One Congregation’s Nip/Tuck on the Face of Jewish Education

Inside Leadership

One Congregation’s Nip/Tuck on the Face of Jewish Education

In the worthy endeavor of making our Religious School programming as meaningful as possible for our children, we struggle with questions. How can we tweak our program to engage more families? How do we compete with other extracurricular activities? How can we afford to make changes? And how do we stay relevant in the lives of our families? From surveys and studies, we see elements that threaten to diminish our enrollment. In response, we have to keep with the times. Although I have no quick solutions, I can share our story.

Every year, as a professional team, we spend the summer months reviewing, modifying, and developing new programs. Two years ago, a family asked to speak with us about possible enhancements we could offer. In that conversation, we discussed the innovative new technology of “Digital Badging”, like the ones you see on phone apps for Dunkin Donuts and Fitbit. Each time you reach a “goal”, you receive a digital “badge” indicating an accomplishment. It became the “Aha! Moment.” Could we use this technology to reach families?

We assembled a small task force that met regularly to discuss ways we may be able to integrate the idea into our program. We then fleshed out a detailed timeline and structure to develop our vision, and a plan to transform it into a full-fledged addition to our curriculum. We applied to the Covenant Foundation for a grant to fund the project, and were fortunate enough to be selected for it in January, 2015.

When starting any new program, one needs to engage stakeholders. In our case, that included parents, students, and teachers. Giving a voice to each group is important because it helps with the initial “buy-in”, as well as generating a group that can talk and share information about the program.   

Our program is structured to integrate multiple modalities of learning.  For example a student can create a video of himself or herself singing the Aleph Bet.  This work would help a student receive the Conversational Hebrew badge.  Students can select to draw a card for a friend who is ill to receive the Chaverim badge.   If a family is looking for something to do on a school holiday, they can find a mission to go to Ellis Island and to receive the Mishpacha Badge.  We have 33 badges with several possible missions for families to choose.

During our launch year, we structured opportunities to hear from families, students and teachers on a regular basis. One forum we developed was a student representative team. Each grade sent one or two students to share their thoughts and concerns with us. From our student meetings we learned that having two websites as part of the program was cumbersome and ultimately held some students back from participating, as they would have to load their evidence to one site, but apply for a badge on another. Regular faculty meetings provided the stage to hear from the teachers’ perspective on how the project was developing in their classes, online, and in the homes of their students. From these meetings, we learned some teachers were confused and unsure of their role in the process. 

To round out parents’ feedback, I’ll share with you some responses from our end-of-year survey:

  • “It helped build a Jewish identity in my child and extend the limited hours of Hebrew School.”
  • “It got us to bring Judaism into our lives.”
  • “It gave the kids a feeling of what it means to be Jewish outside of the sanctuary.”

We have had our share of obstacles through the process, but we embraced them and made adjustments moving forward. For example, some students shared that they were not enthusiastic to participate because earning a badge required completing too many missions. They suggested possible intermediate rewards for completion of a mission. A few weeks later, we rolled out a reward cart, containing tangible token prizes (”chachkas”) that were very-well received. Some families had technical difficulties, which we addressed with drop-in sessions for technical support. 

Another important aspect we recognized from the process is that not every family will want to participate. And that is okay! We made the program optional and didn’t force anyone to participate. It was a choice. With so many things being forced on families these days, I think they appreciated having the option to join a program that goes beyond the walls of Religious School, beyond the walls of their homes, and into who they are and how they want to connect to their personal Jewish identity. 

As we step into our new term, we are continuing to work with an oversight team of teachers, clergy, teens, and parents. We are also continuing our professional development sessions to support the staff. Listening to the feedback we received has instigated changes as we move forward, including the move from two websites to just one encompassing the program; and a staff position to support students, teachers and parents. We are highlighting work through multiple gateways: newsletters, online, and on bulletin boards, to name a few – and we are excited to see how this next year unfolds. 

Faye Gilman joined The Reform Temple of Forest Hills as Educational Leader in September 2007. She has earned a reputation as a caring and dedicated advocate for her students. She has also made her mark with efforts toward curriculum development and innovative programming for school-wide events and family education seminars. With tremendous support from dedicated clergy, lay leaders and well-trained staff, Faye has led the transformation of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills into a learning community fostered by strong interpersonal relationships among students, faculty and the congregation at large.

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