Creative collaboration across denominations
By Cindy Mindell
TORRINGTON – Like a cinematic device, Paul Honig could see his synagogue’s religious school population shrinking before his eyes. “If you look at the annual class photos of the Beth El Hebrew school, 20 or 30 years ago, the kids fill the steps in front of the synagogue,” says the religious-school principal. “But each year, you see more stairs and fewer students.”
Honig first volunteered to serve as principal of the Torrington synagogue’s school in 2011. “We were facing some serious issues,” he recalls. “We had gone from 10 or 11 students to six, spanning several grades – not enough students to make for a vibrant school, and requiring a bunch of teachers to cover the various levels.”
Beth El Synagogue was founded before the turn of the twentieth century by a handful of Jewish families in Torrington who worshipped together in one another’s homes. In 1906, the group purchased a building on East Main Street, relocating in 1942 to the Brooke Mansion on Litchfield Street. Historically, Beth El has drawn members from a 20-mile radius comprising Litchfield, Thomaston, and Barkhamsted, with a current membership of 90 families.
The town has gone the way of other manufacturing communities, with declining employment opportunities, an aging population, and fewer families moving into the area. Not all local Jewish families join the synagogue or send their children to the religious school, says Honig. Instead, some families were going elsewhere for religious-school education and bar/bat mitzvah preparation.
In 2010, with waning numbers, Beth El parents had considered sending their children en masse to a larger synagogue for religious education, but decided against the move. Honig reached out to Hartford area synagogues for staffing recommendations, to no avail. But Marlena DeRosa, principal of Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom (FVJC) religious school approached her synagogue’s board with a creative idea: Why not invite the Torrington students to join the Simsbury school?
This time, the Beth El parents agreed to take the step.
The families pay membership dues to Beth El and tuition to FVJC for students in third grade and up, with Beth El’s Rabbi Richard Eisenberg still preparing the congregation’s bar/bat mitzvah students.
“For the first time in our history, we had no religious school,” says Joyce Peck, president of Beth El. “Although we were heartbroken to give it up – we always said that the school was the jewel in our crown – we look on this arrangement as an opportunity and benefit for our children. This gives them a chance to be with a larger Jewish community and many other Jewish youngsters in an extensive and organized setting.”
The plan requires some creative curriculum-planning, as Beth El is a Conservative congregation and FVJC is Reform, Peck says.
“We have a deep sense of gratitude to the Farmington Valley synagogue for hosting our children and including them in their religious school,” says Beth El’s Rabbi Richard Eisenberg. “I have no issue or reservation about our children learning the curriculum taught in a Reform temple. I don’t see any glaring conflicts.”
While there may be some discrepancies in matters of halachic practice, Eisenberg says, “in this case, I think the benefits far outweigh whatever minor concerns there might be.”
“This has turned out to be such a wonderful mitzvah for all involved,” says DeRosa. “The Torrington students in our religious school are very active and involved, and have formed friendships with the FVJC students. B’nai-mitzvah invitations have been exchanged between students in both synagogues, one student has run for student council office. One Beth El parent has joined our Education Committee; parents often participate in our school Shabbat services.”
Last year, the oldest of the Torrington students graduated from the FVJC religious school and asked to continue in the high school program. This year, he will be confirmed as part of the tenth grade class.
“This has made a world of difference for the kids in our tiny school to join a group of 100 kids at FVJC,” says Honig. “There are 20 kids in the fourth grade alone, requiring two classes, and we had two students at that level. Our kids like the social aspect of being with other Jewish kids, and FVJC has been so generous and welcoming to us, inviting us to all their events, and being totally respectful of our programs.”
Peck hopes to once again fill the synagogue stairs for the annual Beth El class photo, and is working to build up the religious school, starting with the youngest synagogue members. Together with fellow congregant and former religious school teacher Lynn Malkoff, Peck runs the monthly Kadimalings preschool story hour, with the help of the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut PJ Library program.
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