Synagogues replace Kulanu teen program with fresh approaches

Three Milwaukee-area synagogues are each launching new educational programming for teens, seeing opportunity for fresh and exciting approaches after the end of their joint teen education program called Kulanu.

Kulanu operated for three years, with classes of teens rotating among two Reform congregations and one egalitarian Conservative one. The arrangement to operate the program was discontinued for the 2017-2018 school year, according to local Jewish professionals.

The new individualized programs will emphasize Sundays at each of the synagogues. Kulanu was a weeknight program.

In interviews, none of the educational directors at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, Congregation Sinai or the Conservative shul, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, closed the door on possible future collaboration for learning. All were enthusiastic over plans for their individual new paths.

Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun will seek to entice and engage teens in the short-term while also taking a new look at long-term plans.

Congregation Sinai hired a new director of youth education over the summer and is launching a new “Kesher” program that includes a focus on life skills.

Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid is launching a School of Jewish Studies High School Program.

Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid

Student Nesya Graupe poses with Jennifer Saber, education director for Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, at the Chicago Chesed Fund. The Glendale synagogue’s 10th grade Bikkurim class volunteered there as part of its annual class trip to Chicago last winter. Photo by Rabbi Jacob Herber.

Jennifer Saber is education director of the School of Jewish Studies at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid. She’s starting her third school year, so this will be her first year without Kulanu.

“I’m very excited to have all of the older students back in the synagogue on Sunday mornings,” she said. “By having it all together on Sunday morning, all of the ages will be able to interact.”

On Sundays, the synagogue will offer classes for teens of all ages and a madrichim classroom assistant program for older teens.

There will also be a new Avodah Core Program, which pairs teen volunteers with specific tasks within the synagogue. For example, individual students may really like leading services for younger children; helping in the office; being counted in a minyan; or helping in the children’s library.

Teens will have field trips, speakers and special programming, for individual grades or with the whole school. “I really want to have this feel of a community, a synagogue community,” Saber said.

“We want the kids to know that your b’nai mitzvah is not the end of the road for your Jewish education,” she said. “It should be fluid and you should continue onto your Jewish education and your connection to the synagogue.”

Congregation Sinai

Congregation Sinai has hired a new director of youth education, Brian Avner. Having started over the summer, he plans to continue the synagogue’s historically high-participation Madrichim Program, which has teens working in the classrooms and the office.

He’s also launching a new “Kesher” program, which will have teens gathering on Sundays for learning, discussion, hearing speakers and developing life skills — with lunch. The programming is to also include field trips.

“It’s an opportunity to come and connect with their friends in the synagogue and continue their learning and take ownership of their Judaism,” he said, noting that he hopes to help teens transition away from having others take responsibility for their Judaism.

Avner has two masters’ degrees, one in Jewish education and the other in Jewish nonprofit management. He’ll be teaching Jewish studies at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School while working for Congregation Sinai.

Congregation Sinai of Fox Point has hired a new director of youth education, Brian Avner. Photo by Rob Golub.

For Kesher, he’s inspired by a book, “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lynthcott-Haims.

“I like the book because there are sections of it that give clear action steps of what you can do to raise a child to be a contributing member of society,” Avner said. “We want to show our teens that they can be contributing members of the Jewish community now that they’ve become adults after having their bar or bat mitzvah.”

Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun

“We are really looking for charismatic, passionate teachers. That’s one of my primary goals for this year,” said Rabbi Toba Schaller, director of lifelong learning for Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. “We want to offer a curriculum that is enticing and relevant to teens.”

The idea is to keep teens coming back.

CEEBJ is pursuing a long-term plan and a short-term plan. For the long term, the synagogue will involve educators, parents and even teens in a discussion of what teen educational programming should look like, Schaller said.

For the short term, students will be attending Sunday classes at the synagogue, while a separate madrichim program is to continue and grow. More mentoring is to be added to the madrichim program this year. Adult instructors will teach more teaching skills, with social and learning components, too.

“In addition to the pay they’re gaining real skills and something that they can put on their resume,” Schaller said.

Rabbi Toba Schaller, director of lifelong learning for Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, has been with the synagogue for about a year. Photo by Rob Golub.

A study party for teens around finals time, with quiet study space, is also planned.

The synagogue will also sponsor drop-in programs for juniors and seniors. Schaller plans a fireside chat around the High Holidays, on finding balance in life. “This is the season of judgement,” she said. “How do we judge ourselves?”
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Three synagogues have each replaced Kulanu with a new program specific to their shul. They are:

  • Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, 6880 N. Green Bay Ave, Glendale. 414-352-7310.
  • Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, 2020 W. Brown Deer Road, River Hills. 414-228-7545.
  • Congregation Sinai, 8223 N. Port Washington Road, Fox Point. 414-352-2970.

Other Northshore schools for part-time teen education:

  • Congregation Shalom, 7630 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Fox Point. 414-352-9288.
  • Milwaukee Community Hebrew School, 8825 N. Lake Drive, Bayside, 414-228-8000.
  • Pelz Hebrew School, 2233 W. Mequon Road, Mequon. 262-242-2235.