Temple Emanuel Changing Its Post-B’nei Mitzvah Program: A Case Study

by Dr. Itzik Eshel

Temple Emanuel is a mid-sized congregation in suburban Washington, DC. The congregation has about 540 families and about 300 students in the religious school.

For many years, all school activities took place on Sunday morning, including the post-b’nei mitzvah classes. The curriculum of these classes was very well received and included comparative Judaism and comparative religion classes for the eighth grade, an ethics-based discussion for the ninth grade and a comprehensive summary of the tenets of Judaism in the Confirmation class. All of these classes were taught by teachers, some professionals and some volunteers. About 60% of students stayed in the program.

In the past, there were some attempts to change the time of these classes, and for the most part the parents vetoed all of them, explaining that Sunday morning was the traditional “Jewish learning” time to the exclusion of all other days and times. The teachers were admired by the students for their knowledge and commitment year after year. The most prominent speeches at the Confirmation ceremony acknowledged these teachers and their contributions to the lives of the students.

Until last year.

A perfect storm was brewing. The school was growing, and space was needed for extra classrooms. Some parents were asking for a change and were advocating for evening instruction and a change in the focus of the curriculum. The URJ came out with a menu of new ideas for engaging this age group, including Chai 8, Enduring Jewish Art, Personal Teen Portfolios and the Virtual High School.

Being on the board of the National Association of Temple Educators, I heard about these innovative ideas early on. The cantor of the congregation, Rosalie Boxt, and I were ready for the changes, and the rabbi supported all of these efforts as well. The congregation needed more convincing.

The school board was convened and a discussion ensued about the need for a change. They all realized that the need for space was imminent and that something had to change, as there was no physical space available for the growing school in the current building. The congregation had invested in remodeling the building, but even with this completed, there was no room for two classes. The ninth and the tenth grades had to be moved away from Sunday morning. After many hours of heated discussion, a decision was made to present this decision to the students and parents who would be directly affected by the change. The meeting took place on a Sunday morning and was, for the most part, congenial. Most parents were receptive to the idea and ready to give it a try.

The potential student body for both classes was 35 students. Today, the new program has been in place for about a month, and it seems to be a success. We have 28 registered students who arrive for dinner on Tuesday, gather around a table in the synagogue, receive a nice dinner, sing some songs with the cantor, and then learn from the rabbi, cantor and me, as well as guest teachers. We use a tried-and-true curriculum for the Confirmation class and Chai 8 and arts curricula for the ninth grade. The post-Confirmation class is now part of the Virtual High School. We subsidize our registered students and will work with them throughout the year. We will work with those students who could not join us on Tuesdays, so they will be able to continue with us and be confirmed.

Change is hard. With a retention rate of 60%, things didn’t seem so bad. But the physical constraints created the necessity for us to try something new, and now 80% of our students are involved in the program. We can and should do better for our teens. Now that we’ve had some success, I’m looking forward to trying more. Join me at the Education Summit: Youth Engagement at the URJ Biennial Convention, December 14-16. Let’s share what we’ve learned and benefit from each other’s experience.

Dr. Itzik Eshel is the Director of Education at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD.

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