Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood has earned international recognition for its innovative family education program.
The Reform synagogue has been selected as one of seven recipients worldwide of a grant from the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project. It was selected out of 80 congregations of all denominations.
The award comes with a one-year grant of $10,000. Under the new program, to be launched in September, parents will be able to withdraw their children from one trimester of Sunday school classes and study with them in a family-oriented curriculum.
“This new model is about living Judaism, not just learning about it,” said Michele Shapiro Abraham, the temple’s director of education. “We have had a lot of success with our congregational education days and have learned how much families enjoy learning and experiencing Judaism together. This model takes that to the next level.”
She said the grant is designed to fund “transformative programs that will impact the congregation.”
“They are looking for a real paradigm shift that will get families more actively involved in Shabbat and holy days,” she added.
News of the award, she said, was “bittersweet. It’s such an honor to be chosen out of so many, but there were so many — 80 where normally about 20 apply — because the economy is so bad.”
Because of the economy, the grants were also smaller than the usual $30,000 that might have been awarded in years past. Still, the synagogue was grateful.
“We are greatly excited and gratified,” said temple president Steve Saltzman. “It will enrich the educational lives of our students and the entire congregation.”
On Sunday morning, April 25, at a religious school open house, people will have the opportunity to learn about the new system as well as the existing “open classroom” system, which allows teachers to tailor their approach to each student’s individual learning style.
Families in the congregation have been closely involved in shaping the new program. Shapiro Abraham said there was an intensive process of discussion and feedback involved in shaping the proposal. Of the roughly 80 families with children in the education program, 50 chose to take part in that process, and of those, 90 percent approved the new concept.
‘Faith and family’
During the trimester that their child is withdrawn from the usual religious school classes, families will be asked to attend at least three Shabbat services, one congregational learning day, and three Saturday afternoon Havdala learning sessions, as well as spend three hours on related at-home activities.
The topics covered will be the same as for the children’s peers — and will also be explored during that trimester in sermons, social action projects, and other activities.
“There is no better way to engage Judaism than through experience,” said Rabbi Joel Abraham. “There is no better way to model lifelong Jewish learning than by having every generation learn together.”
Congregants welcomed news of the grant. “We’re thrilled, but not surprised,” said Jackie Lieberman, who teaches the fourth-grade class. “We already know how extraordinary Michele is and what wonderful things she does.”
Amanda Seewald is a member of the temple’s board of education, a member of the grant task force, and director of MARACAS Spanish Programs in Scotch Plains. She said, “I feel strongly that by participating in the family-based program together, my family will build memories of religious education that my children can reflect on positively when they grow up.”
Temple member Emily Sarna, who will participate with her son, said, “I think the family track can help provide the opportunity in a small group setting to foster friendships, and I’d really like that for him, especially given that his [public] school has so few Jewish children in his class.”
A fellow temple parent, Lauren Balkan, said, “My child and I have been really struggling with having so much time apart on Sunday mornings. This option gives us the ability to prioritize both our faith and our family. I also believe that learning as a family will truly solidify the practice of Judaism in our home.”