Close to 200 lay and professional leaders from fifteen New York-area Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform congregations gathered together Sunday, March 6 at Hebrew Union College in Manhattan. The 15 are engaged in The RE-IMAGINE Project of New York, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York's Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal and led by the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE). The project supports congregations on their quests to re-imagine and redesign congregational education at a time in American Jewish History when the needs of children and families are different than when the prevalent model of Hebrew School education was established.
"Synagogues are inherently tradition-minded institutions. To make significant, long-lasting change, congregants must first believe that change is possible," says Dr. Rob Weinberg the National Director of the ECE. "By interacting with panelists from congregations with anywhere from two years to over a decade of experience pioneering new models of congregational learning, educators, rabbis, and lay leaders left today with renewed belief in their ability to bring about change in their own congregations."
Educational innovators from seven congregations from across the country presented their stories of building support for change and successfully creating alternative models of Jewish Education that bring meaning, learning, and a sense of community to their students. The event, called Yachdav-All Together, brought together participants who have spent the last six months working with The RE-IMAGINE Project at their own congregations in thoughtful study and discussion about Jewish education. "They have grappled with questions such as, 'What should be the role of parents in children's Jewish education?'" said Cyd Weissman, the local director of The RE-IMAGINE Project. "Task Force members often express their belief that parents and the whole adult community do play a role in a child's Jewish education," she said, "but they question how to engage committed yet busy parents." One of the presenters, Amy Asin of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hill, CA, where 70 families gather each Shabbat afternoon for Jewish learning and celebration, said, "We see parents as the teachers of their children. You can't underestimate the power of a child tugging on his parent's shirt saying, 'I want you to come with me.'"
"I feel reassured," said Sy Susswein a lay leader from Temple Beth El of Bellmore as he left Yachdav. "I see everything won't change over night. We can experiment; start small and build each year for many years to come." Change takes persistence and passion noted Dan Bellm, a presenter who chaired the ECE Task Force at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco when they began in 2001 to re-imagine the congregation's children's education program, known as Kadima. Since then they have redesigned and re-launched Kadima as a theme-based learning experience where children learn in multi-age groupings. The children learn Torah, Jewish history, Israel, and other content areas in two-year rotations through thematic units (three per year) at age-appropriate levels on topics such as Tzedek/Justice, or Sacred Time and Space. Bellm said with a chuckle, "I thought I was signing on for 18 months of work, now I realize that this is a life-long commitment."
Among the presenters were lay and professional leaders from Temple Beth David in Commack and Forest Hills Jewish Center (FHJC) in Forest Hills who participated in the pilot phase of The RE-IMAGINE Project of New York beginning two years ago. Lynn Lancaster, Religious School Director at FHJC said, "We're creating gateways for our young parents to learn along with their children. I'd say this project was like a hearing aide for us. We thought we were listening before, but this enabled us to really hear what parents were saying, and they said, 'We want opportunities to learn, too.'"
The Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), An initiative of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Los Angeles, is the nation's first synagogue transformation project. The ECE seeks to strengthen the synagogue's place as a critical center of Jewish life in North America by helping congregations to become Congregations of Learners and Self-Renewing Congregations. www.ECEonline.org
About UJA-Federation of New York The world's largest local philanthropy, UJA-Federation of New York strengthens community and helps 1.4 million persons in New York City, Westchester County, and Long Island, as well as 3 million in Israel and 60 other countries. Funds raised by UJA-Federation sustain the activities of more than 100 health, human-service, educational, and community agencies. Every day, these community-based organizations provide a multitude of services that improve and enhance people's lives. For more information, visit the UJA-Federation website at www.ujafedny.org.