February 23, 2020

Reimagining religious school

From my first interview at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) in 2009, when the search committee declared, “We want revolution, not evolution!” to the visioning work I do with families today, my purpose at the congregation has been clear: to help families build deeper relationships to Jewish community, Jewish living and Jewish learning.

When I came to TIOH, the community was well under way in its work to redefine what religious school could mean. Parents were calling for the usual changes: more flexibility in scheduling, more options, more opportunities for deeper meaning and more chances for parental involvement and connection with other families. Essentially, the congregation was looking for a way to redefine supplemental Jewish education — one that would move Jewish learning past the merely supplemental and reconceive it as central. In 2010, guided by the Experiment in Congregational Education’s RE-IMAGINE Project, TIOH’s Shabbaton program was created. 

Shabbaton is a family program for third- to sixth-graders and their parents that meets on Shabbat afternoons. The program includes opportunities for students and parents to learn together and separately. As Shabbaton parent Peter Marcus states, “Shabbaton has opened a door for many, offering some the opportunity to learn aspects of Judaism for the first time, and others the opportunity to explore more deeply Jewish traditions within a strong community of friends and family.”

As parent Jonny Mars explains, “What was compelling about the Shabbaton program was that there was a connection to sacred time.” Indeed, each gathering begins with Kiddush, Motzi (blessings over grape juice and challah) and Shabbat singing, and ends with Havdalah (a ritual that separates Shabbat from the beginning of the new week). 

Each year, the program has a different curricular focus, with each age group studying the same theme each day. This year’s focus on middot (Jewish virtues) has introduced learners to new bodies of Jewish text and tradition, including mussar literature.

We seek to make Shabbaton as multigenerational as possible, by welcoming kindergarten to second-grade siblings to participate in their own parallel learning program and by employing seven teenagers to work as madrichim (high school aides) in the classrooms. Additionally, third- to sixth-graders in the program learn Hebrew in small groups (three to five students per group) during the week, meeting in participants’ homes or at the synagogue. 

“Revolutionary” might not be the best word to describe the program; it’s modeled on other family education endeavors that exist throughout Los Angeles and the country. But Shabbaton has certainly been revolutionary for our congregation, deeply affecting the lives of the 50-plus families who have participated in it each year for the last three years. As parent Dorrie LaMarr says, “Shabbaton has become a part of our family culture, fostering a deeper connection to Judaism and the Temple Israel community.” 

We engage in a formal reflection process at the end of each year. The results of last year’s feedback not only instructed us on how to improve our program, but also highlighted some of the success points we had hoped to achieve. Parents wanted more contact with Shabbaton learning at home and throughout the week, more leadership opportunities within the program, and new ways to connect with each other. 

A few innovations that came out of these parents’ requests are: We now send text messages to Shabbaton participants throughout the week, offering questions for reflection or prompts for family conversations. We have split participants into chavurah groups of seven to eight families and asked parents to lead conversations within their groups. Parents will even plan one Shabbaton session for their chavurah group, working together to design their own learning experiences.

In addition to the impact Shabbaton has had on participants’ lives, it has produced a number of significant results for the congregation.

Parent participants have been inspired to engage in further Jewish learning and leadership. Six parent participants have elected to become adult b’nai mitzvah, one parent has enrolled in the Florence Melton Adult Mini School, and another non-Jewish parent is studying for conversion. Program parents participate in weekly Torah study, attend the synagogue’s men’s retreat and its women’s retreat, and offer teachings at congregational holiday celebrations and services. Five Shabbaton parents now sit on the temple’s Board of Trustees.

Shabbaton families have gathered in each other’s homes for Shabbat meals, they have organized dinners, celebrated together, cared for each other during times of grief and illness, arranged play dates and regularly attend congregational Shabbat services together.

Once we created Shabbaton with a clearly articulated mission of family education, we were able to reimagine the traditional religious school, as well. Family education in our traditional program is now focused on helping families bring Jewish rituals and experiences into their homes and incorporates an off-site learning day into each grade.

With Shabbaton’s third year now in session, one outcome is certain. Shabbaton is in no way supplemental Jewish learning. For its participants, it is quickly becoming a way of Jewish living. And for our congregation, it is nothing short of a blessing.

Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.