by Wendy Schneider
Educators redefine what it means to be a community
There’s a quiet revolution taking place in Jewish education in Hamilton these days that is good news for children, their parents and those who worry about the future of Jewish communal life in our community. Spearheaded by Temple educator Laura Wolfson and Beth Jacob education director, Rina Rodak, who have come to the conclusion that, in these days marked by shrinking resources and shifting demographics, collaboration makes a great deal more sense than competition.
It’s been a long time coming. For years, Federation leaders, concerned about duplication of services and a finite amount of funds available for allocation to beneficiary agencies, have been urging Jewish schools to share resources and implement joint programming as cost-saving and community-building measures. But while everyone involved seems to be aware of statistics that show a declining interest among young Jewish families in synagogue affiliation and in placing their child’s Jewish education above competing priorities, a deeply-embedded pattern of institutions looking out primarily for their own interests has prevailed over a willingness to look at the bigger picture. Until now, that is.
It began, as these things often do, over coffee. Back in September 2013, Wolfson and Rodak got together to do some creative brainstorming around a joint program for Kehila (where Rodak was board chair at the time), Temple and Beth Jacob students.
“We felt it was time for our kids not just to know each other,” said Rodak, “but to do activities together and learn how to be a community.”
The result of that meeting was the “Tri-TryAthlon-Tzedakathon” that had participants experiencing the process of allocating their tzedakah dollars to worthy causes.
“It was a good way for them to learn what it means to be a community, and better because we did it all together,” said Wolfson.
When Federation’s Allocations Committee heard about the program during the Temple’s annual request for funding, they loved the idea so much that they set aside a small pool of funds to encourage more collaborations of this nature.
“The opportunity was historic,” Barb Babij told the HJN. “All we needed was to walk through the door — and we did.”
Federation’s next step was to form a cross-community educational committee, made up of representatives from all the community’s Jewish schools, setting the stage for ongoing programs.
The brainchild of a subsequent Rodak/Wolfson brainstorming session was this past May’s Jewish Hamilton Limo Scavenger Hunt, a sold-out program that had students from Grades 3 to 8 filling up three “gleaming white, super-long limos with hulky big drivers dressed in hat and tie” in search of answers that could only be found at destinations around Jewish Hamilton.
“What I really wanted was for the kids to have a sense of community and a geographic connection,” said Rodak. “... to be on James Street and know what Jewish businesses used to be here, or that Bill Morris’s law firm, and Hotti Biscotti are Jewish businesses.”
What Wolfson wanted the children to take from the experience was that, regardless of which Jewish building they walk into, there would be a sense of familiarity and belonging, allowing them to think, “This is my community.”
As a bonus question, each group was asked to identify five beneficiary agencies of the Federation. “The group with the most correct answers got to go first in the ice-cream line,” said Wolfson, “served by ice-cream lady, Barb Babij.” Learning about community was never this much fun.
What Rodak and Wolfson are trying to accomplish, however, goes far beyond one-off programs that take place once a year. The reality is that their students came together for a number of Shabbat and holiday programs last year.
One program that stands out for Rodak was “Read it like Rashi,” a Shabbat activity held at Beth Jacob, where students learned how the famous medieval commentator and rabbi would find significance in each individual word that made up a biblical verse.
During the exchange of ideas that followed, Rodak recalls feeling an exhilarating sense of unity.
“It felt very special because it was just ‘us.’ It wasn’t ‘us and them,’” she said. “It was just a whole group of us learning together and there was no fragmentation.”
Wolfson felt the same excitement during a joint Passover program.
“There was a kind of excitement among my students that came from watching how the Beth Jacob kids interacted with each other and with the teachers, that was different than the way they did,” she said. “I remember feeling a synergistic energy that was electric. Everybody there could feel it.”
Here’s another bonus to more joint programs between Hamilton’s two supplementary schools. Their “demographic bulges” complement each other perfectly, with Beth Jacob students predominantly in the Kindergarten, Grade 1 and 2 age group, while Temple students are more represented in Grades 3 to 7.
“All of a sudden, we had a fleshed out school population,” said Wolfson.
Next year the two educators will expand their initiative by working towards use of the same Hebrew language curriculum. Beth Jacob’s teachers will be taking the training workshops required for them to teach the Hebrew Through Movement program that Temple teachers began to implement this past year. In addition, a series of joint professional learning sessions for their staff and respective executives will take place throughout the coming year. If this new spirit of collaboration is allowed to thrive, it bodes well for the future sustainability of Hamilton’ Jewish community.
“I feel that we can’t afford to have this fragmentation anymore,” said Rodak. “We have to see each other as one. So if the Temple needs money for something, it’s all of our responsibility to help them get there. We have to all support one another and consider ourselves a true community, because if our kids are not taught to see the importance of ‘us,' we’ll have nothing.”