A ‘culture of yes’ drives Temple Beth-El’s religious school


In the last year, the Rabbi Leslie Yale Gutterman Religious School at Temple Beth-El, in Providence, has been reimagined for the modern family.

The aim was an innovative model that featured small-group Hebrew classes and a Sunday program for pre-K to grade 10. At the time, the religious school leadership team of Rabbi Sarah Mack, Joie Magnone and Rachel Mersky Woda told The Voice that they wanted a communal, accessible, joyful community. And they wanted to be sensitive to the needs of today’s busy families.

The new curriculum, written by Mack, Magnone and Mersky Woda, with input from an advisory group of congregants, parents and educators, has been a huge success, according to leadership and parents.

“We feel strongly that people should feel good about being here,” said Mersky Woda. Parents tell her, she said, that they “no longer have to fight with [their] child to be here.”

The key is to be flexible and work around the needs of the family and the child, not the other way around, she said. That means activities like all-school Shabbat dinners are included in tuition and students come as they are, at the time they can – and if they are in shin guards, that’s ok.

Enrollment is up. And it’s clear that the team of Mersky Woda and Mangione is working well:  In a recent interview, they completed each other’s sentences as they talked about what’s in store for the coming year.

Last year, Magnone said they hoped that the children would leave with a love of Judaism. This summer, she said she visited Camp JORI, in Wakefield, where many area children spend a few weeks.

“A student came running up to me,” she said. “He told me, ‘I can’t wait for Hebrew School to begin again!’ ”

Magnone and Mersky Woda say they are also excited about the upcoming school year, when the emphasis will be on teaching many different aspects of Judaism – a breadth of knowledge.  There will also be more of an emphasis on learning at each age-appropriate level – so a study of a holiday, for example, won’t be the same for the whole school.  And there will be a continued emphasis on project-based learning.

“We are really excited about the process of learning,” says Magnone.

Magnone and Mersky Woda say this progressive approach to education is “the only way we’ll see the next generation of Jews know what it means to be Jewish.”

For more on the Leslie Yale Gutterman Religious School, read “Creating a Culture of Yes,” by Mack, Magnone and Mersky Woda, at http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/creating-a-culture-of-yes.

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of The Jewish Voice.