Young students at Congregation Beth Am's religious school listened to their teacher read a story about God being in the clouds.
That day at recess, the Los Altos Hills sky was uncharacteristically filled with billowy, puffy clouds, said Lisa Langer, Beth Am's project coordinator. A student looked up and remarked that God must be up there.
"The kids started discussing where God would be, does He exist? It was truly one of those moments educators dream of and wait for," said Langer, who has been working all year to integrate spirituality and a sense of community into Beth Am's programming.
Langer, who has been developing programs for kindergartners through elders, is part of an experiment known as the Koret Synagogue Initiative, designed to enhance congregational life. The San Francisco's Koret Foundation is sponsoring a staff member at each of four Bay Area synagogues to develop, conduct and evaluate new programs.
This summer marks the end of the first year of the three-year program that also involves San Francisco congregations Sherith Israel and Beth Sholom, and Tiburon Congregation Kol Shofar. As a result of these pilots, Koret hopes to have a number of successful program models that synagogues throughout the country can emulate.
For Langer at Beth Am, trial and error have resulted in some innovative ways of introducing young people to the concept of God.
"They [congregants] want a lot more God. Parents want to know how to talk to their kids about it," said Langer, 28, who holds degrees in Jewish education and Jewish communal service from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
One of her most successful activities this year involved Shabbaton, a family educational program that meets three Saturdays a month, as an alternative to traditional Sunday school. Instead of dropping kids off at religious school for the day, parents with kids ages 3 to 9 stick around to learn along with their children. This year, 45 families participated. There is already a waiting list for next year.
During one session, Langer handed the parents a pillowcase and several versions of the Sh'ma — English, transliterated, Hebrew and gender-neutral. The parents' task was to write the prayer on the pillowcases, which were then given as gifts to their children to decorate. Langer used the art project as a way to discuss God and the prayer that proclaims God as one.
"The idea is for families to say the Sh'ma before they go to sleep. It's a very protective prayer, and kids need to feel safe before bed," said Langer.
Langer got such positive feedback from the pillowcase assignment that she is planning similar activities for next year's Shabbaton curriculum, which will focus on interpreting Torah portions.
This September, Langer will finally try another of her plans, the Family Enrichment Program. The optional six-week workshop is designed for families prior to bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. The idea is to "create a warm, supportive, communal setting to explore what it means to become a Jewish adult," she said.
Langer will be taking participating families for daylong retreats at nearby Camp Swig in Saratoga. During her year at Beth Am, Langer has organized several Shabbat and weekend retreats for congregants at the camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains, only 25 minutes away.
Because Beth Am has almost 1,200 family units, enlisting new members isn't a concern for Langer. Instead, she has taken on the task of helping a constant stream of new members integrate into the synagogue community.
Workshops to inform new members about synagogue opportunities are in the planning stages for next year. Langer is also hoping to continue her work with the congregation's seniors, whom she has invited to brown-bag lectures with synagogue staff members
Rabbi Richard Block, who has been involved with the Koret Synagogue Initiative since the beginning, is pleased with Langer's contribution to his congregation. There is a "profound difference" is the sense of community at Beth Am, he said.
"The aim of all the programs is the same: to enhance or create meaningful Jewish experiences in a communal setting, to strengthen members' attachment to each other and to the congregation."