Breaking down walls between shul and school

Breaking down walls between shul and school

At Bnai Keshet, latest hire envisions learning in multiple settings

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, who will become director of congregational learning at Bnai Keshet in July, said “every aspect of a congregation should be infused with education.” Photo courtesy Bnai Keshet
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, who will become director of congregational learning at Bnai Keshet in July, said “every aspect of a congregation should be infused with education.” Photo courtesy Bnai Keshet

Rabbi Ariann Weitzman wants to break down the walls between school and shul.

She believes every aspect of a congregation, from social action to worship, should be infused with education, and that all learning should be put into action in the work of the congregation. It’s all about valuing the various communities within the synagogue.

“Kids need to be involved in the actual work of the congregation and have an impact on the life of the congregation,” she said. “We should not be educating our kids off to the side, because then what they do is not valued by the congregation.”

Weitzman, who was just ordained at the Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY, hopes to implement this vision as she takes over as the director of congregational learning at Bnai Keshet in Montclair. She will begin July 1.

Her appointment marks the culmination of a “revisioning” undertaken by the Reconstructionist congregation about a year ago, with the help of Israeli rabbi and educational consultant Golan Ben-Chorin.

Bnai Keshet plans to break down those walls between the school and the synagogue and encourage learning that is multi-generational, intergenerational, and incorporated into all aspects of the synagogue, according to Craig Levine, who, together with Melanie Polaner, cochaired the committee that selected Weitzman from a pool of over 50 applicants.

“We wanted somebody committed to kids and Jewish education (while the position is not limited to kids, it is significantly focused on them) — someone who could bring a dynamic vision and magnetism so kids will gravitate toward her — like a Pied Piper effect,” Levine wrote in an e-mail. “We wanted someone with lightness and joy but serious scholarly depth and intellectual rigor.

“Boy, does she have those!”

Levine said he shares the vision of a congregation of learners.

“People value Judaism when it is infused into the totality of their lives. It’s not something you do 4-6 on Wednesdays in a hermetically sealed way,” he said. “The learning happens when you are living a vibrant Jewish life in the context of Jewish family and community, and Rabbi Ariann gets that.”

As an example of the new approach, Weitzman said, adults engaged in social action ought to be learning how to place their good deeds in the context of Jewish learning.

“They shouldn’t be siloed off as just the people who like to do social action,” she said. “They should be part of the learning that makes social justice is an integral part of the community.”

Modeling prayer

While the congregation is proud of the work they have done to pave the way, they have few illusions about the challenges to come.

“Now the real work begins,” said Ben Chorin, who is based in Boston. “Rabbi Ariann was hired to do a job envisioned but never seen. Her biggest challenge is going to be implementing this new approach while keeping the skeptics at bay and managing the inevitable failures that will occur along the way to success.”

Weitzman has deep roots in the area. She moved to Millburn with her family at the age of 10 and joined Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative congregation in town. During her rabbinic training at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, she organized and led a religious school visioning project, taught all ages, and organized a year-long intergenerational program connecting food justice issues to Jewish values.

She has worked at the religious school of United Synagogue of Hoboken and at the Educational Resource Center in Livingston. She has also served as a chaplain at Arden Courts and Federation Plaza in West Orange, Overlook Hospital in Summit, and St. Luke’s Hospital in New York.

Weitzman lives in Springfield with her husband, Joel Bogorad. They are expecting their first child in September.

She said she doesn’t think children can be taught to do things their parents aren’t already modeling.

“I’ve always felt that when we teach, there should be a real application and a model of adult behavior. If you teach children how to pray, but they don’t see their parents pray, how will they make the transition from education to adult practice?”

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