Searching for a part-time Jewish education program for their two young daughters some years ago, Elizabeth Lenhard and her husband knew that they wanted their kids to find being Jewish a joyful experience. “Community and identity – is fun and joyful,” Lenhard said.
The Lenhards chose to enroll their two children – one now in second grade and the other in fifth – in Jewish Kids Groups, an Atlanta-based afterschool Jewish education program.
Key buzzwords jump from its website – “a reimagined, reinvented, and ridiculously cool Hebrew school” – appealing to a generation of parents seeking to instill Jewish identity and knowledge of Hebrew in fun, creative and inviting environments early in their children’s lives.
Forty kindergarteners through fifth graders attend Jewish Kids Groups on weekday afternoons this school year, and 150 children from pre-school age to seventh grade attend on Sunday mornings. When the program began in 2011, attendance stood at just 20 students.
Its approach and growth over the last several years mirrors a still nascent, yet hard-to-ignore trend on this end of the Jewish educational spectrum.
Programs such as these are neither day schools nor synagogue-run Hebrew or religious schools. They are a different option offering Hebrew language and Jewish cultural immersion for children during afterschool hours. And, they are proving to be increasingly attractive to parents desiring learning environments and approaches that are stimulating, innovative and experiential.
Nitzan, a network of programs committed to renewing Jewish learning after school, has emerged to tie geographically dispersed programs together, strengthen them through shared resources and connections, and advocate for what is now considered by many as a growing niche within Jewish education. The Covenant Foundation supported the creation of Nitzan with a Signature grant in 2014.
More than 900 children are enrolled in 10 such alternative Jewish afterschool programs in the Nitzan network, the organization reports. The numbers, at once modest but impressive considering the relative newness of programs, reveal unmistakable 21stcentury realities.
Generation X and Millennial parents are by their very nature more innovation-savvy and disruptive-friendly, open to new educational approaches and venues. And many are juggling households with two working parents and complex schedules so afterschool care coupled with quality Jewish content is a winning proposition for those wanting and needing both.
“Many of our parents haven’t done any Jewish ritual or practice in a decade or more,” said Beverly Socher-Lerner, Founding Director of the Makom Community in Philadelphia, which opened with four students just two years ago, and begins this year with about 30. “They come to us and find a version of Jewish life that embraces their need for child care and Jewish connection. We are striking a chord with people.”
Such accounts of startling growth in such a short time span are commonplace among directors and educators at independent Jewish afterschool programs across the country.
Edah, in Berkeley, CA, is enrolling more than 50 kids from pre-school age through fifth grade this year, a 25 percent surge from last year and a tenfold increase since it opened in 2010. At MoEd, in the DC-metro area, 50 children are participating this year, nearly triple the number since the program began in 2012. And at Sulam in Brookline, MA, enrollment has grown eightfold to 25 students in five years.
“Before these programs emerged, there were afterschool programs and there were Jewish learning programs, but they hadn’t been merged,” said Dr. Rena Dorph, who co-founded Edah. “The innovation and uniqueness here is the synergy of aftercare with enrichment opportunities in Jewish and Hebrew learning. It is one-stop shopping for busy families.
“As with all innovations, we all wonder why we didn’t have this earlier. We are fusing things together in a way that no one saw before. This is how this feels.”
For sure, there is an entrepreneurial nature driving the establishment of programs such as these. Directors use words such as “pioneering” and “start-up” when describing the programs and organizations that they are generating and occupying. Often created beyond the traditional Jewish establishment, some of those who envisioned them did so around their kitchen tables and even contemplated turning their garages into afterschool learning spaces.
Enter Nitzan. The national network of alternative supplementary programs had an organic birth, as creators around the country found each other often through chance or word of mouth or social media. Through the network, educators are supporting each other, sharing best practices, building sustainability models, growing the field and earning it early recognition on the Jewish communal landscape.
“It is difficult to work in a community to change a status quo that people are holding onto,” said Dorph, who co-founded Nitzan in 2012. “The journey was more painful than I anticipated. The group of us trying to pioneer in this area – creating hybrid, innovative spaces – was really in need of a community of moral and practical support and recognition.”
Despite their relative successes so far, those creating and seeking to expand this space in Jewish education are not immune to stumbling, illuminating of course the risks of any start-up.
Bayit Afterschool opened in Evanston, IL, in 2013 with eight children for three afternoons a week. Last year, the program enrolled 30 kids and offered five afternoons of programming.
Yet despite that enormous growth and communal interest, the program is not reopening for the current school year largely due to financial sustainability issues and an inability to find a suitable organizational home for its programming in order to reduce costs.
“We were able to set up a funding model for the program based on tuition and grants, but what we ultimately couldn’t cover was the overhead of being a independent organization,” said Megan Roth Abraham, Bayit’s Founder.
“Yes, we are a great program and yes, we did wonderful things and reached our objectives of outreach and engagement. We may have been ahead of our time though, from the standpoint of realistic financial sustainability. But the market is definitely out there for the program that we provided. There is a hunger for this.”
In fact, Nitzan members are learning from each other’s failures as much each other’s successes.
“In the innovation sector, we are envisioning and imagining,” said Rabbi Joshua Fenton, Executive Director of both Edah and Studio 70, a Jewish learning laboratory that houses Edah and Nitzan. “That takes chutzpah and risk-taking and is just plain scary. So to know that you are not alone in doing so, and can learn from others is just huge.”
Now that Nitzan is established, and affiliated programs are getting a toehold in their communities, Rabbi Fenton is focused on strategies to maintain and grow the sustainability of the programs and the larger movement. These include strategies for partnerships, metric-driven benchmarks for success, advocacy for the model, and training a corps of educators to work within this niche of Jewish education.
The common denominator among those involved on the local and national levels is a belief that this new model of afterschool Jewish education is addressing a critical communal need and must be nurtured.
“We are the people of the book because we support Jewish education starting at the very youngest of ages,” said Rabbi Lila Kagedan, Founder of Sulam and Network Coordinator for Nitzan. “This isn’t the only option for parents, but it is a very good option, so it is critical that it be supported and strengthened.”
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project