Home May 2011 Making Jewish Learning Fun

Making Jewish Learning Fun

Barry Koff is a fun-loving educator whose goal is to make Jewish learning exciting.

For the past ten years he has shared his enthusiasm and dedication to community and social action with his students at Temple Bat Yahm, enriching the direction of their Jewish identity and studies. In recognition to his devotion, he has been named director of education, a position he has shared as assistant since 2001 with retiring Director Joanne Mercer.

Marrying their diverse backgrounds (Mercer in art and theater and Koff in TV, photography and drama), they have innovated unique and creative programs to foster love of Jewish learning in their religious school students.  Come September, as co-creators, they will be replacing the moniker “Religious School” with “TCAL–Jewish Center for Art and Learning.”  In nine-week rotating sessions, students will commit to five areas: performing arts (Jewish plays), fine arts, technology (video production and digital photography, computer web design and video games), cooking and Jewish crafts and social action.  For the latter, students will go out into the community, dedicated to mitzvah projects, donating and participating in Second Harvest Food Bank or they may also choose to act as a guest chef at the Sunday Breakfast for the Laguna Friendship Center.

Koff and Mercer co-wrote and have taught the eighth to ninth grade GESHER (bridge in Hebrew) program, a bridge between Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation.  For the past five years, these students in the eighth and ninth grades have dedicated their Sunday school time divided in thirds: social action in the community, Jewish mock trials and social values, with an occasional mystery night.

Koff conceived the seventh grade B’nei Mitzvah Discovery Class program of social action; developed and maintained a religions school computer lab; introduced Hebrew-at-Home video instruction program via Skype; organized Maccabi Games and has been director of third through seventh grade Hebrew studies.

To teach Torah, he developed “Tour of Torah,” a Torah marathon, with different learning stations.  His “Torah Tale Theater” developed into a series of short comedy skits, learning Torah through fun and comedy, performing them at Friday night services.

Another program he originated was “My Jewish Year,” a year-end school-wide sharing while learning experience.  “Each class set up a booth,” he relates, “like a business trade show or convention, displaying panel boards and brochures about everything they had learned during the previous year.  Each student went around to each booth and completed a scavenger hunt looking for answers to clues that related to the information presented in each booth.  This way, everyone learned about what each class learned during the year.”

With Mercer they created “Meet the Jewish Masters,” inspired by her love and involvement as patron of the arts and docent at the Orange County Museum of Art.  The program studies famous Jewish artists in the fine arts, like Chagal and Modigliani.

“We presented live presentations,” Koff says, “where famous Jewish artists came to life.  I helped develop a group video movie in the style of Steven Spielberg.”

Recognizing his fourth grade students’ love of baseball, he created Hebrew Baseball when he realized they were becoming bored studying Hebrew.  For 15 minutes each day, the students join teams, where as “batter up” they answer questions on vocabulary and reading Hebrew.  When correct, they advance to “first base.”  When wrong, they “strike out.” Three strikes and they join defense, and the other team comes to bat, following the same rules as baseball.  “So successful was the program,” he joked, “that I dubbed myself Commissioner for Life of Hebrew Baseball.”

For these and other programs, in 2004 he was the winner of the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Eduction.

He is especially proud of his Southern California Bagel Championship, a fund raiser for the Child Abuse Prevention Center, which received national TV news coverage and earned Orange County’s Public Relations Society’s award as Best Event for 1999.  More than 2,000 came to taste and vote for their favorite best bagel – a takeoff on chili cookoffs.  The event raised thousands of dollars for the Center.  He had invited all the big bagel companies to come together and bake bagels.  Fifteen participated, including Western Bagel, I Love Bagels, Big City Bagel and Shirley’s Bagels.

His career as a Jewish educator began at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot, where he joined as a member and graduated from teacher to director of education, wanting to make his position fun.  During his ten years there, school enrollment grew nearly 300 per cent, from 78 to 226.  There he developed “Not Ready for Orthodox Jewish Youth Theater Program” and wrote a monthly “Torah Tale Theater,” performed by students at Family Shabbat Services.

Following earning his BA degree in radio-TV-film from CSU Northridge, Koff spent 14 years in radio broadcasting and media production in entertainment and corporate communications.  He was one half as an on-air radio broadcaster for the comedy morning show “Barry and the Beast” for the San Fernando -Santa Clarita area, presenting remote broadcasts and street interviews.

He was a writer for network tele-text and video-text digital publishing formats for NBC-TV, WGBH/Boston-PBS, after which he became an independent media producer for corporate communications, producing corporate videos and conferences for clients including Carl’s Jr., Clothestime, Denny’s and Del Taco.

“Preceding the internet,” he adds, “I was experimenting with a process of developing a technology for tele-texting in an unused portion of TV.  I was like a guinea pig of home entertainment, but along came the internet and killed it.”

“It was then that I realized I could not work within the corporate world.  I went back to school mid-life for a California Single Subject Teaching Credential of English.  I had always wanted to work with young people.”

Born and raised in New York and New Jersey, Koff came to California in 1969, “one month after my beloved New York Mets won the World Series.  Divine intervention?”  A Dana Point resident, Koff has been married 20 years to his wife Ann. The have 17-year old twins, Jonathan (surfer/pole vaulter) and Shoshana (actress/ softball catcher) and two cats, Brando and Panther.

He relates “My most memorable Jewish moment was conducting the 1994 family Passover Seder in our master bedroom while my wife was on doctor-ordered bedrest and days away from delivering twins.”

Temple Bat Yahm is located at 1011 Camelback Street, Newport Beach CA 92660; (949) 644-1999; Bill Shane, executive director, bshane@TBY.org.

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