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entries tagged with: Jewish Education


Funding Jewish education: A self-sustaining solution

Charles Kushner Op-Ed
Published: 23 April 2010

Failing our children, failing the future


Solomon schechter unveils after school academy

It’s not easy to capture the attention of middle school students, says Daniel Jaye, director of academic affairs at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. But Jaye has no doubt that his school’s new initiative will do the trick.

“With a program like this, it’s easy,” he said.

On Feb. 1, the New Milford Schechter will unveil The After School Academy for Advanced Studies in Mathematics, Science, Arts, and Technology @ Schechter, open to fifth- through eighth-graders not only from Schechter but from schools throughout Bergen County.

Ruth Gafni, SSDS head of school, joked that in some ways the program will have the school competing against itself, since it already offers so many after-school programs. Still, she said, this one is different.

Daniel Jaye, left, and Ruth Gafni

“We’re always asked, as educators, what more can we do for our children to give them an edge in the competitive world,” said Jaye. “Parents are always faced with difficult choices about what to do with their kids after school. Since we couldn’t fit anything else into our school day and we had more that we wanted to offer, we came upon the notion that instead of parents scrambling to get their kids involved in programs for motivated and gifted children, we would offer it here in one program.”

Jaye said the most important aspects of a successful educational program are “the types of role models and instructors you can bring to a program.”

Therefore, in conceptualizing the program, planners “worked backwards,” starting not with the courses but with the experts they could identify in the community, whether teaching in universities or working in their fields. The nine courses include Unlocking the Mysteries of Stem Cells and Genomes, Video Game Design, and Public Speaking and How to Win Arguments.

For example, to supplement a course on non-routine problem-solving that will be taught by a Schechter faculty member, the academy will bring in the head coach of the New York City Math Team to deliver a lecture.

“We look to eyewitnesses, outside experts, people who are making a difference,” said Jaye, adding that since students today are immersed in the digital world, offerings will include subjects such as video production and editing, computer architecture, web page design, and video game design.

He noted that a good deal of excitement was generated this school year when he arranged for a class to Skype with an astronaut.

When you bring in outside experts, he said, “you create a dynamic where student interest is magnified by interaction with people they look up to.” With the academy, he said, “we are engaging eyewitnesses and people involved in change to make magic in the classroom.”

Instructors will include five Schechter faculty members together with people Jaye has met through his own work experience, “all cherry-picked for the way they relate to kids and present engaging lessons.”

“Our universe of middle-school students is limited,” said Gafni, pointing out that the SSDS middle school embraces about 150 students. “To bring all these course offerings, we needed a [larger] core group. We felt it was so valuable that Schechter should take the lead role in the community,” she added, pointing out that “everything we teach is based on ethics and the values of the Jewish world.”

The response, she said, has been very exciting, with Fairleigh Dickinson and Montclair State Universities expressing interest in having their students participate. Some 15 percent of Schechter students have already expressed interest.

The eight-week program will cost $250 for non-yeshiva students, $225 for yeshiva students. Each course will meet for 16 hours.

Jaye said the academy program will benefit from “the enhanced equipment we already purchased to prepare students for the 21st century.”

Jaye said that Schechter may be the only middle school to own a PCR, or thermal cycler. Describing the device as a DNA amplifier, he said people should realize that “Solomon Schechter, right here in New Milford, is pioneering programs for very young adults, positioning them to be the next generation of Jewish leaders and scientists.”

Classes will be offered Tuesdays (4:30 to 6:30 p.m.) or Thursdays (4:30 to 5:30 p.m. or 5 to 7 p.m.), at the school, 275 McKinley Ave., New Milford. For more information, visit or call (201) 262-9898, ext. 201.


Area YU students take winter-break mission to Israel

They didn’t just show us the nice parts of Israel,” said Teaneck resident Avri Szafranski, speaking about “A Place Called Home,” a program sponsored by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future involving 40 select undergraduates, seven of them from New Jersey.

The week-long service learning winter-break tour was to designed to explore the complex feelings of many diaspora Jews.

