How We Brought Camp Into our Religious School

November 16, 2014
The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor. Over the past five years, our congregation has endeavored to answer the question: “What do our parents want their children to get out of Religious School?” We have held meetings with parents across the congregation to better understand what they want. As a result of our meetings, we identified the following main goals:
  • That they make friends
  • That they have fun while learning at Religious School
  • That their Jewish identity be developed through Jewish cultural and social experiences – time with friends doing Jewish activities such as cooking and singing.
Our parents want their children to participate in programs and holiday celebrations during which rituals are presented in engaging ways. They want their children to explore what it means to live Jewishly and what it means to be a part of a peoplehood. In response to this input, Senior Rabbi David Frank and I began talking about making changes to the 3rd-6th grade Judaic portion of the Religious School program. We wanted to ensure that the Temple Solel School reflects the parents’ desires in educating their children (expressed in the three primary goals mentioned above). While exploring our options for change, we decided to look at Jewish summer camp as a model.  Rabbi Frank and I know - both from studies published and from personal stories told by our students - that Jewish camp changes lives.  By experiencing Judaism rather than learning about it, children at camp grow to love each other and to love Judaism. As they participate in fun Jewish activities, they create friendships and a feeling of belonging.  In the report entitled “The Long-term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp,” the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s One Happy Camper researchers found the “influence of summer camp on the ways in which adults Jews choose to engage with the community and the degree to which they associate with other Jews can be felt long after the last sunset of the summer. The impact is striking, especially when compared to their peers who did not spend their summer months at Jewish camp.” This report and others that found the same results, combined with the wonderful “tales of camp” that we heard from our students, led us to our decision to use Jewish camp as a model our new Religious School program – as a way to accomplish the goals expressed by the parents. With that decision made, our first task was to research other Religious Schools that were already using camp models. I reached out to mentors in congregations across the country.* Each of them spent a lot of time with me. They told me what worked, and what didn’t work. They shared feedback about the changes we wanted to try at Temple Solel. With the support of my professional network, I set out to design a new camp-style program for Temple Solel. It took months and months of consulting with clergy, teachers**, parents and my own mentors. The process included creating many drafts of the Kesher program, asking for input each time, and making changes after every draft. After many changes, we presented the new program to the temple board. Debby Stone, a teacher here at Temple Solel, and Linda Silverman Levine, Hebrew School Director, helped with the writing and visioning of our lesson plans and chugim. Although I was nervous about pursuing such a big change, the board members were enthusiastic and supportive.  We gave our new program the name Kesher to emphasize our goal of “connecting” students with each other. This is how the new Kesher program works for our 3rd-6th graders: There are 3 parts – mixers, lesson, and chugim. By class, students do mixers to help them comfortably form friendships. Following mixers, students participate in a 45-minute lesson, all of which are written by our education team. When writing the lesson plans, we begin by thinking about the enduring understandings we want the children to learn. We challenge ourselves to incorporate the enduring understandings into lessons that are engaging, thought-provoking and relevant to the children’s lives. Following the 45-minute lesson, students attend chugim. The chugim include krav maga (Israeli martial arts), drum circle, cooking, “make your own Jewish radio commercial with the Garage Band app on iPads,” singing, and Jewish yoga.  Every chug incorporates a Jewish teaching, while also offering multiple settings for Jewish learning. Students participate in a different chug every week, and at the end of eight weeks, they have attended all eight chugim.  There are also “special” weeks when all the students are brought together for holiday or theme-related programs. Our first goal - that our students make friends – is taking place as a result of the mixers that begin each Sunday and the lessons, which require the students to work together in pairs and teams to process what they are learning.  Our second goal - that the students have fun while learning at Religious School - is being accomplished in the chugim sessions, which bring Jewish concepts to the children through exciting and creative activities.  Our third goal - that the children’s Jewish identities develop through Jewish cultural and social experiences – is being achieved throughout the program as the students learn together about Torah, holidays, values, God and Israel by experiencing Judaism as a vibrant, living way of life. Rabbi Frank has been the Temple Solel senior rabbi for 22 years.  I have been the Religious School principal for 26 years.  Because we have been at Temple Solel for a long time, we have had an opportunity to truly get to know the congregation and see how it has changed through the years.  We have also been blessed to gain the trust of our members, many of whom attended the Temple Solel School as children and now have children in the school.  When we are talking with our members in the courtyard, after services and at Temple events, we are asking how they are feel about the new Kesher program.  During these conversations, we are finding not only that their children are enjoying the new program, but that the parents are appreciative that we were open to making changes based on their input.  Despite the positive informal feedback, we know that we need to keep watching, listening and continually making improvements. “Levi is really enjoying the new Sunday School format.  I've heard only very positive things, both about the change in curriculum and the way it was presented at the ‘Beginning of the Year Parent Orientation.’  Great job!”  It is comments like this that inspire us to continue working on the Kesher program.  We have four years of lesson plans to write and many more chugim to create, but we are enjoying the process and encouraged by the positive response. *The professionals I spoke with included:
  • Bruce Raff at Temple Judea in West Hills, California,
  • Rabbi Beth Nichols from Temple Israel in New Rochelle, New York
  • Rafi Esterson at Kesher Newton in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
  • Avram Mandell who was then at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles
  • Rabbi Nicki Greninger at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California
  • Mindy Davids, at Temple Shaaray Tefilla in New York City.
**The Temple Solel staff have been instrumental in developing this program.
  • Debby Stone, teacher of 20 years at Temple Solel, who wrote lesson plans for Kesher
  • Linda Silverman Leveine, teacher of 12 years at Temple Solel, who wrote the chugim plans
Ellen Fox has been the Temple Solel Religious School Director since 1989.  Prior to this position, she taught at the Temple Solel Religious/Hebrew School, Congregation Beth Am Day School, Fontana Unified School District and Galt Union School District.  She has taught students in grades kindergarten through ninth grade, and adults. Ellen is active in the San Diego Agency for Jewish Agency Principals’ Council.  She belongs to the National Association of Temple Educators. Ellen received her BA in Music and teaching credential from University of California, Riverside.  She earned her Masters Degree in Jewish Studies from Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. Ellen resides in Encinitas with her husband, Steve.  She has three grown sons, Mark, Randy and Scott. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"59131","attributes":{"class":"media-image aligncenter size-full wp-image-46873","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"568","height":"96","alt":"jye-banner"}}]]

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