Let us face it, we have all either read, perused or heard about the Pew Center’s report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” informing us that Judaism appears to be on the decline. According to the report, compared to the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers, the up-and-coming Millennials (those born after 1980) are less inclined to identify as Jewish. But that report aside, Jewish educators in Orange County are combating that trend and working to keep the youth involved and engaged in education and interested in being Jewish.
Many synagogues across Orange County have added to the traditional Sunday curriculum. According to Susan Penn, University Synagogue’s Education Director, “Teachers are incorporating cooking, science, art, music, dance and technology to make it as relevant and meaningful as possible.” The synagogue also has a well-entrenched and involved clergy that makes a presence throughout the school year. In addition to prayers with Rabbi Rachlis and Cantor Braier, students participate in age- and grade-appropriate activities designed to teach and instill Jewish values and knowledge. The program, designed to support students who excel outside of the traditional classroom, is staffed by well-educated, qualified and enthusiastic teachers.
At Shir HaMa’a lot (SHM), Rabbi Leah Lewis has expanded her role from Associate Rabbi to Rabbi and Director of Lifelong Learning. And, according to Lewis, a lot is happening when it comes to education: “Jewish education at Shir HaMa’alot serves two purposes: learning and engagement.” Students are learning about their Jewish heritage and, at the same time, are feeling connected to it and to one another. “They are having fun and want more,” said Lewis. In addition to the traditional school, seventh graders meet twice a month socially as a complement to the Sunday morning program, and older students volunteer and participate in “Rappin with the Rabbi.”
“More than any program though,” said Lewis, “we pride ourselves on the sense of comfort that our students feel here.” Lewis described it as a “place where people know them [the students], where they know others and where everyone matters.”
Temple Beth Tikvah is using modern technology, to excite students by offering a state of the art computer lab in the Asa Center for Lifelong Jewish Learning, which is slated to open later this year. “Students will have the opportunity to engage in Skype sessions with other students around the world and provide beginning computer skills for those in need,” said Miriam Van Raalte, Temple Administrator and Director of Education.
According to Bonni Pomush, Temple Beth El’s Religious School does not meet on Sunday – they “live Shabbat” with the Shabbat Chai program that meets every first and third Friday of the month. A religious education program designed for children pre-K through seventh grade, the Shabbat based religious school model includes community Shabbat services and calendar based programming around all Jewish holidays and Mitzvah Day events.
“The goal,” says Pomush, “Allows participants to learn through authentic experience. We come together to learn about Shabbat and holidays by celebrating them together. We learn about Jewish values by going out into the community and living them.”
Scott Siegel, Temple Bat Yahm’s new Board President, is so serious about his ambitions as president that he has put together a manifesto. “Simply being immersed in a Jewish day school does not guarantee a continued Jewish journey and connection,” said Siegel. “Temple Bat Yahm is on the move to create a buzz!” Siegel’s 17-page “Manifesto on Youth Engagement” might just create the buzz he is looking for. The Manifesto is a slick, photo-laden approach to how to grow the youth program at TBY. Laid out like a well-honed Request for Proposal, it challenges the reader with motivating photos, specific goals and an onus to “do more than just exist.”
All of the programs mentioned, as well as others around Orange County, are working to achieve one goal: youth engagement. Statistics do not lie: if we continue on the trajectory predicted by the Pew Report, Judaism will continue to shrink. Furthermore, if we do not continue to educate our children and instill into them the Jewish pride felt and longed for by our parents and grandparents, our heritage, culture and beliefs will be lost in the haze of modernity. As one can see, there really are no excuses for allowing a child to not attend religious school. Gone are the days of boring lectures, Torah lessons and trope. Using rote and mind-numbing classroom techniques is unacceptable when one can hop on the computer and Skype a fellow student in Israel to learn about Israel. The question on a Sunday morning no longer needs to be, “Why do I have to go?” It can now be, “Where do I choose to go?”
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a Psychologist working toward licensure. She is a therapist with Jewish Federation Family Services and is a Psychological Assistant for a private practice in Tustin. Dr. Grajewski has been writing for JLife since 2004.