For one educator, new school is no school at all
Israeli rabbi helping synagogue envision a radical makeover
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Golan Ben-Chorin has ideas for how Bnai Keshet might change its mindset toward Jewish education. First on his list: Throw out the idea of a school.
Under the guidance of Ben-Chorin, an Israeli rabbi and educational consultant, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair is rethinking Jewish education. At this stage of the process, no one is not quite sure what a revamped Bnai Keshet religious school will look like, but Ben-Chorin has definite ideas about what it shouldn’t look like.
“School is irrelevant for what we are trying to do,” said Ben-Chorin, a third-generation Israeli Reform rabbi who has worked as a religious leader and educator in Israel and in the States. “School is a place where you learn content to help you later in life. Or it helps you to be a better citizen. Our endeavor is to give people the tools to create Jewish identity. That’s the goal.”
Ben-Chorin defines Jewish education as the process of identity formation, not information acquisition. And he insists that identity cannot be formed in a school environment. “School is an environment where you create your identity from fighting against the structure. It’s the wrong tool for creating identity.”
Instead, he said, the key to forming identity is to focus on the values of the community. “Why do people learn? We learn for one reason only: when we value that which is being taught and when we value someone else who values what is being taught. So the question is: What is it in the synagogue that we value?”
Ben-Chorin was in Montclair Oct. 28-31 for the first of two long weekends with the congregation; he began consulting with them about re-envisioning their education approach over the summer, and both he and the synagogue expect the process to last about a year. Ben-Chorin is scheduled to come to Montclair for a second weekend with Bnai Keshet leaders in January.
Together with congregation copresident Betty Murphy and vice president of education Deborah Garrison, he met with NJJN over breakfast at Raymond’s in Montclair to discuss the year-long journey they are embarking on. Their enthusiasm for the project and internalization of Ben-Chorin’s fundamental ideas were immediately apparent.
Within a day of his arrival, they said, the Bnai Keshet representatives had stopped talking about an “education director” and replaced it with the idea of a director of congregational learning, part of Ben Chorin’s approach, he explained, to integrate all aspects of education at the synagogue.
In fact, Bnai Keshet started down the path of revamping its religious school five years go, under the leadership of education director Amy SaNogueira, who will be leaving at the end of this year.
“Even though our school has improved a lot over the last five years, there are more opinions out there and we are looking for new ideas,” said Garrison in a conversation with NJJN before Ben-Chorin’s arrival. “We did a school survey, and we have such a vibrant group of parents. They agree that the school is more stable and stronger than it was five years ago, but also that it is an interesting moment for us to look ahead for new models.
“We’re looking at new ideas,” Garrison said, “especially at the role of the education director and how it fits into the congregation at large.”
The synagogue received a Legacy Heritage grant to add religious school classes on Saturday morning to bring families and Shabbat into the education process, and its formerly part-time education director became full-time before deciding it was time to move on. About 150 youngsters are enrolled in the pre-kindergarten through seventh-grade school. Most classes meet twice a week: one weeknight, and either Saturday or Sunday morning. Preschoolers meet about once each month. In addition, a group of eighth-graders meets once a month and participates in retreats and trips.
With a board that is mostly new this year and a soon to be departing education director, the congregation decided it was time to put some resources into what they wanted their education profile to look like going forward.
Garrison said part of the project is identifying what Bnai Keshet values but that the method of instruction also matters. Ben-Chorin said he believes experience is the only way to teach children, or adults, to care about a particular value.
Take Shabbat candles, for example.
“We value lighting candles on Shabbat,” he said. “It’s a moment of sanctity. But who makes the candles? We buy them at a store. Why? If we value them, we should have our kids make the Shabbat candles. Then they are valued for what they have done.”
The goal with kindling the candles is to encourage the kind of inquiry embodied in the Four Questions at the Passover seder, said Ben-Chorin. “Telling children what they have to know about candles isn’t enough. What’s the reason to care? The educational mandate here is to arouse the caring. But giving the experience also isn’t enough. Education is reflecting upon the experience. The task of the educator is to design a really good experience and then help people uncover the meaning behind the experience.”
“We’re trying to get our minds around the idea that Jewish learning is an aspect of Jewish doing,” said Garrison. “So experiences like service learning should not be thought of as add-ons but rather, those should be our program.”
As she voiced the concern that not all parents might embrace the new vision, Murphy reminded her, “The board is completely behind this project.”
During Ben-Chorin’s visit he visited classrooms and participated in Shabbat services and planted seeds through talks with congregants, including members of the congregation board and education task force and participants in adult education.
It was acknowledged that Bnai Keshet has some important goals to reach by the end of the year — hiring someone to run the school and putting a new vision in place.
Ben-Chorin said, however, that at this point he has no idea what that vision will be, nor should he.
“We are very product-oriented, but Judaism is very process-oriented,” he said. “It’s an approach to life. I can give the language, the approach, some technical information and guidance, but the key is the people who are here. Not the curriculum, the systems, or the building.”
The vision, he said, “must come organically from the community…. They have to translate what Jewish identity means at this time and in this place. We don’t know what the end product will look like. If we did, there would be no point going on this journey.”