Synagogue extends focus on lifelong learning through new curriculum, personnel
By Dave Sorter
Temple Shalom’s education department is undergoing nothing short of an extreme makeover.
From programming to personnel, Senior Rabbi Andrew Paley, temple staff, congregants and volunteers have spent the past 2-1/2 years engineering a process to streamline offerings and provide a continuum of educational offerings spanning brit to death.
“This is the bringing together of initiatives in what we consider lifelong learning,” Paley said. “We knew we offered programs for preschool and religious school, and adults, seniors and families. But they had a disconnect. We wanted to bring them all together in a meaningful sense. We now have a direction of what Jewish learning looks like at Temple Shalom.”
Among the highlights of the changes:
*A director of lifelong learning was hired in the person of Deborah Massarano. She begins at Temple Shalom on June 1 after serving 6-1/2 years as educator for the URJ’s Midwest and Southwest councils.
*The religious school this year adopted the Union for Reform Judaism’s Chai curriculum, which offers a cohesive structure from grade to grade and builds upon what was learned in previous years.
*The Hebrew school, at the same time, began using the URJ’s Mitkadem program, in which students advance at their own pace rather than grade-by-grade. “This allows them freedom and greater access to material when they’re ready,” Paley said.
*A new high school program for students in grades eight to 12 will begin this fall, bringing 11th- and 12th-graders into the school for the first time. “Next Dor: The Next Generation of Jewish Learners” will allow students to take classes in a variety of Jewish subjects and continue their formal Jewish education until they go to college. To lead the program, the synagogue last year promoted Barrett Harr, who had been youth director, to director of high school and youth programs.
*The synagogue’s foundation in 2007 established the Synaplex program, an occasional Shabbat weekend with multiple services and programs designed to attract the entire family. The next weekend is scheduled for the fall.
*Associate Rabbi Jeremy Schneider — just promoted from assistant rabbi — is leading a Jewish-Muslim dialogue with the Islamic Center of Carrollton under a curriculum jointly developed by the URJ and the Islamic Society of North America.
“I think it’s very important for educational programs to reflect the mission of the congregation, and to use that mission for all programs of the congregation and all of its members, whether it’s a 2-year-old in a ‘Mommy and Me’ or ‘Daddy and Me’ program or an 83-year-old having a bar mitzvah,” Massarano said.
Massarano’s position is a milestone in Paley’s goal of bringing all of the synagogue’s education programming under one roof. And Massarano has an intimate knowledge of the curriculum, having served as educator for the URJ’s Southwest and Midwest councils for the past six-plus years.
“I’ve been intimately involved with the training of teachers and installing of curriculum,” Massarano said.
Said Paley: “What we realized is that the educational component is such a meaningful and important component of who we are. In order to do that, we created the director of lifelong learning position to bring together all the stakeholders to create a coherent vision.
“The second goal is to be able to bring to the congregation the most exciting, most cutting-edge, most meaningful educational experiences. The way we were operating was satisfactory overall, but the students and the parents wanted more.”
One of Massarano’s initial priorities is to bring to life a lifelong learning council that will determine the educational direction for Temple Shalom over the next few years.
“They will be asked to create a five-year plan with goals for years one, three and five to solidify our educational vision,” she said. “I want to publicize it and put it at the forefront of work that we do.”
Youth education is the cornerstone of the initiative, and the collection of rabbis, board members and congregants spent a lot of time in discussion, focus groups and study before determining how to proceed.
They determined that the URJ Chai program was the answer for the traditional kindergarten to bar/bat mitzvah program.
“It really spirals from one grade to the next, so there is a coherent progression of learning going on,” Paley said. “Each year, it assumes knowledge from the previous year. It is rich in every aspect. It comes with lesson plans. We selected lead teachers to help other teachers, so we regrouped on the faculty level.”
Because the URJ developed the curriculum, Paley said, it can become a nationwide model that will have many Reform Jews “speaking the same language.”
