Synagogue educators strive to meet needs of former day school kids
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
When Brian Schlesinger and Ellen Weiser, both of Livingston pulled their three children, Brett, Shay, and Andie, out of Jewish day school in 2007, they enrolled them in the religious school of their synagogue, the Jewish Learning Center at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
Brett was 12, Shay was nine, and Andie was seven. All had attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, a full-time school that offers a dual curriculum of secular and Judaic studies.
“For Brett it was really not too big of an issue because he was so close to bar mitzva age,” said Schlesinger. “He basically went right into bar mitzva lessons shortly after leaving Schechter and then into Prozdor,” the Rebecca and Israel Ivry High School supplementary program for youngsters in seventh through 12th grade sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary.
On the other hand, “Shay and Andie experienced something different since they were much younger,” their father said. “They have lost so much of what they learned.”
Every year, a handful of students will leave any day school and enroll in public school. SSDS of Essex and Union has recorded an attrition rate of about seven percent this year (lower than its more typical 10 percent). The Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph has lost seven students this year. (HAMC also reported an influx of six youngsters transferring from public schools, a phenomenon not experienced at Schechter.)
Students leave day schools for any number of reasons, including finances, social reasons, and learning styles. How do they continue their religious education? Can these students, with a Jewish educational background so different from that of their religious-school peers, be integrated into that community successfully?
As Julie Wohl, director of the religious school at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange acknowledged, “Even two or three new students with a Schechter education create logistical and educational challenges.”
Most religious-school principals are quick to say they can accommodate students who transfer from day schools. They focus first on Hebrew language, meeting the more advanced skills of the average day school student. Many say in other areas, the challenges are not as steep as might be imagined.
Wohl offers day school students an enrichment Hebrew course and group study that involves both teacher-led and independent study. “We schedule all of our Hebrew classes to run at the same time so that students can be pulled out, tutored, or moved around to best meet their learning needs,” she said.
Rena Casser, education director of B’nai Shalom in West Orange, said her school also offers Hebrew at a variety of levels.
“Because we have a leveled Hebrew program, there is really no difficulty in having the day school kids fit in,” she wrote in an e-mail exchange with NJJN. “I have had several in the past and have a few in the coming year as well. I test the children privately to see what they know and what they need help on.”
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, also in South Orange, launched a Hebrew enrichment program in January to help nurture students in third through sixth grades who are more advanced than other students in the language. It is modeled on an Israeli ulpan, or Hebrew-immersion model, with a dedicated instructor.
“These particular students have either come to TSTI from day schools, have one or more Hebrew-speaking parents, or have been identified by teachers in previous years to be ideal candidates for this advanced class,” said religious school director Pia Kutten.
Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston employs teachers from SSDS and uses Tal Am, the same Hebrew curriculum used by the day school.
Educational director Leah Beker works with the Schechter kids who come to Beth Shalom’s religious school. Nearly all of her teachers work at Schechter during the day. And, like Kutten, she has a dedicated teacher assigned to work with the more advanced students.
“We can continue with the kids exactly where they left off in day school,” Beker said. She recalled that during the 2009-10 school year, she had one student who had transferred from Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston and four from Schechter.
The bigger picture
Many of the directors pointed out that there are fewer curricular challenges when it comes to the rest of the program, including prayer. For example, while day schools focus on weekday prayers, religious schools emphasize the Shabbat prayer service.
“When the Schechter kids daven, they use weekday tunes, which are often different from Shabbat tunes,” said Casser.
The day school and religious-school curricula diverge in other ways, which means the former day school students are being exposed to new or different material.
“We have found that our Judaic curriculum is broader, and much less intensely focused. Many of the topics we discuss are never touched in the day school,” said Melissa Weiner, director of education and life-long learning at Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael. “While they are studying Talmud and Rashi, we tend to study topics that relate more directly to the things we need the kids to know to live Jewishly — life cycles, Torah study, holidays. We never get in depth in the hours we have the way a day school does, so we focus on the bigger picture.”
Weiner said she occasionally has students coming to her school from nearby HAMC.
But families sometimes see things differently from education directors. Religious schools that meet for five or fewer hours a week obviously cannot offer the intensity of a day school’s five-day-a-week, half-day Jewish curriculum.
One religious school in Morris County combines the religious school and day school students for b’nei mitzva classes. A parent of a day school student who attends the program, who asked not to be named, said, “We have had some issues. It’s been hard for the [day school] kids because they are so far ahead of the religious school kids. They are bored.”
Others resign themselves to what religious schools can offer. As Brian Schlesinger said, “I never expected Beth El to fully manage my kid’s matriculation into the Jewish Learning Center. I’m grateful they have someone who pulls the kids out of Hebrew class and works with them an hour a week to help them keep some of what they learned. I believe that’s probably the best they can do.”
Other parents opt out of religious school altogether and hire private tutors. One parent, who asked not to be named, pulled her son from Schechter at the end of fifth grade. She has hired a tutor not because she worries he will be bored in an afternoon religious school, she said, but because she wants him to keep up with the Schechter curriculum, just in case public school doesn’t work out.
If he doesn’t return to Schechter in a year, she said, “he will have to enroll in a more formal Hebrew school program.”
Rabbi Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel Next, took his twin sons, Noam and Jonah, out of Schechter after fifth grade and enrolled them in Montclair public schools. He also hired a tutor. “Both of our sons expressed a desire to continue to study advanced Hebrew seriously. For this reason, we made modern Hebrew (Israeli literature, poetry, song, etc.) our first priority for their Jewish education,” he wrote in an e-mail from Israel. “This past year they did not attend religious school and were not tutored in the religious elements of Jewish education; they just focused on advanced Hebrew.”
But things are about to change for the brothers this year. Brenner wrote that he felt that as they head into preparations for their bar mitzva that “the experience is one that they are going through with peers.” They will attend the religious school at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, where they are members, and they will have additional private tutoring in both Hebrew and Talmud study.
Regarding the possibility of the twins’ being bored at the afternoon school, Brenner has some concerns, but hopes for the best. “Much of what will happen as far as content is concerned in religious school will be areas of ritual life that my sons have already covered. But I’m hoping that my sons will still enjoy it and will share the knowledge that they have with others in a positive way.”