At Beth Am, teaching Judaism is all in the family

At Temple Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Jewish education isn't just for kids. It's a family affair.

When Rabbi Laura Novak Winer signed on as Beth Am's new director of education during the summer, a pilot program to expand parental participation was already in the works. It marked a trend in the congregation's commitment to educating families.

For Novak Winer, who was ordained in June by Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, finding a Bay Area congregation whose self-proclaimed motto is "a community of life-long learners" is a dream come true.

"Education is about keeping Jews Jewish — not only from kindergarten to confirmation, but keeping them involved throughout life," she said. "Through learning, we are giving the families the opportunity to be Jewish together."

In Beth Am's new B'nai Mitzvah Family Enrichment Program, students and their parents participate in workshops six months before their b'nai mitzvah. The program is designed to give families the chance to discuss what the event means to them.

Meanwhile, the Shabbaton program, begun last year, allows families of kindergartners through fifth graders to attend classes on three Saturday afternoons a month as an alternative to the traditional Sunday school programming.

Both of these projects now fall under Novak Winer's supervision.

"I'm picking up and rolling with it," Novak Winer said, crediting program coordinator Lisa Langer with the development and installment of these courses. "Being given the opportunity to join a dynamic educational team is very exciting for me professionally."

Langer returned the compliment.

Novak Winer "really came in with a clear sense of her strengths and how she could utilize them in this setting," said Langer, who now works alongside Novak Winer. "She's jumped right in."

Beth Am's emphasis on families has developed over the past five years, as members have worked to determine how their educational system will work.

It is all part of the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), a national program organized by professors at Hebrew Union College's Rhea Hirsch School of Education in Los Angeles.

"It's a congregation-wide process of reflection, evaluation and vision-making," Novak Winer said of the ECE, which is being put in place at six other Reform congregations nationwide. ECE is "going to set the tone for education in the Reform movement for the next century."

Novak Winer, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, credits her own religious school director for inspiring her to seek a career in Jewish education. As a teenager, Novak Winer spent a day observing Judy Aronson, then the director of education at Temple Judea in Tarzana, as part of a middle school English class assignment. Watching Aronson, she realized she could create a career out her own passion for Jewish learning.

So Novak Winer earned an undergraduate degree in religious studies from U.C. Santa Barbara, then spent her first two years of rabbinical school at the HUC campuses in Jerusalem and Los Angeles.

After taking a two-year hiatus to complete a master's in Jewish education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, she finished her rabbinical studies in Cincinnati.

Though she attended rabbinical school so she could spend five years immersed in Judaic texts, she also sought a way to help fellow Jews.

"I wanted the opportunity to touch people's lives in a personal way that rabbis do like no other person," she said.

Senior Rabbi Richard Block said of Novak Winer, "She has a tremendous degree of energy and creativity, and a real knowledge of Jewish education.

"We're excited to have her here to provide leadership as we try to provide the very best educational program possible."

As director of education at Beth Am, Novak Winer is supervising more than 600 children, in addition to participants in the synagogue's adult education programs and Chai School.

During the summer, she attended the congregation's annual adult weekend retreat at Asilomar. Reaching out to the adults of the congregation is vital in maintaining Judaism, she said.

"As people grow older and more mature, they need to know that they can see Jewish education in a different light, and take from it what is appealing and meaningful to them," she said. "We offer that to them through education."

Novak Winer is currently living in Redwood City with her husband, Rabbi Richard Winer, and their 3-year-old son, Saul. Her husband was also ordained in June by HUC and has taken a pulpit position at Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore.