Most Pittsburgh area congregations kicked off their religious school programs last Sunday, with many schools trying new programming, breaking in new personnel or placing greater emphasis on particular areas of their pupils’ schooling:
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At Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, there will be some changes in the curriculum this year.
“We have expanded our use of the Chai Curriculum [the reform movement’s curriculum] for first-through eighth-graders,” Rabbi Art Donsky said.
Ohav Shalom is also partnering with the Agency for Jewish Learning to become part of the Florence Melton Communiteen High School. Its ninth-and 10th-graders will take two courses in conjunction with Communiteen: “The Big Ideas of Being Jewish” and “The American Jewish Experience.”
Ohav Shalom is also anticipating the introduction of its new music coordinator and youth advisor, Nikki Avershal, who will teach music in the religious school.
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At Adat Shalom, Preschool Director Gail Schmitt is taking on the role of religious school director this year. She does not plan to make any major initial changes to the curriculum.
“My main goal is to maintain the quality of the school and where needed, provide some enrichment,” said Schmitt. However, she expressed interest in incorporating the congregation’s new Israel Room into the religious school curriculum. She also noted there will be a stronger emphasis on family education and parental involvement.
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At Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge, Rabbi Stephanie Wolfe, who also functions as religious school director, plans to add family educational programming such as programs with Rabbi Shmuly Rothman, youth director of Chabad of Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Shlicha Efrat Avramovich.
“We haven’t done this in the last four years,” Wolfe said. “This will help the parents get more information, and for them to be able to do some partner learning and separate learning, sometimes with kids and sometimes for just the parents.”
In addition, Beth Samuel’s teenagers have expressed interest in becoming confirmed. “I don’t know the last time there was a confirmation ceremony at the synagogue,” Wolfe said.
Many teenagers already work as teacher’s assistants and participate in teenager activities. They will also take a four-week course with Wolfe in basic Jewish theology. A confirmation ceremony is slated for spring, following Shavuot.
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At Congregation B’nai Abraham, the new spiritual leader, Cantor Gary Gelender, will lead music classes and conduct services with the religious school students as part of the curriculum. In addition, Religious School Principal Roberta Gallagher said the students would take field trips to kosher restaurants, Pinskers, and to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
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At Beth El Congregation of the South Hills Spiegel Religious School, Principal Fern Reinbeck, who is starting her second year as principal, is introducing new programming for students as well as their parents.
She will introduce PACE, a parent and child education program in which families work together on various projects at the school.
In addition, the Spiegel Religious School will train children in Torah trope beginning in fourth grade, and continuing that training through sixth grade.
“Repetition builds mastery,” Reinbeck said.
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At Temple Emanuel Torah Center, The school is adopting the AJL’s Jewish Lens program, which encourages students to create their own interpretation of the Jewish community through the lens of a camera.
The Torah Center also is setting up a “no English zone” at the school in order to develop language skills.
“We’re going to have words that our Hebrew students are not allowed to use in English,” said Rabbi Jessica Locketz, the principal. “Every week there will be new words added to the list that can only be used in Hebrew.”
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At Rodef Shalom Congregation, the entire religious school will be in the building on Sunday mornings.
According to Jacob Religious School Director Susan A. Loether, the teenager school program, at the parents’ request, moved from Tuesday nights to Sunday. Parents were concerned about scheduling conflicts between school and other activities.
Also new this year, students will study Jewish history through recipes. They will learn about what people ate, in what time period and country, and will then cook the dishes.
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Beth Shalom Congregation opened the school year Sunday with an assembly for parents and kids, followed by a High Holiday workshop in which pupils moved from station to station performing activities such as filling out “I’m sorry” cards, blowing a shofar and committing to perform mitzvahs.
The school as a whole will meet every Sunday for 30 minutes of “davening” and sharing.
“The overarching thing this year is going to be community,” said first-year Education Director Simma Kinderlehrer, “integrating the larger Beth Shalom community and the larger Jewish community.”
She also hopes to bring elders into the classroom to talk “to interact with the kids in any creative ways we can come up with, so they don’t feel like they’re here in a vacuum.”
The school will choose a tzedaka project, and each class will support it with its own “tikkun olam” activity.
The school also plans to utilize Frick Park this year, making three separate trips there to teach lessons related to Judaism and nature.
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At Dor Hadash Religious School, “we tried to expand our program to give our kids a broader cultural range of Jewish life,” Principal Hal Grinberg said.
This year, the school is placing greater emphasis on both modern and pray book Hebrew. Each class will do its own yearlong mitzva project and each student will do two book reports on titles of their choosing.
Giving kids work to do outside the classroom is not unusual here. “We give our kids homework, and they do it,” Grinberg said. “It’s kind of the hallmark of our school.”
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At Tree of Life Congregation, religious school students opened the year Sunday with a parade and petting zoo, but much of the year will be devoted to performing mitzvas.
Seventh-graders will do a monthly mitzva group project, and they will decide what kind.
“We actually want them to think [outside the box],” said Shelly Schapiro, principal of Torah Lishma Community. “They may decide to go to a shelter and make sandwiches. It’s theirs.”
In addition, sixth- and seventh-graders will join the weekly morning minyans and Sunday minyans for intergenerational services.
“We try to be hands on and experiential,” Schapiro said, “because that’s what the kids remember.”
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Temple Sinai is introducing a monthly Sunday extended day program this year, which will include social action projects for younger children and their families, and special programs for older elementary students.
Also, Lifelong Learning Director Rabbi Ron Symons confirmed that the youth choir for third- through sixth-grade students has been re-established.
Parenting conversations based on the books “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and/or “Please Stop the Roller Coaster,” will be held along with a monthly Back to Basics Beit Midrash on Sunday mornings, which will help parents reinforce their own Jewish foundations.
Jackie Braslawsce will be an informal education and family engagement specialist who will work to help Temple Sinai better meet the needs of its families.
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Temple David in Monroeville will use this year to re-examine the way it handles religious education.
“The whole school is going through a re-envisioning process,” said Marci Barnes, interim principal of the Weiger Religious School. “They’ve had the same kinds of courses in place for a very long time, so the religious school commission realized … it was time to re-evaluate what was going on in the school and make some drastic changes if need be.”
Barnes, who is in her first year at Temple David, said her job is to analyze the results of a survey sent to the members of the temple, “re-envision” the curriculum, and develop what the temple calls “covenantal relationships” between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and parents and students.
By “re-envisoning, Barnes means “looking and thinking outside the box with a new perspective on what has been done in the past.”
Some structural changes have already been made. The Reform movement’s Chai Curriculum is being implemented for grades one through seven, while grades eight through 10 will take three sets of eight-week mini courses this year. The courses have titles like PG-13, “the stories of the Bible that we couldn’t teach you as a kid,” according to the course description.
(Lee Chottiner, Angela Leibowicz, Toby Tabachnick and Hilary Daninhirsch contributed to this story.)