Johannah Sohn, the new director of congregational learning at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo, has a vision.
“There is a pulsating hum that becomes a joyful noise in the Bet Midrash,” she explained. “The classrooms are full, and the students are having the best time learning, cooking, creating and being part of a vibrant learning community.”
Sohn, who has spent her entire career in the field of Jewish education, has worked with every age group from newborns to adults and loves helping make Judaism come alive for everyone. Believing that Jewish education is her passion and her calling, she has worked in Jewish day schools, religious schools, camps and Hillel.
Sohn has extensive experience in strategic planning, change management, curriculum development and facilitation. She has worked with diverse constituencies, inspiring both lay and professional leadership.
She holds a master’s degree in education from American Jewish University, a doctorate in education from Northeastern University and is a proud alumna of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at The Jewish Theological Seminary.
A nationally recognized visionary and educational leader known for redefining elementary education through the conception of the Zebrack Design Lab, an innovative classroom environment based on Design Thinking principles, Sohn wants to bring authentic, hands-on, deep Judaic learning to people of all ages.
“I want everybody to connect to Judaism and the community by bringing education into people’s lives in a meaningful and real way,” she said.
Sohn is starting by reimagining and reinvigorating the religious school program at Temple Beth El, moving from a monthly Shabbat program to a weekly Monday classroom program and a community-based Shabbat program that is a fun opportunity to showcase what the students are learning.
She envisions the Shabbat program with a lively atmosphere with food trucks, dinner and services. The Monday classes will have a hands-on, dynamic, camplike vibe. Hebrew classes will be online and level based.
Starting by interviewing people about their experiences in the education program, Sohn, who started her position in March, wanted to make learning at the congregation open and accommodating. There will be more contact hours, a comprehensive curricular guide and deeper learning while trying to create balance with all of the other activities in students’ lives.
Each grade level will have a Judaic studies component, including holidays, Bible stories and Israel, with Talmud studies in the higher grades. Hebrew will have a Bet Midrash approach with a chevrutah (study group) element as the students get older. Hebrew learning will have a movement-based approach, focusing on the connection between the language and motor memory and connected to prayers.
Sohn is well aware of the importance of teen influence on younger learners.
“Teen leaders who are experts in certain prayers will build connections and inspire learners to want to study more and eventually be part of a youth group,” she said. “This will help to retain students by giving them a thirst for the next step.”
Committed to lifelong learning, Sohn will approach adult education in various ways. There will be a parenting center, “My Grownup and Me,” where babies and toddlers come with parents and grandparents. A parenting resources center is going to address issues such as internet safety, teen talks and discipline through Judaism. There will also be adult classes that accommodate and embrace the diversity of the members, Sohn said.
“Temple Beth El is a hub for Jewish life in South Orange County,” Sohn concluded. “Our education program will reflect that in serving the community.
Ilene Schneider is is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.