SHEBOYGAN – If you visited Congregation Beth El in Sheboygan on a Thursday afternoon, you might find Deb Intravaia teaching the synagogue’s youngest kids their Aleph-Bet or helping them bake challah.
Intravaia’s class has been meeting weekly since November with four children between K4 and second grade. Though the class is small, it caters to all of the children in that age group in the congregation, which currently serves about 20 families.
“It was a much older congregation, so it’s not like they just weren’t doing it,” Jimi Jo Friedman, mother of a Beth El Hebrew School student, said. “They did it, they saw the need, and they filled that need immediately.”
Intravaia has also worked in Milwaukee-area synagogues. When she saw young families joining the temple in Sheboygan, she approached synagogue President Marc Brami to discuss the possibility of Hebrew school classes.
“I felt they needed a Jewish education,” Intravaia said.
The students spend their class time learning Hebrew letters, going over the weekly parsha, doing crafts and learning about holidays and Shabbat. Intravaia said that they’ve learned to make challah and hamentashen and are in the process of creating Shabbat boxes with kiddush cups and candlesticks.
“I remember going to Hebrew school and it just wasn’t quite the same as what Debbie’s bringing to the table,” Friedman said. “The kids are literally excited for their Thursday after-school class.”
True to Intravaia’s belief that Judaism begins at home, Friedman said that the lessons have helped deepen her family’s conversations with their children about the faith.
“It helps the conversation go even further because of Debbie’s in-depth knowledge of all the holidays and certain terms that I may have forgotten since I was young… and then my younger one, who is only 3, is being exposed to all of it through [their sibling],” she said. “It’s just been such a good experience in every way for our family.”
“They’re so excited, and their retention is amazing,” Intravaia said of her students. “I’m just so proud of them, they just want to learn more and more and they say Hebrew school is so fun, and they just love it.”
Brami said that he thinks the school has helped to attract young families to the synagogue, which he calls “great news.”
“We used to have a rabbi, have schools…but we lost our rabbi and so we have only a couple hazzanim, and we do services and we try to survive in Sheboygan,” Brami said.
“She’s a very good teacher, Debbie, she’s excellent teacher,” he added. “I’m very happy with it.”
Brami, Intravaia and Friedman all said that they’d like to see the school expanded to include older children – as long as older children eventually become part of the congregation.
“This is the age group that’s present [K4-2nd grade],” Intravaia said. “There was a guy who’s a possible transplant, and it was very important for him that there was a school. And if he would have called a few months earlier, we wouldn’t have had that school. So really, definitely that’s what young families want.”