When you close your eyes and think about your own Hebrew school experience, do you see classes based on your interests? Creative teachers who use varying teaching styles to really engage you? Experiential learning where you put into practice what you learn? Do you even remember half of what you learned? Probably not. Most Jewish adults who attended afternoon Hebrew schools don’t.
But, a new generation of children attending the Jewish Learning Center (JLC) at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, will.
Sherri Morris, Beth El’s Director of Congregational Learning, puts an emphasis on “experiential learning,” which translates into hiring creative and passionate teachers, creating meaning in Jewish traditions, making music a central component in learning and focusing programming around the children’s interests.
According to Morris, “Research supports the philosophy that experiential Jewish
education is necessary to help our learners explore, grapple and find meaning
in Judaism. While basic content knowledge is important, it is the transformation of that knowledge into their everyday lives that impacts students in a lasting way. Experiential learning is when an individual or group actually experiences and then reflects on the concept, value, mitzvot, etc. These types of experiences are what we strive to provide at the Jewish Learning Center.”
This educational approach is impressively woven into all areas of learning at the JLC, including prayer, Hebrew, torah, tzedakah, Jewish history, mitzvot and more. There are hands-on learning experiences that bring Judaism to life for all ages. From the Kindergarten “Shabbat box” where each week a child brings home a box with candles, challah and a journal to write about his/her family’s Shabbat experience to pre-b’nai mitzvah 6th graders, who create their own tallit to be used as they become proud b’nai mitzvah.
“Weaving personal meaning into Judaism is at the heart of what the JLC is all about”, says Beth El’s rabbi, Francine Roston, who also teaches at the JLC. And, for children in grades 3-7, there is the added element of a rotating elective program that helps to do just that. Students choose from classes such as “Photography through a Jewish Lens,” “Harry Potter & the Torah” or “Jews Who Rock.” Besides being just plain fun, getting out of their classrooms and taking these classes once a week fosters learning, brings movement into education and creates community within the school at large; bringing together children from different age groups and volunteer parents/congregants who come in to teach these specialties.
Morris also meets each family “where they’re at” in their Jewish journey and seeks to help them further their own journeys. Family and community could not be more important, as reflected in multiple inter-generational student/family projects and trips throughout the year for all age groups.
Since Beth El opened the JLC six years ago, under the leadership of Rabbi Roston and Director Sherri Morris, the program has grown its enrollment by approximately 50% across grades K-7.
So, while you may not remember a personal Jewish learning experience quite like this, you can provide it for your children. If you’re interested in learning more, contact Sherri Morris at 973-763-0119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.