done so specifically because they don’t want to send their children to Hebrew school.

“Our families are so overprogrammed and our families are so rarely together that if you say, ‘We want to plug into your Sunday morning space,’ they say, ‘Not my family!’” said Dressin. “We have people signing up for My Tribe that are saying they’re not sending their kid to Hebrew school because they don’t want to give up 25 percent of the time that is sacred for their family.”

Rabbi Plotkin is also aware of this problem.

“I said one time to our task force that Temple Isaiah is the largest religious school in Howard County,” recalled Plotkin. “But when we got to the end of the meeting I realized that wasn’t entirely true. I then said the largest religious school in Howard County is ‘I don’t go to a religious school.’ That’s the real competition. We’re not in competition with the other synagogues. I hope that if we gain another 100 students, the others do, too. The community will be better for it.”

Kelemer recognizes many Jews consider their Jewish identity as merely one part of who they are.

“It’s more, ‘I’m a drummer, I speak Mandarin, I’m Jewish,’” said Kelemer. “That change has necessitated in the congregational school world a real change toward trying to find things that are compelling for people to participate in.”

Kelemer feels the institutions are on the right track by having plentiful options and maintaining a balance of old and new techniques.

“You need a bit of everything. You need to be able to inspire curiosity, you need kids to be able to dig into things that are meaningful to them personally,” said Kelemer.

“You need to be able to figure out how to use technology, but also the outdoors. The more, the more.”

cgraham@midatlanticmedia.com

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