Boy Scouts have their merit badges. Karate has its black belts. Why, then, couldn’t a similar self-paced, goal-oriented approach be applied to a Jewish educational setting?
Rabbi Justus Baird has been pondering that question for years. His answer ultimately provided the impetus for the introduction of Yerusha, which the rabbi describes as “a revolutionary approach to Hebrew school.”
Yerusha is designed to transmit Jewish tradition from generation to generation. Thus, the central unit of learning is the family.
“Programs requiring parents to drop off kids are missing an opportunity for families to learn about Jewish tradition and practice Judaism together,” the rabbi said. “In Yerusha, parents are integral to the entire learning experience.”
Weekly gatherings are led by parents of participating children. Learning is designed to continue in the home between sessions, enabling the parents to be further involved in the educational process.
“When our first-graders learn a blessing, they have to recite it [at home], so if the parents don’t know the blessing, they will need to learn it, too,” said Baird. “While I realize that this approach may not be for everyone, all of the parents who have been involved in our pilot program have been inspired by what they have experienced.”
Students also attain various “ranks” by fulfilling a series of requirements. For instance, in order for a child from the younger age group to reach the “owl rank,” he or she must complete 12 requirements. These include discussing the different kinds of prayers, then writing a prayer; learning two songs from the Yerusha song list; and completing a Bible activity. That means the student must pick a story from the Bible and tell that story through an art project or a comic book, or by writing and performing a brief play.
According to the 37-year-old Baird, who serves as director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, the idea that evolved into Yerusha is rooted in his childhood experience as a Boy Scout as well as his passion for Jewish learning.
“I’ve been working on the concept of Yerusha ever since rabbinical school,” said Baird, who was ordained at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2007. “The idea more or less sat dormant until a little over a year ago, when I met with two families from West Windsor about the possibility of establishing a new independent minyan in central New Jersey. The families had seven kids between them, and when we began to discuss the educational component of the minyan, I shared with them my thoughts about possibly experimenting with an alternative form of Jewish education.”
That fateful meeting eventually led to the formation of both Zamru (“to sing out”), a music-oriented independent minyan, and Yerusha, which is nearing the conclusion of this, its pilot year. Five families, all from Princeton and West Windsor, are actively involved. The group includes 11 children, ages six to 14. Classes, two hours in length, meet weekly in the homes of participants. The school year, which runs September to June, also includes four Shabbatons.
“The idea of a religious school program where kids would be enthusiastic, excited about learning, and engaged was really appealing to me,” said Adam Berger, who attended the initial meeting and subsequently enrolled his three children in Yerusha. “We wanted to do something different, something innovative, and Rabbi Baird’s vision was very much in line with our needs.”
The students are divided into two age groups: kindergarten through fourth grade and fifth through 12th grades. Each student progresses at a pace he or she is comfortable with.
“When the children have an opportunity to share the work they’ve done on their own with the others in the group, they’re so incredibly excited,” said Pam Edelman, the mother of four Yerusha students and another of the parents who attended the meeting where the concept was first introduced. “It’s gratifying to see the kids learning to love being Jewish, especially because their families are very much part of what they’re experiencing.
“I had high hopes from the beginning,” she continued, “but I have to say that this has exceeded my expectations.”
Already, Baird and company have fielded inquiries about Yerusha from interested parties from California, Florida, Canada, and Charlottesville, Va. He anticipates that the central New Jersey group will expand in the coming year.
“I emphasize to anyone who is interested that knowledge of Judaism isn’t a prerequisite,” Baird related. “I know some parents believe that only a rabbi or a professional educator can teach Judaism, but each person brings his or her own unique perspective to the table. One of our parents led a fascinating discussion on genealogy. Another, who works in investments, led an ethics discussion. Both of these individuals provided a level of expertise that a rabbi or an educator couldn’t provide.”
The contributions of each individual, parent and child alike, has proven to be one of Pam Edelman’s favorite components of Yerusha.
“Together,” she concluded, “we’ve become a community.”