MADISON – Children at Beth Israel Center synagogue here were given pie plates during school on a recent Saturday. They were told they could arrange buttons and other items to form images on the plates.
But they were given no glue. The buttons were dumped back in a bag at the end of the activity. Learning on this special day can’t involve writing, creating anything permanent or using electronics. It is, after all, Shabbat at a Conservative synagogue.
Beth Israel Center switched all of its Sunday school to Saturdays last year, choosing a path that’s unusual, yet well-regarded among some rabbis and educators nationwide. Few Conservative synagogues make the switch.
“I think it’s very hard to change the culture if you already have a Sunday school,” said Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal of New York, who has worked with Shabbat schools in Manhattan and Los Angeles. “It’s a big cultural shift.”
Though several Conservative educators interviewed say they’re not aware of any Shabbat school census data or an organized effort in favor of Shabbat schools, there does seem to be genuine interest among some educators and rabbis, they said. Some suggest there’s a growing grassroots interest.
Most of the 400-plus synagogue religious schools in the Conservative movement are not operating schools weekly on Shabbat, said Edward Frim, director of learning enrichment for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which is the New York-based umbrella organization for the Conservative movement. A small number have been doing it for many years.
“I think that more and more rabbis and educators are seeing the advantage of it,” said Susan Wyner of Ohio, who held Frim’s positon with the Conservative movement until she retired several months ago. As secular activities compete with synagogues for congregants’ time, it’s been a challenge getting students to show up for Shabbat services 10 times annually, or once a month, as some synagogues require, while also expecting them to attend Sunday classes. Shabbat school helps solve that problem by combining Sunday and Saturday activities into one day, Wyner said.
“One of the things that we’re all noticing is that in order to get families to participate, things that can provide meaning is what they are attracted to,” said Wyner, who once oversaw a Shabbat school program at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, Ohio.
A weekly Shabbat school – with people dressing a bit nicer, teachers not writing on the board and lots of adults around for services – can provide that meaning and a strong sense of community, Wyner said.
Put another way, “without a Shabbat school structure you’re teaching about praying, but you’re not actually praying,” said Elissa S. Pollack, executive director of Beth Israel Center.
Children at Beth Israel Center start in class and then attend one of three different youth Shabbat services, broken down by age groups. Then, they head to the adult service and are all invited up to the bimah before school is dismissed.
“One of my friends who hasn’t been around for a while,” recalled Beth Cohn Copelovitch, education director at Beth Israel Center. “He looked at the kids in Shabbat services and said, ‘Where did all these kids come from?”
In fact, some synagogue leaders say they like Shabbat school because it pumps up the population and liveliness of the shul on Shabbat.
Beth Israel Center switched all of its Sunday school to Saturday in September of 2016, after 18 months of careful preparation – administers met with every family individually about the idea beforehand.
“Our tagline for that time was Jews gather on Shabbat,” Cohn Copelovitch said. “We have this built-in day to get together. Why don’t we use it?”
Not for everybody
But Shabbat school may not be for everybody. A possible challenge can be conflicts with extra-curricular activities, though proponents point out those problems can exist on other days of the week. The key, they say, is to know your community.
Another issue can be if teachers would like to be in the sanctuary or otherwise marking Shabbat themselves. But educators say the teachers don’t always feel like they’re working and, at least in Madison, the teachers are often undergraduate college students.
“I love it here,” said Isaac Stone, 21, a teacher here and a senior at University of Wisconsin – Madison who had no problem with the schedule change. Having grown up attending a Jewish day school, he looks forward to coming here because it’s a chance to “feel engaged” with Judaism.
Beth Israel Center holds school on Saturday instead of Sunday weekly. There’s also some religious school held on weekdays, which are reserved for activities deemed inappropriate for Shabbat, like writing Hebrew letters in a workbook. About 40 children attend school here.
Stakeholders said the Shabbat school switch from Sundays to Saturdays for religious school each weekend has been a success, and a popular one at that.
“I think it’s brilliant,” said Sara Rostolder Mandell, a Beth Israel Center mother of two.
“There are families who might not prioritize coming on Shabbat,” she said. “Now they’re coming and bringing their kids every week.”
Or view it from another angle: “We had a lot of families who were Shabbat morning regulars,” Pollack said. “They never got a day to sleep in.”
Or here’s a third angle: For adults who want to go to Shabbat services, Shabbat school can be a school that also acts as a babysitting service, Cohn Copelovitch said.
Rosenthal is now director of youth and family education with Central Synagogue in New York City. She said Central Synagogue, which is a Reform shul, now offers a Shabbat school option there, where writing and other activities are permitted.
“I think the pros are the same in a Reform congregation that they are in a Conservative congregation,” she said. “My experience has not been vastly different in Reform or Conservative settings.”
At Beth Israel Center, students cannot practice handwriting on Shabbat. They can’t create anything permanent. For example, they won’t make a Seder plate to bring home, but they can form letters out of pipe cleaners. They can’t make anything “lasting and meaningful” on Shabbat, Cohn Copelovitch said.
“They can tell stories, share stories, discuss the parsha; they can act things out,” Pollack said. “Saturdays are more about active conversations about the portion.”
Other Shabbat approaches
There are plenty of programs in various streams of Judaism that are educating on Shabbat – though typically not held every week while organized as a school with a curriculum, said Tziporah Altman-Shafer, Jewish education community planner for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
At The Shul in Bayside, there is a teen group and a separate preteen group that do text study with a rabbi, she said.
Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale holds a Shabbat school twice annually, typically coinciding with a scholar in residence, said the synagogue’s education director, Jennifer Saber.
There are many good approaches to incorporating Shabbat into synagogue life and education, Altman-Shafer said.
“One is the Shabbat school approach we see in Madison,” she said. “In many models, families come to synagogue together, children learn separately and then at some point join their families and the larger congregation.”
Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid does that exactly. In addition to Shabbat school twice annually, the synagogue holds a Tot Shabbat for young children and a Kehilat Yeladim program for older kids on the third Saturday of each month. “It’s really an opportunity for them to experience Shabbat, just to experience the holiness of Shabbat and the meaning of Shabbat,” Saber said.
Both Tot Shabbat and Kehilat Yeladim finish in time for children to go to the main sanctuary and lead Adon Olam for the adults.
“It’s very cute,” Saber said. “As long as I’ve been here it’s always been a tradition.”