In the 80s, my father and I did parent/child Hebrew classes (before it was cool). Every Saturday afternoon after religious school, my father arrived at our temple with a Burger King Italian Chicken Sandwich and we spent 90 minutes studying Hebrew with three other families. The two most memorable parts of that experience were the chicken sandwiches and the fact that my dad and I did this together.
When I asked to quit Confirmation Class at the beginning of ninth grade, my parents said I could if it was replaced with something else that furthered my Jewish education. My father had a friend who was studying with his son on Sunday mornings at a nearby yeshiva, so we joined them. We started each Sunday by putting on teffilin and saying the morning prayers followed by Torah study with one of the rabbis at the yeshiva. There were no chicken sandwiches, but again, my father and I were doing this together.
My parents believed that Jewish education was extremely important. They made this point to me by making it a family activity.
Now my wife and I have tried to make the same point to our daughter.
For six of the last eight school years, our family attended a program at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in our suburb of Cleveland called Shabbaton.
The structure of the Shabbaton program is simple. Instead of dropping our daughter off at religious school on Sunday mornings, we attend as a family on Saturday afternoons. The afternoon begins with a brief service or song session, then the children head off to Hebrew or Judaic Studies while the adults have a Torah study session led by the senior rabbi or one of the other members of the clergy. We come back together for parent/child Hebrew (which is now cool) and conclude each afternoon with the havdalah prayers.
The impact of the Shabbaton program on our family is anything but simple.
At the core, the Shabbaton program is about building community. We have had the good fortune to develop wonderful friendships throughout our time in the program. Friendships with like-minded adults who are also making a bold statement to their children that Jewish education is a family activity.
Each academic year has a unique theme that the children follow with their teachers. The adults also address this theme in the texts we study with the rabbi. Last school year, we addressed “The Great Questions and Answers in Judaism.” This led to some very thoughtful discussions with the rabbi that continued after the formal study sessions concluded. This year’s topic is “Standing at Sinai is an Ongoing Experience.” These are relevant and interesting areas of study, and allow us to relate what we are learning to our daily Jewish lives.
But in addition to learning from the rabbi, we learn from each other. We share parenting lessons, family traditions, perspectives on current events, and spend time deepening our relationships with other members of our community.
We learn through art, music, drama, and other non-traditional methods. We focus on the importance of tzedakah and giving back to our community as well as those who are less fortunate. We support other families in our community who are struggling with illness or loss.
And we do it all as a family.
I have watched my daughter develop meaningful relationships with children of all ages as well as with other adults who participate in the program. She has been mentored by many of the older children and she has mentored those who follow her. This year, she will begin serving as a madricha (teacher’s aid) at Shabbaton. She cannot wait to work with the younger children and help them on their journey to become more active members of the temple and Jewish community.
My daughter truly feels that the temple is a second home. Her experience is an example of part-time Jewish education that works well. Like many others around the country, my wife and I turned to our congregation to deliver an educational experience with personal meaning and impact. We have not been disappointed. We found that our congregation offers much more than a traditional “sit-behind-the-desk” education—indicative of a change in other communities across the country as well. Increasingly, part-time Jewish education offers innovative, dynamic educational opportunities that inspire Jewish life and build community.
So how does this all play out with the kids? Currently, The Temple-Tifereth Israel’s main facility is undergoing renovations, and as we began planning our daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah, there was some question of where her service would take place. But in her mind, there was never a question. The Temple was the only place she could imagine going through her formal transition into Jewish adulthood. Shabbaton is the primary reason why she feels this way.
When my wife and I made the decision to join the Shabbaton community, we did so with the hope that it would clearly demonstrate to our daughter how much we value her Jewish education. We value it so much that we were willing to pay with our time, our most precious commodity. The outcome of this investment has been greater than we ever could have imagined.
Although there are no chicken sandwiches at Shabbaton, making Jewish education a family activity is now a family tradition. We hope our daughter will continue the tradition when she has a family of her own.
Ben Light is a contributing writer to Kveller and Jlife Magazine.