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Supplementary Jewish education shows growth

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WOW! funders Phyllis Flatt and Harold Wolfe
WOW! funders Phyllis Flatt and Harold Wolfe

Cheder is not what it used to be, and that’s a good thing, according to the people charged with making supplementary Jewish education more accessible – and attractive – to the Jewish community.

About 150 educators, laypeople, rabbis and donors gathered at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue June 1 to celebrate the achievements of the supplementary education system in Toronto. Daniel Held, executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which co-ordinates the supplementary system, said the number of kids attending these schools has grown rapidly over the past four years.

In 2012-13, about 5,000 youngsters attended the afternoon and evening schools, often offered at neighbourhood synagogues, but the success of innovative new programs at a number of shuls and the outreach to unaffiliated families have increased participation in Jewish education.

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The WOW! project of federation now supports eight supplementary education programs, including those offered by Beth Tzedec Congregational School, City Shul Nightingale School, Neshamah Congregation of York Region, J.Roots Supplementary Jewish School at the Schwartz/Reisman Centre in the Lebovic Jewish Community Campus, which targets Russian- and Spanish-speaking kids, PJ Library and PJ Plus, and one run through Torah High.

As a result of initiatives undertaken in the last four years, the number of youngsters participating in an education program at these venues has jumped from 874 to more than 2,000, Held said.

Held suggested that the model for delivering supplementary education has changed in recent years from one that is passive – offering programs and hoping kids show up – to one that is more outgoing in developing new markets and  makes use of new technology to reach unaffiliated families.

PJ Library, for one, provides books with Jewish content for free on a subscription basis. Households that subscribe receive an age-appropriate book or CD every month for enrolled children between the ages of six months and seven years. Created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the PJ Library’s goal “is to make bedtime a Jewish experience,” Held said.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Torah High, in co-operation with NCSY Canada, focuses on teenagers and provides a number of programs, including weekly classes, leadership retreats, holiday experiences, Jewish clubs at public schools  and online courses.

Torah High has had success engaging kids at camps Northland and Wahanowin, and is entering the second summer in which it offers programs for counsellors in training, he added.

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The WOW! initiative, which is funded by the Wolfe and Flatt family funds and matched by federation, is all about “bringing a new vigour to the field, grow the numbers, be financially sustainable” and attract a new cohort to supplementary education, Held said.

It also includes rigorous evaluations to ensure the programs reach new people, are attractive and provide high quality education with “rich Jewish content.”

“This is not your grandmother’s cheder,” he added.