Dreams and Visions for Jewish Education

By Emily Walsh and Ivy Schreiber | Issue Date: March 2012

At the Reach for Shabbat Retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, October, 2010. Photo: Dara SchaeferAs we began our respective journeys as Jewish educators, we each had visions of developing Jewish education defined not by the four walls of a classroom, but rather by the people, values, beliefs, and practices in our tradition. We envisioned educating a new generation to be knowledgeable, participating, committed, and dedicated Jewish leaders. In their book A Jew Within, Dr. Steven Cohen and JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen write, “American Jews speak of their lives, and of their Jewish beliefs and commitments, as a journey of ongoing questioning and development.” Our work at BJ gives us the opportunity to transform our goals for Jewish education into reality every day by supporting learners and families along that journey of ongoing development.

At the Reach for Shabbat Retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, October, 2010. Photo: Dara SchaeferSix years ago through the process of Re-Imagine, a project of the Experiment in Congregational Education that guides synagogues through innovation, the Hebrew School created an opt-in pilot program where 19 4th-grade families participated in a year-long enriched learning track. Today, that track has become the annual Reach for Shabbat Retreat that brings all 3rd-, 4th – and 5th-grade Hebrew School families to Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center each fall to experience a full Shabbat as a community. This year, we added a new pilot program to the retreat with a 6th grade B’nai Mitzvah family track. We continue to innovate, creating new opportunities for families to engage with our tradition as a community. One highlight for families is our ritualized opening program for 4th grade families to kick off the b’nai mitzvah journey. We open up the entire Torah scroll and families find the place in the Torah that will be the child’s parasha (portion) when s/he is called to the Torah to become a bar/bat mitzvah.

Our desire to innovate remains strong as we enter into the next chapter of BJ’s history. We stand at the cusp of a great opportunity as we expand our vision, yet again, for Jewish education in our new Community Home on 89th Street.

Now a great new opportunity is in the works. In 2012 we will pilot the Jewish Journey Project (JJP), a vibrant new model to transmit Jewish culture, language, and values. Together with the JCC in Manhattan and other area synagogues we have been working for months to create this project collaboratively. The launch of JJP will dramatically transform the traditional Hebrew School experience for children in the years leading up to b’nai mitzvah by drawing on the rich programming resources in the greater New York area to serve as a living learning laboratory for Jewish children and their parents. Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan and the visionary behind JJP says, “We look forward to creating new models that will work for children and parents, helping them grow and learn while strengthening Jewish life and community.”

Cohen and Eisen remark, “The most important thing a Jew should do as a Jew is to pursue a Jewish journey.” We are excited to now be designing maps for our learners’ and families’ Jewish journeys. Our early dreams and visions for Jewish education are coming to fruition. We will continue to explore the best and most innovative ways to bring Jewish practices and knowledge to life and so to inspire our learners and families on a path toward a committed Jewish life.