After-school program – Photo courtesy of eJP archives (via JESNA)

By Rabbi Joshua Fenton

According to a 2013 JData article, there are approximately 1848 congregational schools in America, in addition to the other supplemental programs being run independently by JCCs and other community organizations. That’s over 200,000 students each year are enrolled in some kind of supplemental Jewish learning program. Twice as many children are enrolled in supplemental, part time Jewish learning programs in the U.S. than there are students in non-orthodox Jewish day schools. If the vast majority of children doing any formal or informal Jewish learning are doing so after school in supplemental programs, which begs the question: why aren’t more resources and attention paid to our largest demographic of youth learners?

In a recent article, “It’s Time to Invest in Part-Time Jewish Education,” Anna Marx made a few key observations about the challenges and needs facing supplemental Jewish education. First: supplemental schools and part time Jewish education in general need a lot more attention and resources. Second: the death of Jewish learning after school has been greatly exaggerated.

Anna’s article was part of a series that saw contributions from central agencies, foundations, and academic institutions. In the hope of adding to this important conversation, and contributing to what clearly must be a paradigm shift in the way we think about and value Jewish education, I am calling for a second round of articles, a response from the field. Great things are happening and we can be doing a lot more to understand and scale successful approaches.

To all the innovators among us, to those of us exploring new approaches and techniques, working in new ways to achieve transformative Jewish learning, the time has come to step out of the “innovation sector” and speak up in our communities. We need to start sharing good and successful practices, approaches, trainings, and even curricula. We have an opportunity and perhaps obligation to shape the future of supplemental Jewish education. To those direct service organizations that have recently launched fellowships, trainings, and so on: your voices are critical to building a movement of change and renewal in the field.

And I’m not just talking about those of us working with school age children. Whether you’re working in teen engagement, young adult engagement, and even adult learning, you have important experiences and expertise to share with the wider community. Good ideas that work in one part of the country, or resonate with one demographic group, just might work in another.

To start things off, I’d like to share some of what we’ve learned in our afterschool program, Edah, and why you might consider the model for your school, shul, JCC, or community. (For more information about the model and movement, check out the Nitzan Network.)

1. Kids are people, too

The elementary school kids who fill our programs, spend all day long at school. There, they must conform to structures: sit when they’re told, stand when they’re told, eat when they’re told, and stay focused until they’re dismissed. For any adult who’s ever taken a night class while working, working all day and then going to school afterwards isn’t fun. It isn’t fun for our kids either.
The afterschool model is in part about honoring the humanity of our kids. They don’t want to trade one desk for another. They need rest, agency, and the opportunity to slow down and be heard on their own terms after a long day of conforming. Our model focuses on meeting those needs first. Experiential education is preferred, frontal instruction is almost non-existent, student choice is prioritized, and “joy” and “fun” are key metrics in evaluating the program.

Most importantly, we listen to our kids, seeking to understand their needs and honoring and respecting how they want to spend their time. By embracing the idea that after school time is theirs and honoring the fact that kids are people too with their own sets of needs and interests, Jewish learning after school shifts from being an imposition to a time when the kids get to grow and develop as Jews and as people with guidance, but on their terms.

2. Parents also have needs

Scheduling is one of the greatest challenges for parents. At the beginning of every school year, parents are faced with the challenge of working out each child’s various schedules, transportation, and after school plans. Making room for, and working out transportation to and from religious school, soccer, ballet, play practice and so on is a perennial problem. The popular approach to supplemental or congregational models pits Jewish education against all the other extra curricular activities and imposes an additional transportation burden. The unintended consequence of that approach is Jewish education becomes complicated and burdensome as parents work to figure out the logistics.

By contrast, the after school model says to parents, “We’re open every day. Work out your schedule and use us to fill in the gaps.” And just like that, the program becomes an important resource to parents as they work out after school plans for their kids. When a program is able to provide transportation from school, it becomes an even more valuable resource.
As much as parents need Jewish education for their children, parents’ needs revolve equally if not more around after school care and scheduling. If you can align those two needs, as the afterschool model does, you reframe the entire family’s experiences of Jewish education in powerful and positive ways.

3. More is more

When it comes to learning, the more you practice, the longer you spend, the more you get out of it. Sure, at a certain point returns diminish, but when we’re talking about part time, supplemental learning, more is truly more; more time = greater impact. This is another huge reason why the afterschool program model should be considered by everyone. When afterschool learning is reframed, not as an extracurricular but as a five day a week resource, and when the model directly responds to children’s and parent’s needs, families engage more deeply and parents send their kids more often. Kids are happier and actually excited to go. Parents are happy to send their children and marvel at how different their own experiences in Hebrew school were in comparison to their children’s, resulting in many more hours a week of engagement in Jewish life and learning. It’s as simple as that. This translates into more learning, more joy, and more meaning as participants form communities similar to those found in Jewish camping and other immersive experiences.

If a child spends 3 1/2 hours a day, four days a week in a Jewish learning afterschool program, a lot of learning and exploration and growth can happen. Even compared to some community day school models that include one period of Jewish studies and one period of Hebrew studies along with six other periods devoted to general studies, the afterschool program model might just result in a more immersive and effective Jewish learning experience.

4. Teachers are professionals

The last strength I’ll share of the afterschool movement is the impact that more days a week, longer hours, and greater stability has on educators. Afterschool programs require more full time staff. A five-day-a-week program demands greater staffing, more people and more hours. When educators don’t have to pull together five different teaching gigs to make ends meet, the message is their work matters and we want to support them to do it well.

If we want to see supplemental Jewish learning thrive, professionalizing the field has to extend beyond heads of schools. That means offering people actual career opportunities. Full time employment with vacation time and benefits sends the message that, “Your job is real and we are going to set you up to succeed because your success is important to us.” Educators know what people say about Sunday school. They know the narrative we’re all trying to change as much as anyone. Only to them it’s even more personal. When we ask them to be baby sitters, when we don’t give them the time, support, and resources to achieve the goals we set for them, we imply that the goals, the learners, and even the educators themselves don’t matter that much.

Jewish learning afterschool programs are certainly not the only new approach in town, and they too have their limitations, but they work. If you’re interested in learning more about how they work, and how it might serve your community, we love to share.

So, who is next in the series? The community needs your voice.

Originally Published on July 6, 2017 by eJewish Philanthropy

Rabbi Joshua Fenton is the Executive Director of Studio 70 – A Jewish Learning Laboratory in Berkeley California. Studio 70 is the home of the Edah afterschool program, the Jewish Learning Innovation Corps and the National NItzan Network.