Imagine a child learning to play the piano or a teenager learning to drive solely by sitting in a classroom, listening to lectures, and reading books. While piano students should learn to read music and teens must study the rules of the road, much of their time should be spent actually playing the piano and driving a car. It’s often more fun to practice these activities than to hear about them from a teacher or in a book.
So, too, with Jewish education. Instead of telling children how to light Shabbat candles in a classroom on Sunday morning, why not let children light them on Shabbat with their families, while also educating them about the meaning behind what they are doing? In addition to teaching students about Jewish holidays, why not invite everyone in the congregation to celebrate together? Rather than sending children to a Sunday morning service for religious school students, why not attend a congregational Shabbat celebration — a musical, multigenerational, joyful worship experience?
With these thoughts in mind, Aliso Viejo-based Temple Beth El of South Orange County is replacing its traditional Sunday school with a novel approach to religious education called Shabbat Chai (Living Shabbat). Starting this September, students at Beth El’s Aron and Sala Samueli Religious School will spend less time sitting in the classroom and more time engaged in Jewish life. Through Shabbat Chai, the children at Temple Beth El will be more actively involved in celebrating holidays, practicing Shabbat, worshipping with their families and the Beth El community, and performing social justice work in the larger community. Much of their learning will be by doing, adding enjoyment and authenticity to classroom instruction and cultivating a spirit of community.
Almost thirty years old and one of the largest congregations in Orange County, Temple Beth El has been first in many areas — the first congregation accredited in California by the National Association of Temple Educators and the only temple in Orange County to offer a full kindergarten and inclusion program through its Early Education Center. Its Shabbat Chai program has already received a great deal of interest from national leaders and educators in the Reform movement.
Beth El’s rabbis, cantor, educational director, religious school teachers, board of directors, and congregants have spent the past year thoughtfully developing Shabbat Chai as part of their long-term goal to make congregational life and Shabbat more relevant for the Beth El community. Education and events have been scheduled for selected Friday afternoons, Saturday mornings or afternoon Havdalah, Sunday Mitzvah Days, and Jewish holidays. Typically, students will come on the first and third Friday evenings and either one Saturday or Sunday each month.
Much of the learning will take place on Shabbat so that children may observe it with their families and other congregants, eating Shabbat dinner as a community and participating in services full of music, dancing, and prayer. Shabbat Chai will also educate children with parallel programming during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah dancing, a Hanukkah party in Temple Beth El’s banquet hall, and a Purim carnival on temple grounds.
An important part of Shabbat Chai is Sunday Mitzvah days, in which students and their families will join other families in the congregation to perform charitable acts where they are most needed in Orange County. Synagogue educators will talk to the students about how their mitzvot connect with Jewish wisdom. Interaction with family, the Jewish community, and the community at large promises to play a large role in the program.
In March, Shabbat Chai students in third through eighth grades will attend a weekend retreat to further their education and build friendships and community in a fun way.
Traditional instruction by Beth El’s well-regarded teachers will provide the knowledge and structure to put the experiential learning in context. Integrating formal and informal learning is key to the Shabbat Chai concept.
While teachers instruct children in the classrooms, the rabbis will offer study sessions to their parents. With adult topics scheduled this year such as “Lusting after Learning,” “The Crazy Creation of Rabbinic Literature,” and “The Problem with Piety,” this will definitely not be your grandfather’s Torah study, nor your children’s.
Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Peter Levi is very excited about the new program. He believes that after being in secular school classrooms Monday through Friday, children will appreciate changing it up while learning about Judaism. Rabbi Levi hopes the new Shabbat Chai program will give students great opportunities to really practice Judaism– getting a feel for the Shabbat experience, enjoying Jewish holidays, and practicing mitzvot.
Another Temple Beth El innovation is the July appointment of Rabbi Rachel Kort as Director of Jewish Engagement. She will act not only as clergy along with Rabbi Levi, but as an educational leader alongside longtime Director of Education Linda Kirsch. A newly ordained rabbi with a master’s degree in religious education and experience as a family educator and rabbinic intern in New York, Rabbi Kort brings a fresh approach and much enthusiasm to the temple.
Rabbi Kort is delighted to be in on the ground floor of Shabbat Chai. As Temple Beth El’s first Director of Jewish Engagement, Rabbi Kort hopes to truly engage her congregants, melding together education, spirituality and counseling. She believes that getting to know children and their families in her role as an educational leader will help her serve them better in her clergy capacity and vice versa.
The Temple will also continue its special Bayit to Bayit (home to home) program, a family-based alternative to the traditional religious school offering. This program was originally funded with a prestigious Innovation Program Grant from the Legacy Heritage Foundation; Temple Beth El was one of only five out of the originally funded thirty-five congregations to receive a grant for a third year.
Come September, when traditional Sunday School is replaced with Shabbat Chai, the Temple Beth El community hopes that Jewish education will be viewed not just as a childhood obligation but as a wonderful experience for families to embrace.