This is Not Your Parents’ Hebrew School: Wise CYE and Leo Baeck Are Reinventing Jewish Education
On Sunday May 1, 2022, families at Stephen Wise Temple’s Center for Youth Engagement (CYE) celebrated an academic year unlike any other in the temple’s 58-year history, one which marked a re-imagining of Jewish education for children attending secular schools.
For our end of school celebration, families from five different CYE programs gathered to mingle and share unique stories about their distinct Jewish educational experiences.
“It always felt like we had to work so hard to get our children a Jewish education,” said Jonathan, father of three children enrolled in CYE’s monthly Jewish day camp. “Now, it feels like their Jewish education is working for us, and we couldn’t be happier.”
No matter what name it’s been given—religious school, Hebrew school, or Sunday school—traditional supplementary Jewish education experiences, including those at Wise, have often prioritized community and content over discovery and customization, preventing them from meeting the variety of goals and expectations different families have for their children’s Jewish learning.
Recognizing how the shortcomings of the traditional model prevented us from meeting the unique needs of students and families during the pandemic, we approached our return to on-campus learning in 2021 with an eye towards change. Instead of offering only the same weekly religious school experience as in the past, we began to craft tailored experiences to meet the disparate needs and schedules of our families, who come from a multitude of ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds.
With limited staff and resources, we needed to think creatively. Our first step was to explore a novel partnership with Leo Baeck Temple—historically a partner of the Wise community and home to one of Los Angeles’s premier religious schools—to ensure that we could still provide a world-class weekly religious school experience to those families who wanted it.
“We have delighted in welcoming families from our longtime neighbor, Stephen Wise Temple, into our Religious School” said Leo Baeck Temple Senior Rabbi, Ken Chasen. “Our two congregations have a longstanding history of collaboration and partnership that we all cherish.”
Next, we sought to identify the different priorities of our families, using interviews, surveys, and recommendations to determine the content and schedules they craved for their children’s Jewish education. Finally, we carefully considered the resources at our disposal, as well as available scholarship in the field, in order to select the best experiences we could provide to meet the needs of our families.
We began with five programs, each offering Jewish education for students with different goals, different learning styles, and different needs.
Five distinct learning opportunities for Jewish children
- A monthly Jewish day camp, filled with fun and engaging experiences that allow students to fall in love with their Judaism as they practice Jewish values on the field of play, in the pool, at the art studio, and more.
- A monthly family learning experience, filled with project-based learning activities that enable families to determine how to infuse their homes with moments of meaning, discovery, and joy from our tradition.
- A weekly Shabbat Torah study, filled with deep insights into our tradition’s sacred teachings that allow students who want academic rigor (without the stress) to tackle in-depth study of Judaism.
- A weekly T’filah class, filled with opportunities to enjoy and master the art of Jewish prayer, either in-person or online.
- A weekly religious school experience at Leo Baeck Temple, where students discover the joys of Judaism through study, prayer, art, dance, gardening, and more.
Having developed these five different choices for supplementary Jewish learning, we then engaged our families in deep discussions about their priorities for their children’s Jewish education, in order to help them select the best path for their children’s learning.
“I love that our families now have so many different options to suit their interests, needs, and schedules – all focused-on building positive Jewish identity through a warm and welcoming community,” suggested Wise Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback.
There have been challenges: offering different courses at different times makes community building among students a Herculean challenge, one we are still learning to navigate. For some students, this Sunday was their first time meeting one another. Meanwhile, for many families, like Jonathan’s, the opportunity to choose their children’s Jewish educational path made sense immediately, but for others, it took some time to see the possibilities that flexibility creates. Some children moved between programs until they found the right fit for their learning and scheduling needs.
The early results, though, have been encouraging. The flexibility of the offerings attracted families who otherwise may have eschewed Jewish education for their child, either because of their religious school memories or the time demands.
“We wanted to introduce our children to Jewish education, but once a week was too much for us,” said Jamie, the father of a kindergartener and first grader. “We already miss so much family time with them. But the camp Sundays and the family program made the perfect way to introduce them to Jewish study.”
In addition, families new and old have expressed deep satisfaction with the multitude of options at their disposal.
“We’re so grateful,” said Roya, the mother of a fifth grader in our Shabbat Torah study. “We’ve been here a long time, and this is what we’ve always wanted. My daughter loves it, and it’s never a fight to get her here on Saturday morning.”
As our academic year concludes, we look forward to 5783 and all the opportunities it presents to build meaningful relationships between our families and to further enhance and develop the available choices for families searching for the right fit for Jewish education.
To learn more, visit us online at https://wisela.org/cye or call us at 310.889.2211.
Throughout their history, the Jewish people have engaged in an ongoing search for purpose and meaning that has led to countless developments which affect the ways in which we live and think. Jewish education enables children and adults alike to continue this conversation, augmenting our perspectives with the wisdom and values of our forebears while advancing their search for purpose and meaning. In order to lead deep and engaging Jewish lives, we must embrace deep and engaging Jewish learning.
In addition, while a firm Jewish education is essential to becoming better Jews, modern research suggests that Jewish education and participation in a Jewish community makes us healthier, happier, and more successful, too.
All our Center for Youth Engagement programs contain meaningful and joyous Jewish learning opportunities designed to prepare Jewish children to:
- Question. Navigate life’s challenges and mysteries with critical thinking, curiosity, and wonder.
- Make a difference. Make the world a more just and moral place.
- Be good. Make choices consistent with progressive Jewish values.
- Be fulfilled. Achieve shleimut, a sense of wholeness, through purpose and resilience.
- Connect. Understand the strength of community, history, and heritage – on their own, and as the key to achieving the goals above.