The religious school of our synagogue, Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot, is currently going through a rigorous and involved accreditation process. When I was asked to write down some thoughts about our religious school and how it has impacted our family’s Jewish and temple life, I immediately thought that it would be a perfect topic to also turn into a Kids Konnection column.
We had belonged to a different Irvine synagogue when we got married but, after we had our first child, we just didn’t feel as if it were a good fit for us. We spent the next couple of years “synagogue hopping,” trying out different temples to see where we felt we belonged. Although we met a lot of nice people and attended many enjoyable services and events, we just didn’t find the place we felt was “home” until we walked into the doors of Shir Ha-Ma’alot.
Once Harrison hit kindergarten age, we knew that we wanted to join a temple so that he could start attending religious school in September of that year. We attended a Shabbat Service at SHM, which was being led by the brand new rabbi at the time, Rabbi Richard Steinberg. That next week was Harrison’s first day of kindergarten. To celebrate the momentous occasion, he and I went for a special lunch after school (without his siblings) and stopped by the temple on the way home to pick up an information packet. Rabbi Steinberg heard us talking to the receptionist about how it was Harrison’s first day of kindergarten, and he came out of his office to have a conversation… Not with me, but with Harrison, all about school, his interests, and so forth. When we left the building, Harrison looked at me and said, “I want to join this temple. We belong here.”
He couldn’t have been more right. We joined that next week and will now be entering our ninth year as congregants. Harrison went through the entire eight years of religious school and Hebrew school, prepared for and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, continues to attend the monthly religious school classes for his age level, is involved in the youth program, and serves as a madrich. Jacob and Michela have attended Hebrew school since pre-school and are looking forward to this upcoming year of B’nai Mitzvah preparation. All of our children will continue their religious school experience at SHM through their 12th grade in high school, with formal classes, youth group involvement, the madrichim program, and any other programs.
That initial feeling of “belonging” has been a huge component of how we feel about the SHM religious school in particular. Our children feel as if they truly belong and that the synagogue and the religious school are a home away from home. It is a positive learning environment, where everyone is made to feel included, whether they live in a solely Jewish house or a mixed marriage, whether they are good students or have learning disabilities, or whether they have special needs.
In addition to the feeling of belonging, what has impressed us most about our religious school is the challenging and dynamic curriculum. Our educators work very hard at making sure the curriculum is different for every grade, is interesting and informative but yet still enjoyable, and is designed to challenge those who really want to learn Hebrew and all about Judaism but not overwhelm those who have less time or inclination to take their Jewish education to the next level. The Hebrew curriculum is a wonderful program called Mitkadem, which allows students to independently (with the support of their teachers and some student-on-student interaction) work through different Ramah levels where they learn prayers, Hebrew vocabulary, and sentence structure. By the time Harrison was ready for Bar Mitzvah training, he really knew all he needed to know except for his Torah portion. It is very exciting and rewarding for the students every time they pass their current Ramah test and move on to the next level.
The religious school curriculum (on Sundays) combines a perfect blend of learning and doing. The students learn about the various Jewish values and then are given the opportunity to put those teachings into practical use with mitzvah days and other opportunities for hands-on learning. Our educators also do a phenomenal job of teaching the students about our past history and traditions in such a way that relates the past to their current lives. In all respects, our Hebrew school program makes learning fun and interesting!
An important component of our religious school program at SHM is the connections the students make with one another. The social element is a big part of the whole package. Our youth groups are thriving and offer a wide variety of events and programs, all of which are usually well attended. The seventh grade class has its own “ B’nai Mitzvah chavurah,” during which students bond during their year of Bat/Bar Mitzvah preparations. By the end of that year they have formed close friendships that will last a lifetime.
Most importantly with regard to both the Judaic and Hebrew programs are the facts that our clergy and our educators go the extra mile to be approachable to the students. Our kids and their friends have never felt like they couldn’t approach one of our clergy members or youth group directors or teachers. Moreover, as they get older and more mature, the students are really afforded the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialog and discussions with their teachers and our rabbis about current events and other topics that are relevant to them as Jews and as young adults.
As parents, another thing that we find so appealing about our religious school program is the opportunity for parent participation and interaction. The “family camp” Sundays, held once or twice a year, allow parents to learn alongside their children and reinforce what they are learning, giving the program a home component. The communication among the school and the parents is excellent, with weekly “car talk” flyers sent home with the younger students every class so that the parents can read about what the kids did in class.
Although our journey for a synagogue was long and winding, we definitely knew it when we found our home. We are so pleased to be part of the Shir Ha-Ma’alot religious school program and synagogue. We look forward to a lifetime of learning as a family with our extended temple family at SHM.