MASA: A Journey to Family Engagement

October 5, 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. On a Friday night this past spring, 26 families shared Shabbat in 7 homes across New York City. They said the blessings, ate their festive meals, and were joined by synagogue staff, who led the groups in activities and songs. This was the fourth such dinner last year.  Remarkably, these families were satisfying their Religious School requirement. A growing number of families at Temple Shaaray Tefila are taking part in MASA (“Journeys” in Hebrew), our Temple’s multi-generational education program, now in its seventh year. It offers year-long family “journeys” centered on Jewish topics, as an alternative to our religious school. As part of the program, parents study both with their children and separately with our education staff and clergy, as well as participate in Shabbat and holiday celebrations together with the goal of enhancing their own knowledge and their ability to teach and model Jewish practice for their children. Shaaray Tefila became engaged in the process of examining Jewish learning for our youth in 2006. While our traditional religious school had high enrollment, there was a growing sense that even those students who learned and enjoyed the program the most were often left without a way to connect the learning to their lives outside of the Synagogue. To tackle this disconnect, we participated in the UJA RE-IMAGINE Project, an initiative created by the Hebrew Union College’s Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) which focuses on innovation and transformational change in congregational education programs. Over a period of nineteen months, we engaged in a formal, progressive exploration that produced plans for MASA, which was designed for families with elementary school aged children. Through a guided process, with a task force representing a cross-section of the Temple, we developed overarching goals that have held up in the 7 years since implementation:
  • Build community
  • Provide choice and flexibility
  • Engage participants in excellent, life-long, inter-generational Jewish learning and living.
Build Community – We appointed as chair of the program an active member of our RE-IMAGINE task force whose oldest son was entering kindergarten at the time, which helped to drive recruitment. Enrollment in MASA has continued to be driven by our graduating Nursery School families seeking continued connections to one another as well as new members of our congregation who are looking for new and meaningful relationships to other families and with our congregation. Provide Choice and Flexibility - We have found that families appreciate the scheduling choice and flexibility in the MASA program. Although the programs are structured around semi-regular Sunday afternoon sessions, the groups also meet to celebrate Jewish holidays, or have a shared Shabbat dinner, in “real time.” Engage Participants in Lifelong, Intergenerational Jewish Learning and Living – By participating as a family, participants are engaged in Jewish learning and observance of Shabbat, the holidays and festivals; they gain knowledge, strengthen their Jewish identity, and form a budding learning community. Underlying all of these innovations is the core principle that, as adults, we cannot expect the children of our congregation to embrace Jewish learning and observance unless we do so as well –in our homes, in our Temple and in our lives.   The initiative has not been without a few bumps along the way.  Amongst our biggest challenges has been the lingering question of whether MASA should become the program or continue to exist as a parallel alternative to the more conventional model.  The clear benefit to an alternative is the ability to maintain standards in that program, as there is a choice for parents who are not willing or able to make the larger commitment to regular and ongoing participation. We also have logistical realities to tackle. We recognize that MASA is not for everyone – every child or every parent. Like many synagogues, we would be unlikely to be able to accommodate all of our families in our building with a primarily weekend-based schedule when parents are able to participate. These challenges have led us, at least for now, to run two strong, but mostly independent programs which accommodate a total of 350 students in Grades K-6. We plan to address these challenges in a few ways:
  • By devoting appropriate resources to improving the traditional program by dramatically increasing teacher training,
  • Creating a more blended experiential environment,
  • Developing new and engaging curricula and
  • Utilize some of our MASA principles to as a means of engaging parents on a deeper level.
While the results demonstrate that this initiative has been the right choice for Shaaray Tefila, we face the ongoing challenge to continue to expand and enrich two large programs. MASA is not the answer to Jewish education, but it is an answer for many of our families.  The success of MASA is due in large part to the process we went through to get there and the amount of time we gave ourselves to achieve it. We have been able to create and sustain this program by reflecting on a broad spectrum of task force participants’ own learning experiences, challenging our assumptions about what Jewish learning “should” look like, and by establishing goals and principles to which we hold ourselves accountable. This has resulted in our ability to engage a large percentage of families with Judaism and our congregation in a meaningful and ongoing manner.   Mindy B. Davids, RJE is the Director of Religious School and Educational Innovation at Shaaray Tefila in New York City. To learn more about MASA, watch this brief video. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"59491","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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