Hebrew School Rocks Thanks to Radio Station
On Friday nights, when 13-year-old Michael Rothbart approaches Leo Baeck Temple for Shabbat services, he urges his parents to tune to 87.9 on their radio dial.
He is hoping that Avram Mandell, Leo Baeck’s educational director and the founding force behind the temple’s very low-power radio station, has popped in some pre-recorded Jewish music.
The Friday night program would be a bonus for Rothbart, one of the station’s first certified disc jockeys. Leo Baeck Radio 87.9, run by the third- though seventh-graders, broadcasts live Sunday mornings during drop-off, recess and pick-up from religious school.
On any given Sunday, the radio studio behind Mandell’s office, complete with its “On the Air” red light, is bustling with activity. Students come in 45 minutes early to begin their shifts; four DJs work the live broadcasts, but often during recess the crowd swells, with students wanting to be close to the radio action.
“I’m always looking to ways to engage the children and community in Jewish education,” Mandell says. “You throw out as many hooks as possible. You never know which one will catch a fish.”
Traditional once-a-week Hebrew school did little to inspire a generation of Jews, especially when students attended for fewer than six years, according to the 2000 National Jewish Population study. The same study showed that the longer and more intense involvement students had with religious schooling, the more likely they were to develop a strong Jewish identity as adults.
Leo Baeck’s school, which also meets on Wednesday afternoons, is one of a growing number of programs offering creative classes to make religious school a stimulating, hands-on experience. The goal is to help kids incorporate Judaism into their daily lives and to forge a lifelong positive connection to Judaism, Mandell said.
The school has about 210 kids. About 65 percent return for post-bar and bat mitzvah studies, all the way through 12th grade.
In addition to traditional classes in Hebrew and Jewish heritage and texts, students participate in family learning days, analyze current events, engage in social action, and enjoy field trips, holiday celebrations and prayer workshops. Sunday morning electives include drama, journalism, Krav Maga (Israeli self-defense), band and the radio station.
Leo Baeck Temple Radio, which has been up and running for about a year and broadcasts through the school and the parking lot, has been a particularly effective hook for many students. Started last year with the help of a grant from the Martin Sosin Stratto-Petit Foundation, which Mandell used to purchase a good stock of CDs, the weekly broadcasts provide an opportunity for the students to learn about all kinds of Jewish music, as well as honing their broadcasting skills. In addition to researching and introducing the music they play, the 25 students in the class write scripts for newscasts, commercials, public service announcements and movie reviews.
Last year, the fledgling station received a $1,000 prize for creative use of technology from the Union for Reform Judaism Press and the National Association of Temple Educators.
Rothbart believes that he’s advanced his Jewish education through the station. “We read news stories. We fill in background and history and we explain the Hebrew titles of songs,” he said.
Matthew Schulman, another 13-year-old DJ, liked learning how to modulate his broadcasting voice and developing “a nice attitude on the air and off.”
For their class project this semester, the class produced a radio broadcast based on the latest Ruach CD, an anthology of Jewish rock music from North America and Israel.
The students researched and recorded intros to each of the artists for a broadcast that has become a staple of the station’s programming.
“Some people might be surprised to learn there’s Jewish rock, much less Jewish hip-hop,” Mandell says.
And the definition of “Jewish music” can also expand to “include any band that has a Jewish member” — Bob Dylan qualifies, as does Maroon Five.
The students’ favorites include Leo Baeck’s Cantor, Wally Schachet-Briskin, known as Cantor Wally; Mah Tovu, the band of Leo Baeck’s senior rabbi, Ken Chasen, and Eric Schwartz, a.k.a. Smooth-E, a Jewish rapper and stand-up comedian, who did a live interview with the kids, performed for the religious school and even did a station identification.
The station IDs are a particularly popular format — with everyone from the temple’s custodian to the cantor recording announcements.
“Even if no-one is tuning in, we have a great time. I’ll blast it through the halls of the school. And the DJs love it,” Mandell says. “We have third-graders working with fifth-graders and seventh-graders. It’s very important for me to have different age groups interacting.”
Schulman, has no intention of ending his involvement, when he moves on to eighth grade this year.
“I like the music,” he says. “I’ll definitely do it next year. When I get older I’d like to continue to work with 87.9 and maybe help other temples get radio stations, too.”