Creating a Culture of Yes

By Rabbi Sarah Mack, Joie Magnone and Rachel M. Woda

Originally published in eJewish Philanthropy

Our Education Team will be forever affected by a parent who came to us distraught, saying “my child loves two things in the world, lacrosse and Judaism and they are always in conflict.” As we confront a changing world and a paradigm shift in supplementary religious schools we asked ourselves “why does it have to be this way?”

We all currently find ourselves in a world where navigating the landscape of parenting is much more treacherous. School commitments, family obligations, and extracurricular endeavors are just some of the things that have made scheduling our lives increasingly complicated. This is even before we try to add Jewish life and education.

So often our Jewish educational culture has been focused on how to prioritize Judaism over other activities. It is easy to blame a soccer secular culture and parents priorities.

In the past, Jewish educators set rules that emphasized to parents that Jewish education was more important and forced them to make difficult and often impossible decisions.

Our team had a moment when we realized that our parents plea was emblematic of a culture of “no” – one where we forced families to learn Jewishly on our terms or not at all. We were faced with a group of committed families who wanted their kids to learn Jewish, do Jewish and be Jewish and were struggling to fit it into our modern world. More and more often, parents were choosing to walk away from Jewish learning because it didn’t fit their schedules and it made them feel guilty.

That was when we decided that we had every reason in the world to make our school a place where we say “yes” whenever we can. In doing so, it was our hope that our congregation could be a place that helps busy parents by modeling how Judaism can fit into our contemporary lives.

We first asked parents and students what they wanted through a series of surveys, focus groups and interviews. The answers were clear: families wanted flexibility and respect for family time while experiencing meaningful connections to our synagogue, not just in the classroom.

Our new school motto, determined with the reflection of a dynamic Task Force, became “joyful, communal, accessible.” The “yes” is a direct reflection of accessibility. We set out to make our school a place where we could say things like:

“When you can be here, we are so happy that you are with us.”

“If you have soccer this week, we understand – here is how you can pick up your child early to make the game.”

Shabbat dinner is part of your tuition, come as you are at the time you can and if you are in shin guards that’s ok.”

“We understand that our student needs to learn Hebrew on a Monday at 5 in your home. If we can find a teacher, that works for us as well!”

“Enjoy your family time skiing! Since you will be missing so many Hebrew classes in a row, here is the link for online supplements.”

As parents of young children ourselves, we know how it feels to be the one who forgets the school project or dress up day. We understand the guilt that comes from trying to do it all and inevitably dropping the ball along the way. We decided to make it our goal that our congregation not contribute to that feeling.

The skeptics will be asking about the quality and content of our program. We can tell you that we have a very committed faculty and a substantial curriculum. In our first year of “yes” we have found that our students learned no less than previous years, either in Hebrew or Judaics, and families felt less alienated in the process. We even saw greater consistency in attendance at school and other Temple events and celebrations as well as a decrease in classroom management issues.

Of course there are challenges. As we enter our second year of transformation we continue to work on new ways of connecting kids and families to each other and to the community. We can’t make everyone happy all the time or meet everyone’s needs – even with “yes.” And, of course, there are some times when we do just have to say “no.”

Leviticus 19:14 teaches that we should “not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” In listening to the needs of our families, attempting to meet them where they are and offering a positive and joyful Jewish space we hope we have removed at least some of the obstacles from the road to Jewish learning and life.

Rabbi Sarah Mack, Joie Magnone and Rachel M. Woda make up the “Ed Team” at the Temple Beth-El Rabbi Leslie Yale Gutterman Religious School in Providence, RI.

Temple Beth-El is a client of Mersky, Jaffe & Associates