Massarano said the Chai curriculum is one based on concepts in the broader fields of Torah, avodah (finding connections with God, community and self) and gemilut chasadim (undertaking acts to make the world a better, holier place).
“By that I mean the curriculum takes seven big ideas, one for each grade level. It delves into the concept very deeply across 27 lessons [per year],” she said. “Many curricula are a mile wide and an inch deep; this curriculum is a mile deep.”
The Mitkadem Hebrew program is a five-year curriculum in which students complete 23 levels at their own pace. Students finish four to six levels each year, depending on Hebrew school hours and their own effort.
Teachers, according to the URJ Web site, act as facilitators, keep track of progress and provide help when needed.
“The content of the program should seem familiar to other Hebrew programs; the approach is new,” according to URJ literature. In fact, Paley calls it “radically different.”
Perhaps the most sweeping alterations are the changes and additions to the high school program that will take effect this fall. High school juniors and seniors will be involved for the first time, joining sophomores in the new program. It will even feature graduation ceremonies.
Paley said this will be a credit-based system that will “offer a holistic high school experience, with meaningful classes and enriching Jewish opportunities.”
Harr, who will continue to supervise Temple Shalom’s youth groups, said the new program will feature electives in several subjects so students can take classes that meet their interests.
“We have a huge shift going on in programs,” she said. “We’re going from the traditional model to a much more mature model, much like a college environment. We’re offering a plethora of classes, such as the Ten Commandments, Jewish cooking, the Jewish view of death and dying. It’s an amazing wealth of classes.”
The change to a more individualized approach is keeping with the times, Harr said.
“This generation of students is so used to personalizing everything,” she said. “To ignore the fact that they’re used to customization is not realistic.”
A primary goal of the new high school curriculum is to turn the tables on the longtime problem of people dropping out of religious education — and often the Jewish community as a whole — after their bar/bat mitzvah or confirmation.
“The age bracket we are losing the most is teens. The retention rate across country after bar mitzvah is very low,” Massarano said. “I think it is a crucial component to engage our youth as adolescents and teenagers not only to rituals, but also to the community, so they will feel compelled to remain a part of community.”
Harr said she hopes that sense of community will be enhanced by the focus on electives: Students will be in class with people of similar interests, making it easier to create and maintain friendships based on Jewish connections.
And, because the enrollment in each course will span high school grade levels, students will be able to interact with older and younger teens, “more like the real world,” Harr said.
Meanwhile, the adults are not being left out of the reimagining of Temple Shalom’s educational offerings. Massarano said one adult-education goal is to create a series of “ongoing opportunities, in addition to one-time hits.”
One of her first tasks at Temple Shalom will be to bring together an adult education working group to determine what types of programs might be offered and which formats they are to be offered. And she has lots of ideas.
She mentions Synaplex “Shabbaton” opportunities, bringing in a scholar-in-residence and having Maggie Anton, author of “Rashi’s Daughter,” come in to speak.
One adult-education priority will be to continue and enhance the Jewish-Muslim dialogue, of which Temple Shalom is at the forefront in Texas and nationwide.
The congregation has been working with the Islamic Center of Carrollton for 18 months and, Paley said, “we are the only synagogue in Texas with an ongoing dialogue.” In fact, he added Shalom is one of just 11 synagogues to attempt such an outreach “and one of six that actually got it to work.”
A group of seven people from both the synagogue and the mosque meets every six weeks for discussion, and leaders of each entity have spoken at the other.
“We have invited them to speak, we offer classes at Synaplex,” Paley said.
The president of the mosque spoke at Temple Shalom during January’s National Day of Twinning, when about 50 congregations nationwide of various denominations paired with mosques for education and service opportunities.
“It was a very powerful thing; a very meaningful night,” Paley said.
Creating meaningful experiences is among the top reasons that Temple Shalom is reinventing its educational wheel. The hiring of Massarano and the beginning of the new high school program put the process near completion.
Or, as Massarano said: “I think Temple Shalom is sitting on the precipice, ready to fly.”
Synagogue extends focus on lifelong learning through new curriculum, personnel