When Temple Sholom considered creating a new family-oriented alternative to its Sunday religious school last year, there was some concern that the program might divide the congregation.
With the first year of the program coming to an end, it seems the opposite is true.
About half the eligible families in the congregation chose the new route — 40 of them, with between 13 and 20 signing up each semester. That included 60 children.
Unlike the traditional Sunday school, with the children studying with their peers in grade-level classes, the family track has parents and their offspring working together and committed to attending services and taking part in other shared learning sessions.
Michele Shapiro Abraham, the temple’s director of education, said that the concern about the program’s potential divisiveness came from other congregations that have tried the family plan and found that it creates two tiers of parents and children.
To counteract that, Abraham said, she and members of the task force that helped shaped the program opted for a part-time arrangement; families could withdraw their kids from regular classes to study with them for one-third of the year.
The arrangement paid off: A recent survey shows that 43 percent of the parents in the new program said they now have an increased interest in seeking leadership roles within the congregation, as well as being more likely to attend religious services, and attend social events at the temple.
Shapiro Abraham said as far as she knows, Temple Sholom is the only congregation to have tried the part-time family plan. “The program has worked incredibly well,” she said. “We’re definitely continuing with it.”
Last spring, the proposed program won the temple a $10,000 grant from the Legacy Heritage Foundation, one of just seven congregations chosen from around the world. Some 80 congregations from all denominations had applied for the curriculum-change grants.
The entire religion education plan was shifted to a three-semester curriculum, and the family option was offered for each of those. The same subject matter for the year was offered to both tracks: the Book of Genesis, Biblical History and the Prophets, and Holiness and Jewish Views of God.
During their trimester away from the grade-level Sunday classes, participating families attend at least three Shabbat services, one congregational learning day, and three Saturday afternoon Havdala learning sessions with other families, as well as spending three hours at home on related activities.
According to the survey, 84 percent of families who chose the family track would like to do it again, 89 percent said they gained a strong understanding of the material, 75 percent are now more likely to seek out family learning opportunities, and 75 percent of parents are more likely to discuss Jewish topics with their children.
All the children in the program said they preferred the family model to the traditional one.
“The new curriculum requires us to be active participants and learn as a family,” said Gina Banks, one of the parents participating in the option. “The family track has enabled me to explore important concepts with my children in a fun, interactive environment. Instead of sending them off to Sunday school on their own, we all get to spend time together. And the flexible schedule is great for our busy family.”
She and other parents in the program commented that the family track allows them to spend more leisurely Sunday mornings with their children in addition to the extra family time they get during the educational sessions. Some said the flexibility offered a break from their sometimes rushed and rigid schedules.
Rabbi Joel Abraham, who leads the congregation, said he was pleased with the trimester system, as well as the fact that the family option had drawn in more people.
“Having the entire congregation learning the same subject for three months helps not only to bring people together but to take our conversations to a different level,” he said. “Just as each of us is always growing and changing, so is our understanding of Judaism. The fact that everyone can have something to share and something to learn adds energy to all of our services and programming.”
In addition to the trimester model, Temple Sholom offers other non-traditional classes, including music lessons and art classes. It also offers an “open classroom” system for Hebrew learning for grades four through six, with students working at their own pace and exploring prayers through art, music, group activities, games, and discussion. For post-bar/bat mitzva students, there is the Jewish University program, and for the youngest students, the Jews’ Clues preschool program, which provides age-appropriate materials that children can explore with their parents. For students with special needs, there are individualized programs, including modified lessons, “shadow” teachers, and small classes. That individualized approach is also available for the family track.
“Our approach to Jewish learning is community-based,” said Shapiro Abraham. “We develop hands-on programs that enable families to learn in the ways that help them feel a part of the congregation and fit their busy schedules.”