Participants met with Israelis with diverse backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political perspectives to learn about the issues surrounding establishing a life in Israel. Among them were longtime citizens, new olim (immigrants), former residents of Gush Katif, foreign workers, settlers, and farmers.

“We believe it is essential that these future leaders experience the realities of Israeli life and politics through the lens of individuals and communities who are trying to build — and rebuild — their homes in Israel,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, CJF dean. “In this way, they will develop a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a citizen of the Jewish state and gain a better understanding of how they — and other diaspora Jews — should relate to Israel.”

The seminar, supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation, focused on issues such as how ideologies shape and divide people; balancing Jewish values with humanism and democracy; settling and developing an authentic connection with the land; and the costs and benefits of establishing a life in Israel versus the diaspora.

For Szafranski, a 21-year-old pre-med psychology major, the trip did not resolve his conflict over whether or not to plan a move to Israel.

“It helped paint a realistic picture of the opportunities, the costs, and struggles,” he said. “You think of Israel as a place where everyone is happy, but they took us to [the Tel Aviv neighborhood of] Neve Sha’anan, a ‘ghetto’ for asylum-seekers and refugees who are barely making a living. The question is, is the Jewish state just a place for Jews?”

Regarding this question and others, Stern College for Women junior Shira Preil of Bergenfield was glad to have her community rabbi, Yaakov Neuburger, on the mission. Neuburger, a rosh yeshiva at YU and leader of Cong. Beth Abraham, provided a nightly lesson from traditional Jewish sources relating to each day’s activities.

“It was so helpful to have him there during our debriefing sessions,” said Preil.

Describing herself as “a very rational and logical person,” she said that she hopes to make aliyah and was seeking clarity on the realities of Israeli society. “This program was geared to enlightening people about these issues, and I appreciated the intellectual honesty. Despite the struggles, there is a value to living in Israel, and this program clearly wanted to address that.”

One highlight for both these students was getting acquainted with families still living in temporary caravans in Nitzan since their removal from the Gush Katif area of Gaza by the Israeli government in 2005. They shared their frustrations over how little support they have received from the government to help rebuild their lives.

“I really enjoyed going to Nitzan and volunteering with the teens there,” said Szafranski, who pitched in to paint a youth center. “Most don’t even remember the whole evacuation, and some don’t want to talk about it. I feel we made their day by showing that people —even young adults from America — still care about them. When we were leaving, they all climbed on the bus with us and asked for our Facebook and e-mail [addresses]. It was beautiful.”

Preil noted that the adults, though “angry and disenchanted, still valued the ideal of Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish homeland. You saw their struggle between reality and value.”

The students heard from a group of “old” and “new” immigrants assembled by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates aliyah from North America. “They all said there are still roles you can play in the diaspora as a Jew, but they got us to think about where we feel the most loyal and where we can do the most good,” said Szafranski.

Preil took away a message that visiting as frequently as possible is vital to maintaining an Israel connection.

“After seminary, I had a strong aliyah drive, and now I’ve become very stable in my life in America, making plans for grad school,” she said. “Being pushed out of that routine shifted my focus back on aliyah again.”

Brander said that CJF programs are intended to inspire students to become agents of change in their communities and the world at large. “We hope that this experience encourages them to consider how they might approach issues like tolerance between religious and secular Jews,” he said, and the disparity between Jewish law and democratic values in their own Jewish communities.”


Inventor teaches robotics and also self-esteem

Simon Engelsohn and his classmates look forward to learning about robotics from Steven Paley. Courtesy Sinai Schools

Other entrepreneurs fortunate enough to sell their business and retire by middle age, would opt to whittle away their time on the golf course or at the opera house.

Not Steven Paley. For the past seven years, the retired Paramus resident has spent several days a week at the Sinai School teaching a robotics course to special-needs students.

“I was lucky enough to be successful in business and wanted to do something to give back,” said Paley, the former CEO of The Texwipe Company, and the father of four.

A product design engineer, Paley decided to combine his passion for the sciences with his desire to help special-needs children.

