Risa Strauss is the Education Director at Beth Shalom Synagogue and the Founding Director of Camp Gesher at The Katie and Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center.
During her tenure as Education Director, Strauss has increased enrollment and reinvigorated the Religious School through enhanced teacher training and meaningful interaction with parents, and worked to develop positive connections with adult learners and the synagogue Board through outreach and creative programming.
Known as the “pied piper” of the synagogue community, Strauss draws children to Shabbat, holiday, and community events through her reimagined Tot Shabbat and junior congregation program. Dubbed “the Jew Crew,” the junior congregation program begins with Torah study via informal conversation and moves on to a Shabbat service where the students lead. Under Strauss’ leadership, the children at Beth Shalom are challenged to examine and question the Torah portion and build on one another’s thoughts. For younger children, Strauss created the Shabbat Play & Learn program, a fun, interactive Shabbat service with a puppet show d’var Torah to engage the synagogue’s youngest learners and their parents. Strauss reintroduced a once-a-month “Dinner and a Minyan” program to merge students and adults on Wednesday evenings for minyan. Strauss also introduced a Shavuot program in which members of the congregation each speak about a commandment closely aligned to their professional work.
Strauss guides her teachers to utilize multiple approaches when teaching a topic: reading, writing, music, art, drama, dance, and movement are employed to engage children of all ages and abilities. With a deep commitment to fostering relationships amongst all of the Jewish children in Columbia, Strauss has often brought together students from the local Reform and Conservative synagogues for joint programming, to allow students to get to know one another.
In 2013, the Columbia Jewish Community Center recognized Strauss’ innovative and creative skills and recruited her to redevelop and “re-jew-venate” its day camp, which allowed her to interact with Jewish children beyond her synagogue and infuse the informal camp experience with Jewish life and learning. The day camp program is based in Jewish values with an emphasis on respect, compassion, and tolerance. The camp demographic is only 20% Jewish, but the entire population embraces Strauss’ educational curriculum, which includes Hebrew, Israeli Music, Bible Stories, Israeli Dance, and Shabbat.
From Her Letters of Nomination and Support
“Risa is the touchstone for members of the congregation and community. It is not uncommon to see adults or children huddled together around her. She functions as a ‘bright light’ that people are drawn to, and she reaches out to the unaffiliated, interfaith, and otherwise unattached members of our community and continually brings into the congregation new participants and potential leaders.”
Rabbi Jonathan Case, Beth Shalom Synagogue
“Risa Strauss’ outside-of-the box thinking and creativity have breathed new life into the educational endeavors of Beth Shalom. There is always something going on at the shul and usually Risa has played a part in the creation. She engages all senses, challenges us all to strive for more, and fosters a lifelong curiosity that is the hallmark of Jewish tradition. We are truly blessed to have her as our Director of Education at Beth Shalom.”
Elysa Sexton, LMSW, Chair, Board of Education, Beth Shalom Synagogue
“Ms. Strauss’ ability to immediately assess a child’s need and provide the atmosphere most conducive for education and learning is uncanny. I have watched her work with every age group from nursery to high school, and she never failed to engage, support and make a lasting positive difference. That she did this repeatedly and without ego putting her students’ welfare first speaks volumes to her character, integrity and determination.”
Dr. Jonathan M. Leader, Research Professor, State Archaeologist,University of South Carolina, Hebrew School Teacher, Tree of Life Congregation and Beth Shalom Synagogue