In an effort to meet a broad spectrum of educational needs, East Brunswick Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, has merged its preschool with the Orthodox Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore and revamped its own religious school curriculum for all grades.
“We are living in a different generation, where we have a different understanding of how children learn and even how families connect,” said EBJC Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein. “The community is different, and we wanted to speak and connect with this generation.” Most important, he added, is to find ways that “through Jewish education we can connect with this generation.”
The moves will upgrade the school’s curriculum and practices to emphasize a strong kesher to Judaism through up-to-date engaging activities, environments, and learning models. The Hebrew word meaning “connection” serves as the name of the new program.
“This will not be your grandfather’s Hebrew school or even your father’s,” said youth and education director Julie Schwarzwald. “That model doesn’t work anymore. We won’t require homework. We won’t enforce attendance. We won’t hold anybody back, so to speak.
“We realized through reflection and conversation that what we want is for our kids to form a connection to Judaism, and so, Kesher was born.”
Among the program’s hallmarks will be the use of technology, including video games, Israeli dance, sports, music, art, discussions of the weekly Torah portions at school and at home, and “immersion-style” Hebrew study.
“Our classrooms no longer look like classrooms, but more like family rooms and learning spaces,” said Schwarzwald. “We are going to engage students to look deeper into the meaning of material, working with classmates on projects.”
EBJC has also entered into a partnership with the Ocean Township-based YJS to run an early childhood center for two- to four-year-olds at the synagogue.
“We were very impressed with the synagogue and its rabbi,” said YJS head of school Rabbi Dr. Elie Tuchman, who said that despite denominational differences, the cultures of the yeshiva and the EBJC preschool have much in common, including a focus on hands-on learning through play and exploration.
The yeshiva has a preschool at its main location and for three years has operated a branch at the Orthodox Young Israel of East Brunswick, providing a feeder school for students entering elementary school.
Although the relationship with YIEB will remain strong, that shul made a “strategic decision” to go in a different direction, said Tuchman in a phone conversation with NJJN from Israel. The YIEB location drew students mostly from Highland Park and East Brunswick, many of whom he expects will make the transfer to EBJC.
The preschool will be jointly overseen by early childhood directors Naomi Lieberman of YJS and Lynda Perel of EBJC.
“Certainly there will be some differences…,” acknowledged Tuchman. The YJS program, he said, “will remain an Orthodox program, but because it is a preschool, the difference is not as great as it sounds. Of course, we will be sensitive to the needs of all our parents. We are going to make sure everyone is comfortable so that the Orthodox can look at it and say, ‘Yes, this is an Orthodox school,’ but non-Orthodox will also feel comfortable here.”
Finkelstein said EBJC was initially approached by YIEB to arrange the change of venue and seized the opportunity.
“I brought this to our board because it keeps alive a thriving Jewish preschool in the East Brunswick area,” he said. “It reminds us that as a Conservative synagogue and an Orthodox school, we can cooperate. It strengthens the East Brunswick community, the synagogue, makes our school stronger and more robust, and hopefully helps the yeshiva.
“It makes for a community and school where whether you are Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, you will feel comfortable.”
For the last two years, EBJC has also housed the Orthodox Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in a wing formerly occupied by the Conservative Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley, which closed operations in 2013. The pre-K through eighth grade Netivot will continue to operate its preschool separately.
Tuchman said he spoke to Netivot’s head of school, Rivky Ross. “We are looking to be good neighbors and not step on anybody’s toes,” he said, adding there may be areas where both schools can cooperate to maximize effectiveness.
EBJC will also operate three other programs for small children called, collectively, Gesher L’Kesher: one for three- and four-year-olds that will meet six times a year on Sunday mornings for activities associated with Jewish holidays; another for toddlers through first-graders that will meet Shabbat and holiday mornings for singing and interactive play; and the third a series of “pajama Shabbats” with dinner and a service.
Also planned by EBJC is Kesher B’Ivrit, for students of Hatikvah International Academy — a public Hebrew immersion charter school in East Brunswick. While many of Hatikvah’s students receive religious education at Nefesh Yehudi Academy, located at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, others seek alternatives.
A quarter of EBJC’s religious-school students are enrolled in Hatikvah, according to Schwarzwald, who has met with Hatikvah representatives.
EBJC Kesher students in kindergarten-second grade will attend on Sundays; third-through seventh-graders on Sundays and Wednesdays. Hebrew and Judaic studies — including Israel, the Holocaust, Jewish identity, Torah stories, and life-cycle events — will be provided for all children.
Older students will have Sunday classes focusing on Hebrew and Jewish culture through the arts, sports, and dance. A monthly “Shabbat school” will feature youth services and “fun-filled” activities. Electives will cover such subjects as chanting Torah, American-Jewish history, and ethical issues.
The Kesher Bogrim program for eighth- through 12th-graders will meet Thursdays for dinner, socialization, mitzva modules, speakers, and films. Kesher Madrichim teens will serve as leaders for younger students and will earn community service credits.