Several years ago, Paley created a program called ARISE® (Applied Robotics Instruction for Special Education), a curriculum designed to teach robotics and engineering skills to special-needs students. The courses are hands-on, and the students build and program their own robots. When he presented his concept to administrators at Sinai several years ago, “their immediate reaction was that they had to have that class in the school,” he recalled.

And so began Paley’s second career. Only this time, his job would be unpaid. But the ultimate payoff, he says, is priceless.

His students — who range in diagnosis from Down syndrome to autism spectrum disorder — have such a good time in his class, they don’t realize how much they are learning, he said.

He generally teaches students in grades five to eight and has also taught high-schoolers.

“They love it. They can’t wait till I come to class,” he said. “They are so enthusiastic and call my name so many times I told them I’d have to go into the witness protection program.”

Simon Engelsohn’s response is typical. “I like robotics with Mr. Paley,” he said, “because we get to build all of these different types of robots. Now we are working on an ‘Explorerbot.’ It can identify colors, talk, and detect walls and things.”

At the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, which hosts Sinai students, they breeze down the hall happily in anticipation of Paley’s class, which is considered a highlight of their schedule, said staff.

“Beyond being highly motivating and engaging, it serves as a catalyst for emotional and social growth,” said Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs, director of Sinai at RYNJ. “Mr. Paley has developed a curriculum that, beyond exposing the students to concepts in physics and computer programming, directly targets skills related to problem-solving, teamwork, and frustration tolerance. Perhaps most importantly, they learn to appreciate that learning is a process, not a product.”

But the class is no easy A. The students work hard. Nevertheless, they have tremendous motivation because robots are cool, said Paley. “The hands-on learning and satisfaction they get from building a working robot are immeasurable.”

Paley ends up providing his charges with a lesson far more valuable than how to make a robot: with the art of success. “I give them a difficult task and show them that they can complete it. I try to give them the confidence that they can meet tough challenges.”

By the end of the course, students have learned to program their robots to perform various tasks, including making their robots sing, dance, and navigate a maze using infrared sensors. One of the final projects is a robot sumo wrestling match in which the students program their “Sumobots” to find the opposing robot and push it out of the sumo ring.

Paley summed up: “Often, the confidence and self-esteem of special-needs students is very low. The essence of my courses is to facilitate the belief that they can achieve success. The idea that they can do something they did not think possible builds tremendous self-esteem. The hope is that they carry this experience onto other challenges in their lives.”


After BARJ, plans for Reform teens

After 24 years, a Reform synagogue partnership is coming to an end. The Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism will not re-open in the fall. Instead, each of the three participating congregations will be running its own educational programs for their teenagers.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who was involved with BARJ since its second year, is “saddened” by the school’s closing.

“The issues were economic,” he said.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey significantly reduced its $250 per capita contribution to BARJ, according to various sources — as well as to the predominately Conservative Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies — as part of a series of allocation cutbacks that affected almost all federation agencies.

“If the federation was still putting in the subsidy, we would still be in business. But each synagogue is suffering economic challenges,” said Borovitz.

In a statement, David Gad-Harf, interim executive vice president, UJA-NNJ, said, “Our strategic plan places a high priority on the accessibility and affordability of Jewish learning opportunities in northern New Jersey. We are now identifying the most potent ways [the federation] can use its funding, its expertise, and its good offices to address these challenges.”

Borovitz said he had hoped to find a more cost-effective way of continuing the program, but the other partner synagogues weren’t interested in pursuing that approach.

Another factor that hurt BARJ, he said, was the county’s increasing road congestion. “Because of traffic patterns, it’s harder and harder for people to get around at 7 o’clock at night,” the time of BARJ’s weekly sessions on Wednesdays.

Temple Beth El in Closter pulled out of BARJ a couple of years ago, said Borovitz, in hopes of attracting more students to a local program. Other Reform synagogues that had at one point participated have closed or merged, reflecting the movement’s demographic decline in Bergen County, said Borovitz.

Avodat Shalom students constitute 47 of BARJ’s 87 enrollment. The school’s enrollment peaked at about 155 students four or five years ago.

