Sue Penn was born in South Africa and raised as an orthodox Jew in a large extended family where her cousins were her best friends. She came to the U.S. when the men in the family were conscripted, and refused to fight for the apartheid state. When she assisted the teachers in her children’s classes, Penn was encouraged to go back to school and pursue a career in education. After receiving her Master’s Degree she taught at the Hebrew Academy and Tarbut V’ Torah. Eight years ago she became the Religious School Director at University Synagogue (US) in Irvine and since then has become a leader and an innovator in Jewish Education.
President of RENA (the Reconstructionist Educators of North America), Penn is currently the Director of Congregational Learning at University Synagogue; and in the years since she has been at US, the scope of programming has been expanded and the approach of traditional religious school has been re-envisioned. She has been on the cutting edge of new programming, so necessary in the 21st century.
Most in the Jewish community agree that Jewish education will and should remain a vehicle for shaping identity, instilling literacy, inspiring commitment and forging community. Jewish texts, values, history, traditions, and the knowledge and skills needed to appreciate these and actualize them in one’s life, will continue to be the “stuff” of which Jewish learning is made.
However, the HOW it is to be accomplished has shifted. Though the new vision for Jewish education builds on many elements from Jewish past; the focus has shifted in two important ways: recognizing the learner as an active agent in fashioning his/her own learning experience, and using the social experience of learning as a dynamic force that shapes the outcome.
Developing programs that meet the unique and individual needs of children has been a hallmark of Penn’s approach to Jewish education; and the five programs she oversees, provide opportunities for a wide range of congregants and their families. “Traditional” classes are held on Sunday mornings which includes a Shacharit service, and a curriculum designed for each age level focusing on Hebrew, history, values, Israel and liturgy. What drives Penn’s continuous push toward innovation is one ideal: “Every Jewish child needs to have a positive Jewish education regardless of their learning styles. We focus on what the child can do, not what the child is unable to do.” That includes those students for whom the classroom environment is overly challenging.
The Alternative Jewish Education (AJE) program was developed for those students. “Once a month they meet at a local campground,” said Penn. “There they participate in prayer services, Hebrew study and focus on building a sense of community by ‘doing Jewish’ with other students.” This involves celebrating calendar and life cycle events that take place within the group. “Perhaps the main difference between this program and traditional school, “said Penn, “is that it provides a relaxed and less formal environment. It doesn’t feel like school.”
Penn also oversees the extensive Adult Education program that includes a wide variety of classes, from Yoga and Tai Chi to Torah, Talmud and Musar. More than 20 classes are offered every year. US Bridges, one of the newer programs is designed for people with early to mid-stages of memory loss.
“Our Youth Group programs are also really special,” said Penn, “and provide engaging opportunities for those in 3rd to 12th grades.” Each level has specific events and activities within both the synagogue and greater community.
The SABABA program brings together teens from US and other Orange County congregations for a variety of evening activities. SABABA, which means “no worries”, is designed for Jewish teens to just get together and socialize without pressures of formalized learning–an example of the social experience of learning.
“Next year,” said Penn,” our teens will participate in a four-week college prep program with those from other synagogues, to provide them with an understanding of Israel and Middle East issues before possibly confronting the anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. We will be hosting two of the four weeks here at University Synagogue.”
Penn feels privileged to work in an environment that encourages innovation, where when challenged with a new request, “I don’t have to say ‘no.’” Several years ago the grandchild of a member wanted to become a bat mitzvah, but there were no synagogues in her area. Penn designed a program via Skype which is still in use. “There are many reasons why a student is unable to be physically present, so we do not want that to prevent the child from receiving training,” asserted Penn.
This focus on individual learning needs and styles is what Penn is most passionate about and she has a developed a reputation for meeting children where they are, allowing them to learn as they are able. The effects of this approach have paid off. “There is an increase of children remaining connected to Jewish education,” commented Penn. “It used to be that kids came in and stayed until their bar/bat mitzvah for a total of two to three years. Today,” she added, “I see kids staying five to eight years.” And when the kids stay—so do their parents!
While Penn has received recognition for her programming, she is quick to express her gratitude to the synagogue for providing her with the resources to develop specialized programs as well as the many people who mentored and supported her. Chief among them is her husband Dovi and their three children; but there have been others: Elmore Weingarden, Natalye Black (z”l), Carol Richmond, Miriam Leavitt and Rabbi Arnie Rachlis.
Penn sees the challenges of the changing Jewish landscape not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to expand the depth and breadth of Jewish learning for the entire community.
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.