Erasing The Past
Temple Shir Shalom's educators say less is more
for seventh- and eighth-grade programs.
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o some school-weary sev-
enth- and eighth- graders,
it may sound like their
prayers have been an-
swered: abolish Sunday school
and only make the students come
to a few events and perform a lit-
tle community work.
But those who attend Temple
Shir Shalom's religious school will
actually have more, not less, work
this year than in years past.
In an attempt to battle the
complacency that marks the post-
bar and bat mitzvah years, the
religious school has replaced the
28 two-hour sessions with five
Shabbatons, two overnight re-
treats and community service.
The new program may be the
first time a U.S. religious school
has tried such an approach.
"We are trying to keep these
kids in school and get them out
of the mindset that school ends
after bar mitzvah," said Elana
Shelef, co-director of the Shir
Shalom religious school.
But the root of the problem —
children not coming to Hebrew
school — is one that congrega-
tions are facing across the coun-
try. Boredom and competing
extracurricular activities drive
the students away from the class-
rooms; parents who had bad ex-
periences in Hebrew school years
ago often support their children's
Many area cc -negations face
a drop in the num:, sx of enrollees
following the b'nai mitzvah years.
While some children stay for the
high-school years, the numbers
are not close to the elementary
Lori Brockman has learned
that junior youth groups draw
seventh- and eighth-graders to
higher levels of participation
away from the classroom. As
youth director at Temple Beth El
and director of the regional junior
youth movement for Reform
temples, she has developed re-
treats, shul-ins, trips to Wash-
ington and Cedar Point.
"(The junior youth group ac-
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Rabbi Dannel Schwartz: Changing lesson plans.
tivities) are the best things be-
cause they get the kids interest-
ed to the point where they want
to be involved in the planning (of
events)," Ms. Brockman said.
"And then they continue to the
But while the social activities
and spiritual element tend to at-
tract the young teens, the learn-
ing hasn't been as much of a pull
for this age group. Religious
school is sometimes sacrificed be-
cause of social events planned the
At Shir Shalom, the seventh-
and eighth-graders were known
for spotty attendance. Out of
about 50 students enrolled, an av-
erage of 12 would come on a reg-
ular basis, Rabbi Dannel
"We found that seventh- and
eighth-graders across the board
are going to bar and bat mitzvahs
on Saturday nights and they
don't come on Sundays," said
Rabbi Schwartz. "You are con-
stantly wondering who is going
to show up."
According to the Commission
on Jewish Education for the Re-
form movement's Union of Amer-
ican Hebrew Congregations, each
congregation is autonomous in
determining the hours and sub-
jects of study in Hebrew school.
The movement does not issue rec-
ommendations or requirements.
By breaking up the school year
into the separate daylong or
overnight sessions, organizers feel
the program will be easier to take
than the 28 consecutive Sunday
classes. However, it will contain
more hours of learning; the Shab-
batons are each 5 1/2 hours and
the overnight retreats are each
24 hours long followed by four
hours of dinner and entertain-
ment. In addition, the temple will
hold four social-action days to
help the students fulfill an 18-
hour community-service re-
"By doing it this way, the kids
will be coming to school less, but
when they come it will be quali-
ty time," Rabbi Schwartz said.
The programs held on Satur-
days will be split into different
sections and taught by the co-di-
rectors of the education program
as well as Rabbi Schwartz and
Rabbi Michael Moskowitz, a new
rabbi at Shir Shalom. All four will
take part in the weekend
"We want the students to feel
a closer connection to the temple
and have more of a personal re-