On a recent Wednesday evening, a West Orange mom came with her two children to tour JLC Bayt Yeladim, an independent, unaffiliated Hebrew school opening in Livingston this fall. She was intrigued to find an alternative to traditional Hebrew schools that better suits her family’s beliefs and life-style. She doesn’t believe in God, and she is not interested in joining a synagogue or attending services. But she does want her children to know they are Jewish and have some cultural literacy.
“I want my children to learn about the traditions of their Jewish heritage,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.
For her, the JLC Bayt Yeladim may be the ideal solution. Founder Barrie Halpern, former educational director at Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, said the Jewish Learning Center will offer a “quality education for children and adults with no membership fees.”
Halpern said she designed the school to meet the changing needs of Jewish families who are less engaged in synagogue life.
“They don’t volunteer, they don’t stay and socialize,” she said. “And every workshop you attend, you hear about how many Jews are unaffiliated and how we are losing our children.”
Instead of wringing her hands within the synagogues, she moved outside.
During several open houses through the summer, about 15 families visited JLC. Halpern is expecting about five or six students in the level 1 class of third- and fourth-graders, and a handful in level 2. Tuition is $1,275 per year, with early bird and sibling discounts.
Deb Marcus’s two daughters, ages six and eight, were the first to enroll. Marcus, of Parsippany, said it was Halpern’s passion and creativity that attracted her to JLC. For Marcus, it was about finding a new model that fit her family’s life.
She and her husband both had “dreadful” experiences in the synagogues they grew up in. She remembers “teachers slamming rulers on the desk so hard that once I remember the ruler broke!” Although the family does not attend Shabbat morning services, Marcus bakes hallah with her daughters on Fridays and lights Shabbat candles, and they make Kiddush. They observe holidays, and her daughters both have tzedaka boxes.
“If we find tzedaka on the street, it goes into the tzedaka box,” she tells her daughters. They receive monthly Jewish children’s books and recordings from the PJ Library. “Just because we’re not going the traditional route doesn’t mean we are not religious. This is what we were looking for. We want our daughters to enjoy Hebrew school, to feel closer to who they are, and to feel closer to being Jewish.”
Children at JLC attend two hours per week on a flexible schedule — in theory, parents choose whatever day of the week works best for them. Halpern said she’ll start in the afternoons. The curriculum includes one hour of Hebrew language and one hour of Judaics, ranging from holidays and Bible stories to prophets, mitzvot, tzedaka, and Israel.
Halpern also offers pamphlets to take home so parents can learn as well.
The program is modeled on the Hebrew Corner in Marlboro, opened in 2007 by Cantor Avima Rudovsky Darnov. Like the Hebrew Corner, Halpern plans to add classes for adults.
Halpern insists she is not in competition with the supplementary schools run by local synagogues, but is instead offering an option for families not interested in or not ready to join a synagogue. “I hope the families we attract will eventually join synagogues,” she said.
The West Orange mom, who asked not to be identified, was clearly thrilled as she wandered through the different rooms of JLC Bayt Yeladim on her recent visit, seeing Twister with Hebrew letters, and other games with a Jewish twist.
“Everything we do, we try to make it fun,” said Halpern.
Marcus appreciates the flexibility. Because classes are offered every day of the week, they won’t conflict with other activities. And there are no classes on Sunday. “That’s family time. I’m not going to wake my kids up early on Sunday to go to another activity.”
Bayt Yeladim isn’t the first alternative “Hebrew” school in the area. The Montclair Jewish Workshop has classes two Sunday mornings per month, offering an “understanding of Jewish culture, values, and history through secular education.”
In Livingston, Helena Hadef started the Tzedek School four years ago. About 16 kids are enrolled, plus another six studying for b’nei mitzva, at the two-day-per-week school. It attracts a mostly Russian immigrant clientele.
Hadef believes that synagogue supplementary schools fail because they do not offer serious study even at early ages. “The traditional curriculum does not work. It’s pablum. They don’t use what we know about learning foreign languages in teaching Hebrew, and they don’t teach authentic sources or provide an authentic Jewish experience,” she said.
On the other hand, Hadef — an alumna of the Jerusalem Fellows and the Amcha Fellows, two highly selective Jewish educational programs — said if Halpern is attracting unaffiliated families, “I hope she has 1,000 students! There are so many kids out there we are not reaching.” But, she urged, “don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t offer a CliffsNotes version of Judaism. Then what you’re doing is just another business.”
Marcus thinks Halpern is doing anything but opening just another business. “I think she’s offering what Hebrew schools offer but in a much more creative way, and the kids are enthusiastic. If they want to grow up and do more serious study, we support that. I think this is the best way to start. And I’ve never met anyone as passionate about Jewish education as Barrie is.”