What do we mean by "lifelong learning?"

It’s a common trope by now that “religious school” isn’t a universal failure. Instead, it needs and deserves significant change to reach its goals in the times in which we find ourselves. (Don’t believe us? See this article, this one, and this one.)
Here’s how Saul Kaiserman, Director of Lifelong Learning changed their starting assumptions and program design at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York..
7 Ideas about Congregational Education:

We are always learning; children, teenagers, and parents are our students:

We counter an outdated image of a “drop-off” Hebrew school program, where children attend for a few hours each week to study Judaism as if it were a historical curiosity with no connection to their actual lives. We believe Jewish learning is relevant all week long and throughout one’s life, not only while in religious school. “Lifelong learning” describes our aspirations of playing an expansive role in the life of parents and other caregivers and for generations to influence each other.  In our programs, ages and stages interact and influence each other’s behaviors and attitudes, because we know that children play a crucial role in shaping the lives of the rest of their families. 

Our students are our teachers—literally.

One of our core programs at Emanu-El is Tribes. Meeting during the final 20-30 minutes of Religious School each week, each Tribe is named for a Biblical figure and comprises 12-15 students of different ages in grades 3-5. Each Tribe is led by a teenage “chief,” who are among the most actively engaged high school students in our synagogue. The chiefs lead activities and cultivate relationships between students of different grades. They are role models, sharing their expertise and modeling their commitment to Jewish life.

Personality, not age, shapes Tribes.

New students to Tribes are surveyed about their values, extracurricular activities, and friendships with other students. “Ruthites,” for example, value loyalty, while “Sarahites” value joy. Then in a large ceremony involving a “sorting hat,” they are placed into Tribes with returning students that have similar profiles. 

Each Tribe develops its own personality embodied by unique rituals—like a “tribal chant” recited on “Celebration days”—at the conclusion of each unit. Lessons frequently incorporate activities focused on building community through “doing” Jewish things together, such as baking matzah or making get well cards, along with name games and group-building activities. The calendar is marked by special events such as when all the Tribes come together to celebrate a holiday or vie in a color-war style competition for the “Tribal Cup.” Each Tribe becomes a microcosm of Jewish community, where diverse opinions can be expressed and, through thoughtful reflection and mutual respect, our students learn to accept one another for who they are and what they believe, and empower one another to grow as individuals. 

We study ancient wisdom in the context of intergenerational relationships.

The three-year cyclical curriculum is based on quotes from Pirke Avot (“The Sayings of our Ancestors,” a book of Mishnah) with full-time staff crafting the lessons and adult “tribal elders” supporting the leadership of the teen “chiefs.” Activities are content-rich, exploring the real-life lessons that can be learned from these 2,000 year-old words.

The program is real and relevant—and helps participants see their Jewish future. 

Students, frankly, love this program – one described it as her “favorite part of the religious school day – of the whole week!” Our end-of-year student surveys indicate that students are making personal meaning from the texts while developing and deepening friendships with one another. They view the teenage Chiefs as positive figures in their lives, and tell us that they aspire to be Chiefs when they themselves are teens. Similarly, the teens are proud of their growth as leaders and of the connections they make with the younger kids. Many describe their work as “giving back” to the community – at the end of the year, one wrote that he had made it his personal mission “to be in a place where, when you see kid in the hallway, you can say ‘hey, how are you’ – and I feel like I got there.” The teachers are excited to see students that they knew in elementary school come back as Chiefs, and are themselves inspired to experiment with creative educational approaches in their own classrooms.

It's more than just a few hours a week at Religious school.

While Tribes takes place during school hours, through Religious School with Honors, we publicly acknowledge and celebrate students who go “above and beyond” school attendance. Students are inducted into the honor society after participating in five or more synagogue activities outside of school hours – such as working on the school newspaper; serving on the Student Council; participating in Shabbat and holiday worship; making a donation to one of the synagogue-sponsored toy, clothing or food drives; and going with the youth group to events like ice skating or rock climbing. To receive honors, students complete a brief application, describing the activities they did and something new they learned or meaningful they experienced through their participation. Honors students have their names posted on our “honor roll” in the school lobby and receive a certificate of appreciation and some small prizes, such as a magnet or press-on tattoo with the synagogue logo. A second level of honors recognizes participation in an additional five activities, which must include experiences of study, prayer, volunteering, and leadership. This provides the student not only a higher position on the honor roll, but also a $50 gift certificate towards our next Family Israel Trip. To earn the highest level of the honor roll, students participate in a total of at least fifteen activities outside of school hours and also encourage their classmates to participate in the honors program through a presentation or creative project. The first student each year to reach level three becomes “assistant principal for the day.” 

And it’s a family affair

Many of the activities that earn students honors are opportunities for the whole family to develop friendships and to have quality time, as another student described: “We don’t really get to do Shabbat at home, so it’s nice to be able to sit down with my gramma and mom for dinner and talk and laugh. It’s like being home but kinda better, too, since I can also see my friends from Religious School. It’s meaningful to me because we’re so busy every day that we don’t always have time for each other, so now we’re making time for each other.” Parents joke that we should offer a “religious school parents with honors” program, because they end up accompanying their children to the synagogue so often. For parents, coming to these activities normalizes the experience of participating in synagogue life, making it easier to prioritize it over other ways to spend their time consider coming to another activity even without their own children. 

End Cap:
Tribes and Religious School with Honors provide children and parents with “plausibility structures”—mental pictures, or understandings—for meaningful and joyful engagement in Jewish life. The young adults who are chiefs of our Tribes go to the same schools as our students, listen to the same music, and, most importantly, are engaged in Jewish life but are not Jewish professionals. They serve as role models for our elementary students, real life examples of who they might grow up to be, visions of themselves that they can aspire to become. Further, they demonstrate through their participation in Tribes that there is a way to remain active at Emanu-El after becoming bar or bat mitzvah. 
Religious School with Honors provides families with a means to track their growing involvement in synagogue activity. As they meet other parents striving to raise their children with Jewish values, they wonder how they, like their children, might be impacted positively through these experiences. Just this past fall, one astonished parent told us that after our Family Sukkot celebration, “My son came home and asked me to build a Sukkah on our terrace … and he slept in it.” Religious School with Honors provides a way for a family to reflect proudly upon their exploration of Jewish ritual and to inspire other families through their example.