Thursday, March 8, 2012

Shabbat Chai: A Modest Proposal for our Religious School

For a couple of years, we've been talking about what we need to do to talk our religious school to the next level. Our kids (and their parents) are facing increasing challenges and commitments; they're here less frequently, losing those precious moments when they can build relationships. They love coming to youth group events, but have trouble making time for them. They love being here, but another day in desks isn't instilling the love of Torah and Judaism we would want. So, we needed to respond accordingly. We've knocked around ideas like Sabbath School (a la Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and Temple Beth El in Orange County, or going to a camp-style model like Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. Regardless, we clearly need to get our kids up and moving. At the URJ biennial, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, our new president, gave us a mission: take the things we're doing well and make them better. Lift everything up. Engage our youth in a more dynamic fashion.

That's why, for the past couple of weeks, I've been proposing a program we're calling Shabbat Chai (if it sounsd an awful lot like Beth El's program, that's because it is inspired by them. Don't tell, okay?). This is something that has been examined, questioned, and worked over carefully by our staff, teachers, and lay-leadership, and now we felt it was time to present it to the parents to solicit feedback and determine the way forward. You can find a modified version of my Powerpoint presentation here.

The idea is this: our kids need to live in Jewish time, be surrounded by a community of peers who love doing Judaism with each other, and experience (and create) authentic Jewish experiences. Imagine every session beginning with mixers and team-building to help create community, then moving on to interactive, engaging programs (including Tikkun Olam programs) that help the kids learn but also EXPERIENCE Judaism, getting closer to their Reform values. Imagine B'nai Mitzvah leading services for grades K-2, buddying up with our Consecrants, our 1st graders. Imagine the confidence, the community that this would create. Imagine parents and kids building relationships with each other and peers. Imagine monthly Tikkun Olam projects, helping our kids learn that tzedakah is as much about wisdom and work as wealth. Imagine us creating the Religious School experience WE would want to go to.

The controversial part of the program is that it would happen on Shabbat, taking the place of Sunday School. Obviously, any change of that drama requires feedback, so that's what we're looking to do now. We've had 2 parent meetings out of three. I've received emails, seen facebook postings, taken phone calls and sat down with folks individually. I've received response cards. Much of it has generated a fantastic discussion: what are our values and priorities as parents, as Jews? What role should the synagogue play in the development of a Jewish child? How do we navigate our myriad identities? How do we make compromises and when are they appropriate? How do we want to live our Jewish lives?

As you might imagine, some folks have been incredibly passionate on both sides. Some parents have said to me "this is what I've been looking for!" Others have said, "please don't do this!" Even with those who have been unenthusiastic about the change of days, I've been able to have real conversations about what might work, including curriculum ideas, doing Shabbat 1/month instead of 4x/month, doing Shabbat only during the winter months, moving Wednesday mid-week Hebrew school to Friday instead, and several other suggestions. I welcome all of them and the opportunity to talk to people about what all this means.

Nothing's been decided; we're just expanding our discussion to move beyond the leadership toward the families, and what we do will be predicated on the kind of feedback we're receiving, including alternative suggestions and ideas. But just as I (and the leadership) approach this from a position of learning and respect, my hope is that parents, grandparents and other interested folks will respond in kind.

At the end of my presentation, there's a quote: "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea". (Antoine de Saint-Exupery). Our task as a congregation (and my task as a rabbi) is to inspire people to yearn for the sea of Torah, and to remind people of its inherent value. We spend too much time telling people to gather wood and divide the work, and not enough yearning. Our hope is this curriculum will change that.

So, all that said, whaddaya think?


  1. Rabbi,
    One of the reasons I look up to you as a teacher and leader is your ability to put the ideas of our Sages in modern terms e.g. Saint-Exubery, the great writer and pilot.


  2. Thanks Fred! Wish I could claim credit, as I was inspired by another presentation on a Shabbat School program that used that quote, but it is one that has stuck with me once taken in that context. And sure beats Satre!