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Synagogues team up on education

3 congregations to launch single religious school

Attendance at Hebrew class has declined since these students attended in 2008.

Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe/file

Attendance at Hebrew class has declined since these students attended in 2008.

In one Newton synagogue religious school class, just three children are enrolled, and two of them are twins.

It’s a far different picture from their parents’ time, when 15 to 20 students were common in each grade.

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Faced with dwindling numbers of young families — many are priced out of the Brookline-Newton area — three Conservative synagogues have decided to reinvent religious education for kindergarten through fifth grade and create a new school.

Congregation Mishkan Tefila and Temple Reyim, both of Newton, are teaming up with Temple Emeth, which is in South Brookline, to open the school this fall at a site expected to be announced within a few weeks. Among the possible homes is the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton.

Synagogue officials say this will be the first such collaboration in the Boston area, and they stress that it is not intended to pave the way for a merger of the congregations.

“All of our schools were locked into a classroom-based model that needed refreshing,” said Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Mishkan Tefila. “There were some grades in each of our schools where we were below critical mass of kids” — considered to be six to eight students.

Gordon said that about a year ago the synagogues asked their education directors to brainstorm with teachers at Hebrew College to “blue sky a school . . . on a basis that is kid-centered, parts of it family based, where the curriculum can be reimagined.”

‘I feel these kids go to [regular] school in the 21st century, and then they come to religious school and it’s about 1950.’

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“I feel these kids go to [regular] school in the 21st century, and then they come to religious school and it’s about 1950,” said Samara Katz, who is director of congregational learning at Temple Emeth and will head the new school. Katz said organizers contacted Jewish educators across the country, learning about similar collaborative efforts.

The school will be called MA’OR, derived from the names of the participating synagogues and the Hebrew word for “illumination.” Classes will be held Sunday mornings and late Tuesday afternoons, for a total of about 5½ hours — a similar schedule to what the synagogues have now. Children from families unaffiliated with synagogues will be able to enroll, but at a higher fee as the synagogues will subsidize their members. Financial aid will be available.

The curriculum will include Hebrew; the Bible and Jewish history; Israel; and Jewish rituals, holidays, and values. But rather than sitting passively at desks, students will be engaged in writing plays, singing, creating art, and volunteering in the community. The emphasis will be on “educating the whole child,” said Katz.

She envisions students making YouTube type videos interviewing each other as Biblical characters or performing skits based on Biblical stories.

Students will be able to select activities, perhaps involving children from several grades. They may, for example, volunteer at a food pantry as they learn about social justice.

Katz said students would probably not be in traditional classrooms, but rather in spaces accommodating for art, music, or dance. Teachers with specialties, such as Hebrew or music, will instruct different grades.

Classes will each have laptops. In addition, students and parents will be able to connect with teachers and other families from home about special projects and course work. The school is also looking into partnering with Web-based teaching services, such as ShalomLearning.org, to supplement the curriculum.

Katz, 50 and a native of South Africa, said she holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in Hebrew and has been teaching Jewish studies since she was 20. Before coming to Temple Emeth, she launched the religious school at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough.

Graduates of the school will go on as a group to the middle school Makor program at Hebrew College, which also has partnerships with other synagogues, including two of the region’s larger Conservative synagogues, Temple Emanuel of Newton and Congregation Kehillath Israel of Brookline. As they do now, students will train for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies with the cantors and tutors at their family’s synagogues.

“Part of the goal is to get the kids so connected to one another and so excited about sharing things . . . that they then will continue on to the Hebrew College program and stay connected to their synagogue,” said Gordon. Hebrew College also offers Prozdor for high school students.

The participating synagogues will host events for MA’OR students, such as Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations, on a rotating basis.

Mitzi Perlmutter, who chairs the religious education committee at Temple Reyim, stressed the importance of “touch points back into the synagogue.”

“You have to walk into a sanctuary,” Perlmutter said. “You have to see the ark; you have to see the scrolls.”

Some synagogues have been skeptical of cooperative ventures, fearing members would be lured away to other congregations or retreat altogether from synagogue life.

“Synagogues have existed largely as separate silos,” said Gordon. “The idea that our communities get to know each other and share things together seems like a positive with no downside. There has been no sense in our conversations that we’re dealing with competitive marketing.

“The issue here is that there is such a big Jewish community and so many underserved families, so many unaffiliated singles and couples, that we should be doing our best stuff and putting it out there,” he added.

Ironically, Gordon’s Mishkan Tefila will be leasing space next fall to an independent religious school, Kesher Newton, which has been operating out of a church basement. Kesher students come from families ranging widely in their observance levels. “I don’t think they have anything like a denomination edge to them,” Gordon said.

Katz projects an enrollment of 60 to 70 students at MA’OR and hopes that it will grow as word gets out. It will have a staff of eight, drawn from the three existing religious schools.

While acknowledging that assembling the staff has been a “delicate” process, she said that in many cases teachers who will be losing their jobs would have been leaving anyway or prefer a more traditional school program.

Erin Gubert, the religious school director at Mishkan Tefila, will be assistant director at the new school. Miriam Berk, the education director at Temple Reyim, will be moving to California, where her husband, a Conservative rabbi, has recently taken up a new post.

Reyim is also due to name a new rabbi this month.

“The Conservative movement in my opinion is sort of in a crisis of identity and really needs to think creatively on how to attract young families,” said Berk, who said she has seen in her three years at the temple enrollment drop from 40 to 30 in its kindergarten through seventh-grade program.

Rabbi Alan Turetz, who with 36 years at Emeth is the senior clergy member among the three synagogues, noted that other Jewish denominations as well as other religions were challenged by diminishing numbers.

“I guess it has to do with the times, people’s priorities, the depth or lack of loyalty, a lot of factors are involved,” Turetz said.

Yet, he remains optimistic. “Religious movements have undergone ups and downs over the centuries, but they generally come back.” Citing a Talmudic saying, he said: “Who is wise? He who foresees coming events.”

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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