Temple Beth Torah's Hebrew School Update
(This article first appeared in the Syosset - Jericho Tribune) Since opening its doors in 1960, Temple Beth Torah of Westbury has been committed to providing a warm, inclusive environment conducive to providing the best possible Jewish education for its students. Even today, amongst changing demographics and times, education remains one of the temple's highest priorities. With over 100 students currently enrolled in the Religious School, Temple Beth Torah aims to provide the highest level of education in a myriad of ways that range from individual and group study in the traditional classrooms to learning in a high-tech computer lab equipped with SMART Board technology. "We must continue to reinvent how we educate our children, to adapt to the changing times, and to invest in Jewish education," Executive Vice President Marc Balizer said. "In my mind, no job is more important than passing Judaism on to the next generation." To ensure that each student receives a well-rounded education, the Religious School implements a four-tiered approach to Judaism. Their four main objectives are to foster an understanding of Jewish heritage and values, to help students achieve Hebrew literacy, to create a familiarity with the Jewish calendar and holidays, and to allow the students to feel comfortable at synagogue services. "We take pride in knowing that our Hebrew School provides children with an enriched Judaic experience," President Renee Kornet said. "We hope to raise our children's awareness of moral and ethical issues and help the students become active, caring young Jewish adults." Orna Sheena, education director of Temple Beth Torah, believes that all four aspects of the Religious School's approach are equally important. "We don't just want to teach the students about the holidays and customs and let the learning end there," she said. "When we teach about Shabbat, we help the students assemble candle sticks, create their own personal Kiddush cups, decorate challah covers and yarmulkes, and bake challahs in the kitchen. At the same time, we engage them with computer-based activities that help to reinforce main concepts and to forge a connection between the history and the real-life relevance." In addition, while the Religious School emphasizes the need to read Hebrew and provides reading specialists for those who benefit from learning on an individual basis, teachers want the students to be able to understand keywords, to put together sentences, and to relate to the Torah and various prayers on a higher level. "We want the students to understand the meanings of the prayers," Sheena said. "We don't want them to just recite them. The same is true for other topics, such as history, the Bible and Israel. In addition to knowing the facts, we want our students to understand important lessons and key values that they can then apply to their own lives." To keep the students engaged and entertained during these lessons, the Religious School implements a variety of activities, projects and lessons. "Every 25 minutes or so, our teachers move on to different topics," Sheena said. "At times, the students physically move from one place to another; for example, from the classrooms to the sanctuary to the computer lab. We work hard to make sure that our curriculum supports children with different learning styles. We want the students to be engaged and to get the most out of their limited time here." To ensure that learning is not static, the teachers build on the curriculum as the students continue on from grade to grade. "Ideally, I want the students to be proud of their Jewish identity and heritage and to embrace Judaism," Sheena said. "Our goal is to provide them with a sound foundation for their Jewish lives moving forward." Rabbi Michael Katz agreed with this sentiment, stating that the curriculum is designed to help students build and enhance their basic knowledge and to have a positive impact on their attitudes around the educational experience. "Our job is to introduce these students to the wisdom and beauty of the Jewish religion," Rabbi Katz said. One of the best ways to do so, according to Temple Beth Torah, is to encourage participation and to allow students to exercise their values and beliefs outside of the traditional classroom environment. The Temple offers a wide range of special programs, from social activities to social action events, including but not limited to building a 16-foot-tall Hanukkah Lego menorah, attending an in-house Holocaust Pop-Up Museum, and participating in the Wings of Witness Program. "I am especially excited to introduce students to innovative programs such as the upcoming Wings of Witness art program, which commemorates Kristallnacht," Sheena said. "Thousands of students are able to remember those that were lost in the Holocaust by contributing to an art form: combining millions of soda can tabs to assemble sculptures of feathers and wings. By creating these feathers, students memorize the victims of the Holocaust and take part in tikkun olam, meaning repairing the world." Another student favorite is the GADNA Israeli Army Training program, which gives students insight into the emotional and physical strength needed by Israeli soldiers on a day-to-day basis. While classes are only held twice a week, Religious School can potentially conflict with a wide range of extracurricular activities. Temple Beth Torah, however, continues to keep students and families engaged despite the high level of competition for their time. "Our Hebrew School teachers face a unique challenge: they have to engage students who have already been through a full day of public school," Balizer said. "But the students come here because they want to be here." In addition to the younger Religious School students, preteens are often seen in the lobby studying for their weekly Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons with Cantor Kalman Fliegelman and teenagers are often headed into Rabbi Katz's office for Post Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes. The Temple encourages students to stay involved beyond their formal Religious School education, and every year, many students decide to continue on after their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. "Our students demonstrate that their Bar and Bat Mitzvah experience is not an end, but rather the beginning of their lifelong participation in the adult Jewish community," Rabbi Katz said. Perhaps the best way to stay involved, according to Cantor Fliegelman, is to participate in holiday services. Over 100 students participate during the high holidays by reading Torah or leading family services, and another group of teenagers recites the Megillah during Purim services. "There is a constant revolving cycle of students," Cantor Fliegelman said. "And there is always room for more participants. When the older teenagers go to college, I teach the younger kids their parts, and the cycle continues." Kornet said that teenagers continue to participate because they feel a sense of comfort with Cantor Fliegelman since he individually prepares each student for his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah. "I have prepared almost 1,600 students for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs," Cantor Fliegelman said. "Each one of them has excelled. I like for each student to do as much as he or she possibly can. It might be a challenge for them, but afterwards they feel a great sense of accomplishment. It's so nice to see so many students reach their potential, come back, participate and be recognized for their accomplishments." Teenagers also have the option to participate in weekly Post Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes with Rabbi Katz, who leads discussions on various topics ranging from Jewish ethics to current headlines. "While we do have some very interesting and heated discussions, the nice part is just getting to talk to the kids about their lives, and to hear what's going on in school and at home," Rabbi Katz said. "My hope is that they come to feel at home in Temple, and with the Rabbi, so that if there is a problem, they will be comfortable turning to me. And did I mention there are lollipops, Twizzlers, and other candy during the year? That is the real draw!" Kornet is thrilled that so many teenagers continue to meeting with the Rabbi on a weekly basis. "Our teenagers love their time with the Rabbi," she said. "They see him as someone to talk to, to confide in and to admire." Through the dedication of the Religious School, Temple Beth Torah has guided thousands of children through the various stages of their Jewish education. "You can't point to any one of these things and say 'that's what makes the Religious School successful,'" Balizer said. "The truth is that the success has come from all of these aspects combined together. We know that educating these kids, the future of Conservative Judaism, is incredibly important and we are thankful that they chose Temple Beth Torah."