Jewish Center school adapts to family needs

Jewish Center school adapts to family needs

Zayin (seventh-grade) students at The Jewish Center interview community members for a synagogue history project. Photos courtesy The Jewish Center of Princeton
Zayin (seventh-grade) students at The Jewish Center interview community members for a synagogue history project. Photos courtesy The Jewish Center of Princeton

The Jewish Center has revamped its religious school curriculum following a dialogue with parents.

The Princeton synagogue will offer greater flexibility in course scheduling and selection, experiential learning opportunities, a more professionalized teaching staff, and family educational opportunities.

The new program follows months of conversations with the over 150 families of students in grades K-seven and consultations with other synagogues and institutions. The plan was presented to parents at meetings last month. It will be implemented this fall.

The “feedback has been really positive,” said Rabbi Annie Tucker, the congregation’s assistant rabbi, who oversees the program in conjunction with school director Gila Levin and the center’s school committee. “People seem really excited about it.”

In recent years parents had expressed a variety of concerns about the school, synagogue officials said. These included balancing religious school and youngsters’ other extracurricular activities, the need for experiential learning, an “uneven” teaching staff, and a desire for community among families and students, said Tucker.

By far, the greatest changes to the program affect students in grades three-six. (The school runs from kindergarten through high school.) Their schedule will change to a trimester model, where students can select which two of the four days a week they will take classes, including Shabbat and Sundays.

Previously, those students were required to attend Sunday mornings and one weekday for a total of four hours plus Shabbat requirements that vary by grade.

They can also choose from five different “pillars” of instruction — Hebrew, Jewish history and Israel, Bible and rabbinic literature, Jewish practices and values, and the “spirit” of the Jewish people, which covers prayer, God, and theology and is offered only on Shabbat. (They must choose Shabbat as one of the two days for one trimester a year.)

Students may take a selection of classes from each “pillar” or concentrate on a particular subject area, and can switch themes from year to year.

All third- and fourth-graders will be required to take foundational Hebrew courses, while fifth- and sixth-grade students may select either prayerbook Hebrew or conversational Hebrew as they move through the program. On Shabbat, the children will attend age-appropriate services together and then come together by class.

On Sundays, while school runs from 9 a.m. to noon, the third hour is optional and will be used for “hugim” (clubs) such as choir, Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts), newspaper, and drama.

Another change concerns the teaching staff: The school will offer ongoing paid professional development opportunities and weekly meetings to discuss lesson plans.

The new model also seeks to get parents more involved in their children’s religious education, including opportunities for parents and children to learn together. Members of the teaching staff will also serve as advisers to the families.

“The challenge for American synagogues today is how we take our ancient traditions and keep them fresh,” said The Jewish Center’s Rabbi Adam Feldman, “and that’s one of the things I love so much about this plan.”

Feldman said he is glad that a buzz has been generated well before the summer — when families’ minds are turned toward other things — so that they will know what to expect next fall. “There’s excitement,” he said.

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