A conservative, egalitarian synagogue

Jewish Learning is Everywhere at Temple Israel Center

by Jason Edelstein

Kids today at Westchester’s Temple Israel Center’s (TIC) experience much different learning than their parents once did. The old model of sitting at a desk while a teacher talks has been thrown out the window. In its place is Shorashim, which uses talented, dynamic educators to help bring Jewish education to life. The result is something that many parents thought they’d never see: a vibrant congregational learning environment that kids not only don’t resist, but thoroughly enjoy.

“My oldest kid is 19 and my youngest is 11, so I’ve seen how Shorashim has such a positive impact on children and builds a true love of our heritage,” says Jill Friedman, a parent at TIC. “They have kinds of learning experiences outside of the classroom environment. Instead of just studying about the value of respecting elders, for example, Shorashim brings the kids to a Jewish nursing home throughout the school year. They visit with the elderly, learn about the past, develop relationships, and share bonds. It’s these real experiences that will instill in our kids strong Jewish identities and will help put them on a path to lead Jewish lives.”

Susan Mandelbaum, parent of two daughters ages 8 and 11, sees changes too as a result of Shorashim. “My youngest daughter absolutely loves going to TIC and participating in the different Shorashim programs because she has discovered the joy of being Jewish,” says Mandelbaum. “I never liked Hebrew School when I was a kid, but what Shorashim does so differently than those schools from decades ago is make Jewish learning active and engaging. When they learned about Joseph and the technicolor dreamcoat, the education director came dressed in costume. When they celebrate Shabbat, they incorporate different themes. There’s a level of energy and creativity now that I never saw before at Temples, and that is deeply inspiring.”

Mandelbaum also notices a major change in Hebrew language classes, which are vastly different from the rote memorization she experienced as kid. “It used to be that teachers would just have you memorize vocab words. But these educators know how to make it interesting and relevant in the kids’ lives today. It’s about building a deeper connection and understanding beyond just memorization.”

Shorashim was the vision of Nancy Parkes, the education director at TIC. She says that focus groups show that kids are happier now at TIC and have more positive feelings about their Jewish identities.

“We wanted to create something special that would make children enthusiastic about learning and about being Jewish,” says Parkes. “And that’s exactly what Shorashim does. A big part of this is having ‘Community Educators’ who aren’t just in classrooms. They’re also youth group advisors and Shabbat service leaders and anywhere else that is an opportunity for Jewish learning to flourish. We want kids to have a love of living Jewishly—and that doesn’t just happen in the classroom.”

Different than the traditional “Hebrew school” model, Shorashim educators serve in various capacities at TIC. So they have time to build strong relationships with learners and help them connect what they learn in class to how they experience Judaism outside of that environment. This helps each learner develop their own, personal connection to being Jewish.

Friedman’s son chose an elective last year that also was led by his Shorashim educator. “Whether he was in his classes, in youth group, or in his teen minyan, his educator was there every step of the way,” she adds. “He was able to develop this deep relationship with his educator and see how Jewish learning can be a part of nearly all aspects of his life whether he’s at TIC or not.

Shorashim also has impacted the entire congregational community, where new friendships have formed as a result of the community educators’ increased presence and roles. “I love to see the kids making new friends because the educators connect different parts of the congregational community together,” Mandelbaum adds. “It used to be that congregational school children and day school children didn’t really interact or develop strong friendships. But community educators create so many more opportunities for families of all kinds to connect. ”

Shorashim is an exciting new type of congregational school that seamlessly blends together different types of programming into a rich and meaningful curriculum.

Adds Parkes, “By hiring Community Educators and integrating Shabbat and holiday experiences along with youth group activities in Shorashim, we are no longer a traditional part-time Jewish education experience—we become much more than that.”  

The Jewish Education Project, a New York-based agency that improves local Jewish learning, works closely with TIC and other congregations to help them better understand what families really want out of their Jewish community. The Jewish Education Project is part of a national network with four other communities—known as “Shinui,” which means “Change” in Hebrew—designed to help share and implement new models in part-time Jewish education.  

“TIC is creating Jewish education that enables children to experience—not just learn about—a caring and relevant Judaism,” says Cyd Weissman, Director of Innovation in Congregational Learning at The Jewish Education Project. “TIC’s innovations are enabling each child to grow as a whole person in a very broken world.”