Published on July 27th, 2011 | by Ledger Online0
Bloomfield shul introduces flexible education
One afternoon rush-hour last year, Deb Polun was stuck in traffic on her way from New Haven to Bloomfield. That wouldn’t have been more than an annoyance, save for the fact that she was trying to get her kids to the Congregation Tikvoh Chadoshoh religious school on time.
“I knew that we wouldn’t make it back for the 4 p.m. session,” she says. “So I called the synagogue and scheduled them in for the 5 p.m. one instead.”
This is the face of modern Jewish education, as created by the newly merged Congregation Tikvoh Chadoshoh in Bloomfield and Congregation B’nai Sholom in Newington. The resulting congregation, B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom, calls its program Toratenu: A Jewish Community School, and was designed by professional educators and congregants Ian Polun and Marion Radeen.
The new religious-school model, launched last September before the official synagogue merger, provides a flexible schedule in both the weekday and Sunday sessions, says board co-president Deb Polun. Students can choose one of five weekday sessions, and change their selection throughout the year to accommodate other extra-curricular activities or sudden schedule conflicts. Weekday sessions each begin or end with a short service, and focus on Hebrew literacy through reading, writing, and prayer.
The idea for the school was inspired by more than convenience for the modern family, says BTS Rabbi Debra Cantor. For one, it is open to the entire Jewish community, regardless of synagogue affiliation.
“The more traditional model was that Hebrew school or religious school was an incentive for families to affiliate with congregations,” Cantor says. “I think that was effective for a while, but many families would disaffiliate as soon as their youngest kid was bar- or bat-mitzvahed. We need to engage an entire family and engage people Jewishly, by giving them all sorts of opportunities to engage Jewishly, at whatever point they are in their own lives.”
The school will offer family- and adult-education opportunities as well, Cantor says. “As a rabbi and a Jewish educator, my philosophy has always been to lower the barriers to Jewish learning in life, open the doors, and increase the opportunities that people have for connecting to Judaism, the Jewish community, and Jewish life,” she says.
The school is student-centered, with educators trained to deal with the whole child, Cantor says. “Our teachers are looking at the needs and learning styles and the differences with each child,” she says. “As an educational community, we’re thinking about how we can best engage each particular child at the same time as we build community.”
The Sunday school schedule now begins and ends a half-hour earlier, so as to accommodate team sports activities. Before the learning day starts, students gather for a short “Boker Tov” (“Good Morning”) meeting that is open to parents and the entire synagogue community and provides a forum to discuss student accomplishments, upcoming holidays, tzedakah projects, or class projects. In addition, b’nai mitzvah students will prepare together over the entire school year.
As an educator, Cantor is inspired by Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people.” If the teacher does not have a sense of joy about teaching and Torah, educational materials will not come alive, she says.
And if you kindle a child’s love of learning, you strengthen an entire community.
“Coming together at Boker Tov, celebrating and talking together – so many of our wide activities emphasize that we’re a community,” she says. “Each classroom is a small learning community and the children talk about that at the beginning of the year: How can we help each other learn and grow? What does it mean to be part of a learning community and a Jewish community? How does that relate to our classroom, our school, our synagogue, and, ultimately, the Jewish people? We created our school as a reflection of what it means to be part of a community.”