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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

SPINOZA *FAMILY EDUCATION* UPDATE

Today I offer a short update on what’s going on in our youth education program.


Back in 2016 when we decided to give a name to our program, we chose to honor famed seventeenth-century Jewish thinker, skeptic, and (at least to some) heretic Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. Back in his day, Spinoza was also quite the revolutionary. How appropriate then, that our youth education program has also recently undergone a bit of a revolution. It was the best result necessary in response to those changes in American Jewish life that were holding us back.


Small synagogues like the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism have always experienced Jewish communal challenges more profoundly. Over the past few years our entire congregation has risen to meet those challenges with some important changes. We changed our name to better reflect our niche in the Jewish landscape and we moved to voluntary pledges for membership that now includes Jewish education. The latter did, indeed, help to bring in new families.


Yet while the rise in enrollment was immediate, it did not solve a unique problem of our times, that of maintaining a year-upon-year, classroom-based curricular program. There are many reasons for this, but none is more significant than the inconsistency of attendance – a result of the busy lives of our children and their families – that has made school-style curriculum-based programs nearly impossible. As we grappled with these repercussions, we reached out to other supplementary Jewish education programs to see what they were doing about it.


Some (most!) schools we consulted advised us to "make Jewish education a priority" by enforcing attendance as a requirement for enrollment and subsequent B'Mitzvah. While we value Jewish education, this approach did not feel consistent with our values. We certainly want our young people to feel good about Jewish belonging and culture, but as humanists we understand that it is but one of the many pieces of who they are. Sometimes (and sometimes can be frequent) other commitments are equally important. Having determined that “enforcement” was not the way to go, we took inspiration instead from the informal Jewish education programs I ran back when I was a JCC educator. Those popular programs, where JCC families gathered for targeted learning about holidays and more, became the model for implementing our weekly topic-based, all-school programming.


As it happens, a loose framework for this was already in place. A few years back we introduced an expanded “family hour” with breakfast, a song session, and some kind of message from me to kick off each session. With the changeover to topic-based Sundays we expanded that family time to introduce everyone to each week's topic. This is now followed up with age-based hands-on learning with our teachers for the children (e.g., stories, discussions, and projects) and a simultaneous deeper dive on the topic with me and the parents. 


The reaction has been very positive. Parents love spending time with their children learning about the same Jewish (or humanistic) subjects. Many are also enthusiastic about the adult learning with me or a guest educator. My favorite part of the program? Hearing about the conversations the families have with their children each week during their drive home and beyond.


So much credit is owed to the families who came to me back in 2021-22 when we were just re-launching after Covid. They provided the feedback that prompted these changes. Much of its success can also be credited to our flexible and creative teachers, several of whom helped to develop the topics. And there were two especially important people who helped make it a success, Spinoza Program Coordinator Melanie Goldberg and volunteer music leader (and CHJ board member) Alex Lumelsky. 


Over the summer Melanie and I will be shoring up our teaching crew and consulting with them about topics for the year to come. We’ve already got some great ideas thanks to their creativity. Among other things, we’ll be looking more closely at humanistic values education and, perhaps, some inter-faith exploration.


If you’ve ever considered teaching in what we used to call “Sunday School,” but were unsure whether you had the background to prepare, this may be the time to consider that possibility! Because of the collaborative nature of the program, you don’t need to be an expert in Judaism to facilitate the projects and discussions that deal with each week’s topics. Please contact me (rabbi@chj-detroit.org) and I’ll walk you through the details!


And while we do need a couple of folks who are good with young people, we are even more excited to welcome new families to our unique program. If you know of a family with school-aged children that is looking for a wonderful family experience, please watch this newsletter for the announcement of our mid-summer Spinoza Night for New and Returning Families!


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Next week I’ll be writing a bit about the unloved – perhaps deservedly! – holiday of Shavuot that coincides this year with Memorial Day Weekend. Then I’ll be off for a few weeks to visit family and re-charge.

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