Berkeley synagogue cooks up a new after-school approach

Shalom Rosenberg wants to make Jewish education as fun as summer camp. This coming school year, he will find out if he can pull it off.

Rosenberg is the director and lead educator of Edah, a new after-school program launching this fall at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. The Edah education model includes group activities, music, art, sports and cooking.

Two young students examine a Torah scroll.

There’s also a “kickoff” retreat planned, as well as special “school’s out” daylong programs for when public schools have a vacation day.

The program will be for kindergartners through fifth graders, but the maiden effort will be starting with kindergartners only (probably about 12). Although being held at a Conservative synagogue, the program is open to families of all denominations and affiliations.

The four-day-a-week program will feature age-appropriate study of Jewish books, Jewish values, prayer, Hebrew, holidays and rituals.

“It’s not like anything else,” said Rosenberg, 29, a longtime Jewish educator who moved to the Bay Area a year ago. He notes that the program will employ several education models, yet keep them all separate.

“What we’re trying to do is an experiment,” Rosenberg said. “There is constructivist learning, project-based learning and also a big focus on Hebrew immersion.”

Shalom Rosenberg helps search for the chametz before Passover during an activity when he taught in New York.

In Hebrew, “Edah” roughly translates as “community of learners.” The Edah classroom will not look like the typical grid of chairs and desks. Instead, learning centers will give students free choice in terms of areas of focus.

Hebrew letters? Draw them here. Jewish holidays? Learn about them over there. The blessings? Practice them by playing a matching game in another area.

Education specialist and Netivot Shalom congregant Rena Dorph, 40, co-designed the program. She had incentive: her youngest daughter enters kindergarten this fall, and in anticipation of that, she and fellow congregant Elana Naftali-Kelman came up with the Edah model.

“I had researched after-school programs and saw a wide range,” Dorph said. “That’s where the idea started percolating: wanting a place for my daughter to have a really extensive and intensive Jewish education experience. I took the best learning experiences I’d seen, that of a more free-choice informal learning environment.”

Though other Jewish education programs echo some of the Edah approach, Dorph found none that match up precisely. Unlike almost all similar programs, Edah will be offered after school Mondays through Thursdays (with parents committing to a minimum of three days).

And parents will get involved. One Edah parent happens to be a sports enthusiast, and will help shape the physical education component. Dorph’s husband, a professional musician, will have input on the music.

As the program grows, an additional grade will be added each year. For now, Edah will not replace Netivot Shalom’s ongoing religious school program.

Rosenberg says the Edah methodology draws on an educational philosophy called constructivism. That philosophy eschews old-school notions about school.

“We allow kids to pinball off each other,” he said. “The core of constructivism is that the teacher is not this knowledgeable person filling empty vessels. Rather, I’m the facilitator, the adult helping to guide the conversation,  allow the kids to learn from one another.”

Shalom Rosenberg

He’s had plenty of practice. The son of an Orthodox rabbi, he spent several years in Israel as a child, where he became fluent in Hebrew. After earning a master’s in education, he taught Hebrew and Judaism at New York synagogues before moving to the Bay Area.

Here he has taught at the Oshman Family JCC, the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Congregation Emanu-El. “I have tremendous Jewish pride,” he said, “and I love transferring that in my teaching.”

Dorph serves as director of research, evaluation and assessment of math and science education programs at Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science. She, too, is a product of Jewish day schools, and comes from a long line of Jewish educators and rabbis.

She takes Jewish learning, and the Edah program, very seriously. “The philosophy is that Judaism should be a part of our lives,” she said, “and not an afterthought.”

That’s why intensive Jewish learning remains the core objective of Edah. But that doesn’t mean learning can’t be fun, according to Rosenberg.

“The two big indicators for Jewish continuity and identity are camps and Israel trips,” he says. “Kids often don’t always know there is a point to camp, but there is learning going on if it’s done correctly. Camp is very purposeful and meaningful, and that’s what we’re trying to create.”

Edah is having an open house Aug. 23 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. For more information, call (510) 549-9447 ext. 106 or e-mail youth@netivotshalom.org. Pamphlet and registration at www.tiny.cc/cnsedah.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.