Marla Compa, BARJ educational director and Avodat Shalom’s youth group adviser, has been hired to run the shul’s high school program in the fall, which will follow the BARJ format and take place during the BARJ Wednesday time slot.

Avodat Shalom will open its program to all interested teens, whether they are members or not. “We want to reach out to unaffiliated teens and let them know they’re always welcome here,” Borovitz said.

He added that the synagogue is considering offering “Jewish SAT programming, using Jewish texts to hone skills such as writing and reading comprehension. We have some accomplished SAT tutors who are helping us develop that.”

At Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick said that re-envisioning teen programming for the synagogue “is an exciting opportunity to build and transform our teen culture here.”

Beth Or’s program will replace a classroom focus with a community orientation, she said.

“The basic vision is that we teach all of our b’nai mitzvah students that once they have become bar or bat mitzvah, they are able to take on the same privileges and responsibilities of adult members. We don’t make our adults sit in classrooms. Adult members engage in Judaism through a variety of ways that touch their lives. For some, it’s learning. For some, spirituality. For some, acts of social justice. We feel it’s important that we provide teens with the same opportunities to find their own doorways in,” she said.

Where BARJ offered mostly “discussion-based classes” of several weeks’ duration, each of the 25 sessions of Beth Or’s Teen Community Night will feature a different program facilitated by Shawn Fogel, the synagogue’s teen director.

“Some are just fun and experiential, some are more formal learning opportunities on themes that they are interested in learning about. There will be a fair amount of comparative religion, questions of Jewish identity, and moral choices, as well explorations of various parts of Jewish culture,” said Zlotnick.

The meetings will be preceded by dinner. “All communities, especially Jewish communities, are built around food,” said Zlotnick.

Zlotnick said the dinner will help solve what was a perpetual challenge to BARJ, convincing students to continue their Jewish education after the seventh grade, generally the time of their bar or bat mitzvahs. Beth Or’s seventh-graders will join the older teens for dinners on Tuesday nights before going off to their own program.

“The seventh-graders will see a lively teen culture, which will counter the notion that bar or bat mitzvah is the end,” said Zlotnick.

At Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Rabbi Steven Sirbu said he and his congregation are “very excited by the prospect of serving our teens here at the Temple Emeth building” and having the “kids and family maintain a connection with their congregation and clergy.”

The synagogue is planning a new program for teens that will take place on Sunday mornings and include leadership training, arts and culture, Jewish knowledge, Jewish history, social activities, mitzvah projects, and travel.

“We will have a more flexible approach to curriculum and logistics,” said Sirbu. He expects the Sunday time slot will attract teens to the program who didn’t participate in BARJ.

The Sunday schedule will also enable Temple Emeth to connect the teen program with volunteering in the religious school and serving on the youth group board.

“Teaching and board meetings will end at 11. Other kids will be arriving at 11 and we will then serve brunch,” said Sirbu. “We will have mitzvah projects that are in the building that kids can sign up for. These are things that a collaborative synagogue program couldn’t be expected to accomplish.

“We consider this a work in progress,” he said. “We have the major rubrics down, but we will work out the details to make sure this is something our teens and their parents can be excited about.”

All three rabbis agree that they will need to work together to maintain the socializing that BARJ offered.

“We are committed to finding as many possible opportunities for our kids to continue to interact together,” said Borovitz.


The technology factor

School turns to high-tech to stimulate students

Yavneh technology director Chani Lichtiger and students use iPods to navigate through the Amazon rainforest. Courtesy of Yavneh Academy

When students in Rabbi Aaron Ross’s Torah study class learn a new topic, they do more than just scrutinize the text. They go to the Wiki, fill out the Google Doc, watch teacher-produced videos about the unit, and take part in online discussions of the material with Ross and their classmates.

“It’s a lot more fun than having them go home and teach themselves the material from the book,” mused Ross, a middle school Judaic studies teacher at Yavneh Academy I Paramus. “The Wiki is a hub for all sorts of media where they can post pictures, videos, VoiceThreads, and articles to teach each other. What it facilitates is amazing.”

