WESTBOROUGH – With approximately 375 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough offers creative Jewish programming in the largest religious school in Central Massachusetts.
Headed by Rabbi Educator Joe Eiduson since 2007, the school remains steadfast in its commitment to the three core Jewish values, Torah, Avodah and G’mulit Chasidim, or study, worship and loving kindness.
At the same time, Rabbi Eiduson makes sure that the CBS classroom reflects ongoing social and pedagogical changes – both in the Jewish community and the community at large.
“We can’t pull out the textbooks anymore,” he says, citing technological change as an example. “Fifteen years ago, I taught Reform Judaism at the high school level and I prepared handouts. Now we send kids to the computer lab and ask them to use their cell phones, and they do the research themselves.”
That seismic shift and others inevitably affect approaches to religious school learning.
“We have to remain relevant; that’s the goal. We must keep Judaism relevant for them.”
At B’nai Shalom, children from pre-kindergarten through seventh grade attend one of two two-hour Sunday sessions weekly; third graders through sixth graders also go to religious school on either Tuesday or Thursday afternoons.
Seventh through 10th graders attend every Tuesday evening, while 11th and 12th graders go every other week.
The staff includes 16 teachers, part-time but with varying time commitments, all of whom are members and so already have a connection with the congregation.
In addition, full-time Youth Educator Debbi Morin is in her second year of facilitating the temple’s three youth groups as well as retreats, family education programs and field trips that include a Jewish Heritage trip to New York City and the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Seminar in Washington D.C.
“We have a faculty that is incredibly caring and incredibly talented and who come here to teach because they are really invested in the next generation of Jewish kids becoming Jewish adults,” Rabbi Eiduson says. “I am amazed by how much energy and thought they put into what they are doing.”
Cantorial soloist Sharon Brown Goldstein teaches music in the religious school and also tutors and rehearses bar/bat mitzvah students.
A learning specialist on the faculty, funded by the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, makes it possible to accommodate varied learning styles as well as IEP and 504 plan requirements in an inclusive atmosphere.
Rabbi Joe and B’nai Shalom’s Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz also maintain a presence in the school, “constantly interacting with the students on a learning basis.” Each of them spends some time teaching seventh graders as well as all of the high school students.
The synagogue has been quite successful in one of the greatest challenges that face any religious school: convincing young people to remain after bar/bat mitzvah.
In Westborough, that focus has been concerted and effective. Starting in third or fourth grade, “we put out the message that we don’t want them to stop. Then we created a program that’s attractive enough that they want to come,” says Rabbi Eiduson.
Beginning four years ago, he says, the temple began to explore ways to enhance the middle and high school program in order to encourage participation. The curriculum now blends the contemporary concerns and responsibilities that today’s teens face while underscoring their actual and potential connections to Judaism and the Jewish community.
At the same time, the decision was made to move the seventh grade from Tuesday afternoon to Tuesday evening classes, where they could interact with the high school students.
The intention was “to get them excited [about continuing into high school] before their bar/bat mitzvahs,” says Rabbi Joe.
The move also made it easier for students to fit in sports, which often become increasingly important in middle school. Rabbi Joe emphasizes the importance of that kind of flexibility, given the demanding schedules and multiple activities of most middle and high school students.
Last year, the synagogue embarked on Congregation B’nai Shalom for the 21st Century, or CBS21, a “deep look” at the younger grade levels in the religious school as well as parent learning.
“We spent three years revamping grades 7-12 and got the kids to come,” he says. “It worked. Now it’s time to focus on the younger kids.”
A task force of ten, some if not all with backgrounds in social work, education and medicine, used last year to gather information through focused conversations with parents and in classrooms. After reviewing the feedback over this past summer, they will now spend this year deciding what, if any, changes to make.
That process will involve developing “a vision of what learning could look like if our hopes are realized,” Rabbi Eiduson said in his message from June 2014. Once that vision is made public, the next step will be a design phase to bring its goals to fruition.
“We may decide not to change – or to turn the operation on its head,” he says.