Beth-El continues religious school transformation


Several years ago, the folks at Temple Beth-El’s Rabbi Leslie Yale Gutterman Religious School had a dream of remaking their education program for busy modern families.

At the time, Rachel Mersky Woda, now director of Beth-El’s Youth & Family Engagement, said, “We feel strongly that people should feel good about being here.”

The school instituted flexible programming, working around the needs of families. Requirements like Shabbat dinners were included in tuition. They called it a culture of “yes.”

This year, the school is taking the next step in this evolution, announcing to the congregation recently that the school will be available to all members at no cost. There will still be a fee for B’nei Mitzvah preparation.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced the school’s leadership, which includes Rabbi Sarah Mack, Mersky Woda, Carl Shulman and Joie Magnone, to rethink the way they teach. Programming will be held remotely for now, in keeping with programming for the rest of the Temple Beth-El community.

“We are thinking about how to navigate the current life situation through a Jewish lens,” said Mersky Woda, adding that this lets all members of the community know that “we see you and we know you are here.”

“We want people to feel that this is one less thing they have to worry about. We are going to plan something and do it well.”

She said, “Judaism teaches you to do good. We have a tremendous opportunity to remind kids that they are special. Why can’t we do that through Zoom? This is creating Judaism in real time.”

Mersky Woda credited a lot of innovation and creativity for the school’s growth. She said students enjoy attending.

The investment in Jewish education now, she said, will make children lifelong learners and keep them in the community.

FRAN OSTENDORF ( is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.