Hebrew Schools Deploy Creative Strategies to Engage and Retain Teens

Written by Suzanne Pollak on . Posted in Features

As the new school year begins, thousands of Jewish students will gather at their local synagogue or temple once a week or more to learn about their religion and mingle with their peers.

Committed to engaging their pupils, teachers and educational directors are thinking outside the box to keep older students enthusiastic about spending Sunday mornings or weeknight evenings away from their computers, sports practices, and teenage pastimes. Offering diverse electives, infusing Jewish texts into discussions of current events, and incorporating arts into the curriculum are just some of the many ways teachers are shaking things up for the 2017-2018 school year.


Over 125 students attend the Tuesday evening classes at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. They eat dinner together “to really build community,” said Rabbi Kerrith Rosenbaum, director of education. After dinner, the seventh through ninth graders study Judaism as well as an elective they choose from a list of classes; options include conversational Hebrew, the Holocaust, and issues in the news. The students also choose a project they will spend much of the year working on. Previously, the students held a court trial on the treatment of biblical figure Miriam.

Including its Sunday school program, which beings with pre-kindergarten, Adas Israel educates about 500 students total. Families with young children work with the congregation specialist to start their education early on.

“The idea is to grow that population and learn what they are looking for
in their religious lives,” Rabbi Rosenbaum said.

Educators at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Maryland, are also listening to students: For the first time ever, they’ll be teaching conversational Hebrew to students from kindergarten through second grade, with the hopes of extending it in future years.

“The idea grew from requests by older students who wished they had learned conversational Hebrew right from the start,” said education director Louis Nagel.

Cultural arts is the theme this schoolyear. “We’ve hired a drama teacher, and she will do improvisation skills with the students. They will create plays and skits [based on Jewish themes],” said Nagel. When Judaica artist Mordechai Rosenstein visits the synagogue as artist-in-residence for a weekend, he will work with the students as well as the whole congregation.

There are about 90 students at the school, 20 of whom are in eighth through 10th grades. Upper-grade students come Sunday evenings. Speakers, many of whom are congregants, discuss their specialties at that time.

Students will also be involved in the Howard County Teen Interfaith Initiative and will meet young adults from other faith communities. This monthly program will be held in nearby places of worship. Additionally, the students work on a tikkun olam (repairing the world) project of their choosing focused on helping people and organizations in the community.

The goal is to give the students “an awareness of poverty and hunger in this incredibly wealthy county,” Nagel said.

Ninth graders at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland, have big shoes to fill. Two years ago, the students created their own card game, based on Cards Against Humanity, which zeroed in on Jewish stereotypes. Another class put out a bimonthly periodical that was mailed to all teens in the congregation. They wrote about various ethical dilemmas, using Jewish texts to tackle questions like whether you should give homework answers to your friends. There was even a section called Jews Clues.

“Eighth graders will visit other places of worship, and both the eighth and ninth graders will attend a retreat where they will discuss surviving high school, wellness, and relationships,” explained Lillian Feldman-Hill, associate director of experiential education.

“This will be the first time Temple Emanuel offers a retreat for these grades,” she said.

The 10th graders will spend some of the year writing their own confirmation service. For high school juniors and seniors, the synagogue will hold five drop-in sessions on Sunday afternoons, which will deal with building healthy relationships, anti-Semitism and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus, financial literacy, and how to get engaged in college Jewish life.

“The temple also offers eighth through 12th graders a program to teach them lesson planning and how to engage students so they can help in the classroom,” Feldman-Hill said.

“They are not just pencil sharpeners and paper passer-outers,” she said.

At Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, keeping it relevant and fun is “the key to keeping the teens,” said Ronni Ticker, the synagogue’s director of family and youth learning. It is her first year there, and she is on a mission to “completely reimagine religious school.”

“Many of the 40 upper school students have been attending classes and social activities since they were young. But their classmates often don’t attend the same middle and high school with them, so B’nai Tzedek strives to help them learn while maintaining close relations with other Jewish students,” Ticker said.

Teen Scene, a new program for seventh through 12th graders, meets monthly. Students have fun, work on tikkun olam projects, engage in informal learning, and have time to socialize with each other.

Seventh through 10th graders can also work at the synagogue, helping in the classroom and office, teaming up to buddy with a child with special needs, or helping some of the 200 younger students learn Hebrew.

NextGen is the new program at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “Our goal is to engage Jewish teens and help them find their path,” said Brad Cohen, director of education.

“They get to pick and choose what they want. It’s about them,” he said.

Students in eighth through 12th grades will have a myriad of classes to choose from, and because the classes will be held on different days, the students can even choose which days they attend. Options include a five-day hike along the Appalachian Trail while discussing Judaism and nature, Jewish cooking, advocacy, and history classes, and even one entitled “The Secrets Behind Superman and Batman.”

This year’s class of 210 students at Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia, will continue learning about Judaism and other issues in classes that are often led by members of the senior clergy.

Rabbi Laura Rappaport, associate rabbi and educator at B'nai Shalom, attributes these numbers to the close-knit congregation's expectation that its youth attend Hebrew school through 12th grade.

“Ninety-five percent of our students remain in our religious school program until they graduate high school,” Rabbi Rappaport said.

In a video on the synagogue website, 12-year-old twin sisters talk about how much they like the synagogue and being Jewish. Said one sister, “I would convert to Judaism just to, like, go in Rabbi [Amy] Perlin’s class.”

By Suzanne Pollak

 Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.