On a sunny morning in October, 40 families from Congregation Beth El in South Orange set off with GPS devices and maps on a hunt for Jewish values.
The families, all with children in grades three through five, headed in to the South Mountain Reservation to search for hidden “caches.” Each contained various triggers for discussions about “wants” and “needs” and how Jewish tradition distinguishes between the two.
Toward the end of the event, the five teams rejoined at “base camp” to review their findings.
“We discussed how different environments and family circumstances can influence whether something is a want or need,” said Sherri Morris, Beth El director of education.
Beth El’s “geocaching” outing was part of a wider program designed to shake up the educational process at synagogues by experimenting with alternative and emerging models of Jewish learning.
Called E3, for Exploring Educational Experiences, it is a project of the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Six synagogues are taking part in the project, funded through a two-year, $12,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ plus $8,000 in funds from the Partnership.
Each congregation receives $600 per year to help implement their projects. Funds are also used to cover coaching time and expertise provided by JESNA, the national support group for Jewish education.
At Beth El, the larger goal is to promote deeper interaction and relationships among the children regardless of whether they attend the synagogue religious school, Golda Och Academy, or neither.
Among the other participating synagogues, Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield is attempting to reach out to unaffiliated Jews though a series of “First Fridays” and “Holiday Haverim” programs. Temple Sinai in Summit is aiming for students representing 14 different towns to gain an appreciation for what it means to be part of a single caring Jewish community. Congregation Beth Hatikvah, also in Summit, is using technology to create “interactive classrooms,” while Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange is exploring ways to enhance the Shabbat experience. And Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove is encouraging every student and family to discover personal meaning in the Jewish holidays.
At each step along the way, the congregations are expected to reflect on what is working and what is not and devise ways to refine the project and measure success.
On Dec. 4, Morris and other representatives of the participating synagogues met at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, where Dr. Leora Isaacs, vice president for programs and organizational learning at JESNA, was helping them focus on their goals.
“Be careful about what is the stated goal and what is the vehicle to get to the goal,” said Isaacs, after Nancy Hersh of Beth Hatikvah described the new ways her synagogue is using technology in the classroom. “The goal is not using technology but making education accessible and fun.”
The group also considered how to bring the congregation along on the venture, and how to measure success.
“Sometimes you can’t quantify qualitative aspects of a program, but it’s certainly not tushies in seats,” said Isaacs. “If no one comes, that’s an indication your program is not working. But coming is not an indicating you are reaching your goal. It could be that a person who came with a friend likes the cookies you serve or is fulfilling some kind of requirement. You need to really refine what the goals are.”
If the goal is to create a caring community, Isaacs said, “you need to ask, what would it look like to be part of a community? It’s not just knowing names. If something happens to a family, the community naturally comes together to celebrate or to mourn.”