Ross isn’t the only one incorporating such techniques into his curriculum. Most instructors at the school continually work with the technology department to find new ways to bring technology into their classes.

A recent “Tech Night” at the school gave parents the opportunity to see firsthand how technology is being utilized in their children’s classes. Staff explained the programs being implemented, and a video produced by the technology department showed parents how the daily curriculum integrates technology. Afterwards, parents had the opportunity to try some of the programs on MacBooks around the room.

Most parents voiced surprise at the advanced technologies being incorporated into the curriculum.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Courtney Lopchinsky. “I watched this and feel like it justifies the tuition I’m paying. This is exactly what the kids will need to exist in the world and to be successful.”

Sunni Herman of Teaneck, who recently transferred her children from another day school, was also impressed. “This is very innovative. It’s worlds ahead of anything my children were doing before.”

Herman noted that integrating technology into the learning process is beneficial to all children, because everyone learns differently.

According to Chani Lichtiger, Yavneh’s director of technology, students are working with Google Docs, video editing and movie making, digital storytelling, photoshop, iPod apps, VoiceThreads, and Lexia Learning. They are participating on a Wiki with other students throughout the world as well as creating their own Hebrew E-books.

The students create their own avatars using Web 2.0 technology and explore the rainforest using iPod apps including Encyclopedia Britannica.

“A rainforest app on the iPod gives students the feeling they are in the rainforest,” said Lichtiger. Students also researched the lives of halachic authorities using VoiceThread, she said.

Yavneh Academy, embracing pre-K through grade 8, “is at the cutting edge of technology integration,” said Principal Rabbi Jonathan Knapp.

“This is not new to your children,” he told the parents at the recent event. “We’ve had great success in implementing it for the past few years. Our students are prepared for the 21st century.”

Lichtiger says she’s worked hard to stay on top of the changing technological world throughout the seven years she’s held this position, working to bring new technologies into the curriculum to enhance learning and make class more interesting.

She noted that the advanced technologies also help prepare students for the outside world.

“It’s our job to make sure we give them the tools they need to succeed,” she said.

In second-grade math class, students don’t rely on math books anymore. Nor do they use a pen and paper for practicing math problems: They use a smartboard, practice examples using the MacBooks on their desks, and work on their individual iPods with apps to make math part of their real world.

“This helps them speak math and conceptualize it better,” she said. “It helps them feel it.”

Teachers say technology can offer tools for students to utilize their creativity in new ways. Adrienne Shlagbaum, an enrichment teacher for students in grades 1-5, noted that, “It definitely makes learning more interesting and reaches all different types of learners.”

Her fourth-grade students studied an event in Jewish history and shared the factual information in a VoiceThread, writing from the perspective of someone who lived through the event.

“One student, for example, created a VoiceThread about a child experiencing the First Zionist Congress, and another one about the Six-Day War. You can really see the application of their knowledge,” she said.

Meryl Rubin, a third-grade teacher, said computer technology brings her lessons to life in a powerful way and makes her students more involved in their learning.

With the use of iPods, they “navigate” through the Amazon rainforest to investigate animals. Through the use of iMovie and green screen technology, they are transported into the rainforest, where they study the habitat and creatures. “The excitement in the room is infectious,” she said. “They children are so enthusiastic.”

Integrating technology into the curriculum has also enhanced her students’ understanding of the material, she said. “I am impressed by how much they absorb as they navigate the new technology.”

In an age of video games and 3-D special effects onscreen, students agree that the technological devices make learning more exciting.

“Our math teacher shows us online videos to help us understand the material,” said Simone Tassler, a seventh grader. In social studies class, she and her classmates made podcasts, or media presentations, about explorers and loaded them onto iPods so they could share them with their classmates and family.

Tassler’s twin sister, Robin — who created an animated film about cybersafety for computer class — said the technology and gadgets make learning more enjoyable.

“It’s more fun because it gives us an opportunity to interact and do things on our own,” she said.


Jeopardizing the Jewish future

Published: 28 October 2011
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