Aug 30, 2016

From DIY to Outdoor Ed: A Sampling of Jewish After-School Programs

Around the country, Jewish educators are responding to a growing need for creative and flexible programming that offers Jewish education outside of the synagogue setting. From innovative after school care, to hiking as preparation for a bar or bat mitzvah, these programs are creating immersive and joyful spaces for Jewish kids to learn and grow.

We've compiled a selection; Please tell us about other great programs in your neck of the woods by leaving a comment below:


For interfaith and unaffiliated families

At the Atlanta Jewish Kids Groups, run by Executive Director Ana Robins, families have two options--a 5-day-a-week after school program, and a Sunday program. The 5-day program runs from 2:30-6pm, and gives time for Jewish learning, singing, snack, Hebrew language, playground, and homework help. Aimed specifically at interfaith and unaffiliated families, JKG wanted to broaden the impact that a supplementary school can have on their community. JKG is entering its fourth year this fall, with 45 students enrolled in the 5-day program, and 180 more in the Sunday program, in two locations.


Engaging Whole Families

Makom Community in Philadelphia is focused on creating family-centered Jewish experiences. In structure, Makom is similar to a few other programs in the Nitzan Network: staff pick the children up from their schools five days a week and bring them for text study, multi-modal learning spaces, and tefillah that includes music, movement, and sign language. But each week Makom, lead by Founding Director Beverly Socher-Lerner, also includes a Friday afternoon Shabbat service for the whole family, where parents and their children learn a Jewish text together, weaving everyone’s experiences together. Makom also offers camp days when school is not in session during the year, and two weeks of summer camp. Entering its third year, Makom has more than doubled enrollment each year of its existence.


A Pluralistic Approach

The Jewish Enrichment Center in Hyde Park, Chicago serves a diverse mix of families with different beliefs and practices; one of the cornerstones of their program is that there are many ways to be Jewish. Serving children after school, JEC uses project-based learning, allows families to pick which days they want their child to attend, and offers a Sunday program, too. Each day closes with 20 minutes of shira/tefillah, when parents join their children for connection and song.


Combining a DIY Ethos With a Supportive Community

Mensch Academy is starting this year in Lakeview, Chicago. Inspired by maker spaces, and affiliated with Mishkan Chicago, this new program is focused on ensuring kids in 3rd-6th grades feel comfortable and safe so they can experiment and think creatively about Judaism. Using hevruta learning and different modalities, the project-based curriculum will use larger themes to give structure to the year, and help kids develop their own sense of spirituality. Mensch Academy meets once a week after school, and one Sunday a month for kids and parents together.


Alternative B’nei Mitzvah Approaches

In New York City, Lab/Shul's innovative program for tweens, "Raising the Bar," prepares them (and some adults) for their "b mitzva," an intentionally gender-neutral term. The year-long program involves the whole family, and pairs each tween with a personal maven who trains the learner to encounter and engage in three different kinds of curricular content: What's my Story (Jewish text), Top Ten (basic principles of faith), and It's About Time (lifecycle events and holidays). In addition to 45 sessions with their maven, there are whole family and social justice programs once a month. At the end, each tween is the storahtelling maven at their own unique b-mitzva.


Hebrew Immersion

MoEd, in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is a Hebrew language immersion after school program. Using a community-based curriculum they emphasize learning through play and through questions. MoEd, helps children develop a "Jewish Tool Box" so that they have an age-appropriate understanding of the building blocks of Judaism, and can develop their own approach to Jewish practice and community. All the teachers at MoEd are native Hebrew speakers, which adds a strong Hebrew component to each day. In its fifth year, MoEd is planning to welcome 50 students this fall.


Outdoor Education

In Berkeley, California, Wilderness Torah is taking supplementary school outside with B'hootz (which means “outside”), a completely outdoors (yes, even in rain or snow) Sunday program for grades K-5 that meets in the East Bay Hills. Research shows that regular connection with nature is important for child development, and B'hootz uses the Hebrew calendar, holidays, and the Torah portion to connect children with the cycles and wisdom of nature. Using a mentor-based philosophy, children are taught through questioning, and are given time each week for free play and wandering in nature. Now in its seventh year, the B'hootz program will have 70 children climbing trees this fall.

By Tamar Fox, for The Covenant Foundation