Some religious schools hoping less is more

Some religious schools hoping less is more

One-day-a-week model is response to families’ increasingly busy lives

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Beth “Morah Batya” Hancock — with students at the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon — said the move to one-day-a-week religious school is an example of how Reform Judaism is “dynamic and able to meet parents where they are.&rdq
Beth “Morah Batya” Hancock — with students at the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon — said the move to one-day-a-week religious school is an example of how Reform Judaism is “dynamic and able to meet parents where they are.&rdq

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills announced that beginning this fall, its religious school will meet one day each week, down from two days. It is the most recent but not the only local synagogue that has decided to make the switch, often to accommodate today’s kids’ busy schedules. 

“We are trying to really work with the community,” said Sarah Hanuka, B’nai Jeshurun’s religious school director. “With today’s life styles and activities, it’s really hard for families to commit to two days.” 

The school will meet for two-and-a-half hours, one day a week. In the past, the school met for two hours on Sunday and one-and-a-half hours during the week. Parents can choose any one of four days being offered, including Sunday. 

In exchange for dropping one day, Hanuka is asking families to commit to regular attendance. “It’s not how many times you come each week, but the feeling of love and community and nurturing” the school engenders, said Hanuka.

While some directors remain skeptical, at least three other schools in the area have made the shift. These are mostly Reform religious schools, since the Conservative movement mandates at least five hours a week starting in the third grade, and Orthodox students generally attend day schools or yeshivot. (All schools discussed in this article are Reform except where noted.)

Some educators have been surprised at how much their families have embraced the one-day model. At Temple Har Shalom in Warren, director of congregational learning Elizabeth Bloch said that the synagogue offered one day only as an option and only “after much thought and deliberation. We did not know how our congregants would respond,”’ she said. “Surprisingly enough, the majority of our congregants opted for the one-day option.” 

The Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon will also implement a one-day school beginning this fall, according to its departing director, Beth “Morah Batya” Hancock. The decision was made in part due to dropping enrollment, but also in response to family needs. 

The congregation moved from rented space in a church in Kinnelon to space in Pompton Lakes, and getting there became an issue, especially on Wednesday afternoons, according to Hancock. 

“We did a quick poll among parents and decided to move all instruction to Sunday,” she said.

The synagogue will also be offering adult education during religious school classes. “This will be where to go on Sundays,” said Hancock. “We recognize that we live in a society where Sunday mornings are available. Reform Judaism is supposed to be dynamic and able to meet parents where they are. This is an example of how to do it.”

Other one-day programs are in place at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove and at the Chabad of Basking Ridge, where director Malkie Herson said the shift was “one of the hardest decisions” she’s faced as director there. Chabad, while Orthodox-run, performs outreach to non-Orthodox families. In general, Reform Movement two-day schools include about four to five hours of instruction per week, while the one-day programs offer two to three hours per week.

‘Impossibly small’

Some directors said they would not consider a one-day option. They emphasized not only the need for more hours of instruction than a single day offers, but also the way children attending school multiple days at the synagogue creates community.

“One day is an impossibly small amount of time to have with our students,” said Lynn Anne Cutler, education director at Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, who has taught at one-day and two-day schools. “Although I loved my students and did as much as I could with the time allotted, I would not choose to send my children less than two days unless I really didn’t have another option.” When teaching is reduced to one day, “too much has to be left out, by necessity.”

Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange holds two days of religious school for its students in grades three through six. “Research demonstrates that when students engage with material more frequently, the connection they form to the subject matter is stronger and more profound,” wrote TSTI religious school director Mindy Schreff in an e-mail. “Studies also show that students learn best when they have ongoing relationships with both their peers and teachers.

“Meeting twice a week is critical to ensuring that our students have deep, meaningful experiences,” she added. 

Rabbi Clifford Kulwin at Temple B’nai Abraham, an unaffiliated synagogue in Livingston, also voiced skepticism. 

“Supplementary education is by definition a challenge since it is, well, supplementary and not a focus of the child’s ‘main’ education. Still there has to be at least a minimum number of hours of it in the week, and I can’t imagine that number possible on one day. The biggest reason? Attention spans have limits,” he said. 

Kulwin said he also believes that socialization, an additional aspect of religious school, suffers under the one-day model.

“Simply having Jewish kids together, learning together, praying together, singing together, reinforces all the formal learning taking place and additionally constitutes invaluable informal learning and comfort with religious life,” he said.

Temple Sinai in Summit offers a different, in-between position: more days but less time. The whole program is just over three hours, but divided over two days. “I understand how incredibly busy our students’ and parents’ lives are,” said director of education Patti Kahn, acknowledging that she sees both sides of the debate. “When I put on my Hebrew educator hat, I wish we had more than one visit with Hebrew each week,” she wrote in an e-mail. “On the other hand, our Sunday program is so wonderful in tone and is filled with meaning and friendship for the children that I wouldn’t want to change our Sunday goals at all.”

Kahn concluded, “I suppose a one-day program with at least three hours that also includes other opportunities for development of friendships and Jewish community experiences (Shabbat, retreats, values-driven social action) would be a good option if the program’s components and additional activities were excellent.” 

B’nai Jeshurun’s Hanuka joined its religious school staff two years ago following stints in Los Angeles and Chicago, where she implemented the one-day-a-week program in those communities as well. She believes little is actually lost in the shift to one day, because in two-day programs, many students frequently miss the second day, and because the single day is often longer than either of the two days were before.

“We are not leaving anything out of the curriculum,” she said. But there’s a catch: In order to make up the worship portion of religious school, students are now required to come to Shabbat service one day each month, something that wasn’t included in the past. 

Debbie Klein of Short Hills, a parent of three students at B’nai Jeshurun, has chosen Sunday for her rising first- and fifth-graders, and said she hopes that “between soccer and dance, this will make our lives easier” on weeknights. 

“I’m excited. I think it’s great that they’re innovating,” she said. “It’s a bold step and we’ll see how it goes, but I’m going in open-minded. I’m confident in our clergy and in our staff, and if the quality is good, I’m okay with the quantity being reduced.”

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