JCC MetroWest in West Orange has launched a new supplementary education program for Jewish youth, aimed in part at families who are “not ready to join synagogues” but are hungry for Jewish identity.
GAN, an acronym for Growing and Nurturing Jewish Cultural Connections (and the Hebrew word for “garden” that is used to denote preschools), opened in September with 26 students enrolled in kindergarten, first, and second grades.
Its 90-minute classes meet on Tuesday afternoons. It is scheduled to run until May 2011.
“It is a Jewish identity program that really tries to teach the universal values of the Jewish people,” including elementary Hebrew, holidays, and mitzvot, said Alexis Gruber, the JCC’s Jewish educator for children and families.
“We teach children about being Jewish and to love being Jewish,” she told NJ Jewish News in an Oct. 8 telephone interview. “The registration for the K-one class has been maxed-out.”
According to JCC MetroWest executive director Alan Feldman, the program was conceived a year ago “after seven or eight young families met in someone’s living room to discuss how the JCC could serve their needs.
“Somewhat to our surprise,” he said, “one theme transcended the four or five meetings we had: It was Jewish education for their young children.”
A number of local rabbis, however, have expressed concern that the program competes directly with synagogue-based religious schools and, in the words of one rabbi, encourages “non-affiliation” with synagogues.
Rabbi Donald Rossoff of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown said he and 20 other rabbis in the community met on Oct. 7 to discuss their concerns.
Although he favors “people getting as much Jewish education for themselves and their children as they want,” Rossoff said, “our problem is any institution [outside of synagogue settings] that does that is enabling non-affiliation. We don’t think any institution supported by Jewish communal funds should be supporting non-affiliation.”
The nonprofit JCC raises funds directly from the local community and is also a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Rossoff, who chairs UJC MetroWest’s Rabbinic Cabinet, said the rabbis were concerned that “we had no prior knowledge” of the new program.
“There is a lot of concern, and we really felt very strongly this is not an issue that should belong to the rabbis,” he said following the Oct. 7 meeting. Rather, he said, he would call a meeting of synagogue presidents and educators later in October.
Feldman said synagogue-based schools were discussed with the parents who had inspired the idea for GAN.
“We told parents many synagogues offered similar programs for young children, and some of them did not require families to actually join their congregations,” he told NJJN. “We said, ‘Why don’t you go there?’ A theme that ran through their answers was either they are not ready to join synagogues or synagogue life is not something they’re prone to.
“Some of the families are intermarried, and there may be one parent who does not feel comfortable in a synagogue atmosphere,” added Feldman. “Yet they were all desirous of Jewish education for their families.”
‘A fact of life’
The JCC asked for assistance in planning GAN from The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, another UJC MetroWest beneficiary.
Robert Lichtman, executive director of the Partnership, said he and his staff helped the JCC “re-envision the program so that it’s not geared only toward the children but to put into practice what we call ‘Teach the child, reach the family.’”
When rabbis argue that the JCC program may be undermining synagogue affiliation, “I share their concern,” Lichtman said. “If families don’t want to join a synagogue there should be somewhere they can pursue their Jewish journey. We are in a culture of choice, and that means Jewish choice.
“No one is anti-synagogue here,” said Lichtman. “The JCC is just recognizing the reality of a fact of life.”
UJC MetroWest officials are seeking a resolution to the disagreements between the rabbis and the JCC.
“We at UJC MetroWest believe we need to get beyond this controversy and seek a resolution that encourages Jewish identity, participation in the Jewish community, and synagogue affiliation,” wrote Gary Aidekman, president of UJC MetroWest, and Max Kleinman, its executive vice president, in a Sept. 16 letter to MetroWest rabbis and congregation presidents.
Aidekman told NJJN he first learned of the plan in July from an e-mail while he was on vacation in Alaska.
“From our perspective, we were disappointed in the absence of a process that included the rabbis reaching the decision in a timely manner,” he said in an Oct. 11 phone interview. “The federation wants to do what it can to mediate and bring the parties together.”
Added Aidekman: “I understand the rabbis’ position. That is the group they feel they need to maintain their membership. [The families] are at a prime age, when folks get involved with synagogues and when families start to consider synagogue membership.”
Asked if he thought mediation would be helpful, Rossoff replied, “Anything is possible.”
Feldman said it was “unfair criticism” to suggest his program would discourage synagogue membership.
“One of our goals is to connect people to the broadest sense of Jewish identity that we can,” he said. “We believe that includes people’s identity with the synagogue of their choice. We distribute information to the constituents in the program about times and opportunities for them to connect with synagogues.”
One example cited, said Lichtman, was an e-mail the JCC sent on Sept. 29 to all families participating in GAN. It said, “Simhat Torah is a really good opportunity for you to visit a local synagogue.”
That e-mail “makes me feel good, but it doesn’t make me feel better,” said Rossoff.