the three sit talking on a bright rainbow rug
Rabbi Joshua Fenton (right) and Edah fellow Asher Litschwartz talk with kindergartener Amiela Weintraub. (Max A. Cherney)

Innovative afterschool program a bridge to Jewish learning

Alongside Strawberry Creek Park in Berkeley and next to a babbling brook, more than a dozen Jewish children stream into Edah, an alternative afterschool program. As the kindergartners arrive, they’re taken for what Rabbi Joshua Fenton calls a personal check-in before the Jewish and Hebrew-language lessons begin.

“Little kids in particular are exhausted after school,” Fenton says. “They don’t want to nap, they’re too old for naps — kindergartners want to refresh. We find out, ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘Where are you in the world?’ It just helps with the transition. We [also] do it with older children.”

Facilitating the check-ins are four young adults who are fellows in a new Edah program, Jewish Learning Innovation Corps, which trains post-college educators and offers them in-classroom experience.

At Edah (a Hebrew word that translates loosely as “congregation” or “assembly”), teaching Hebrew and enriching students’ Jewish knowledge are the main goals. But sometimes the youngest students are distracted and can’t settle down. Fenton points to three girls who have had some conflict with one another in the past, noting how each of them are engaged in a one-on-one conversation with a different fellow.

“It’s the personalized response that we provide,” Fenton says. “Every child has their own work plan.”

As the children arrive at Edah, a frenzy of activity ensues. Off to the side, two boys play Hebrew-language computer games. Across the room a gaggle of children ask one of the fellows for the day’s snacks in Hebrew. At another station, one of the Edahniks, as Fenton sometimes calls the students, puts the finishing touches on a holiday-themed creation.

Though there is a loose structure to the program, Edahniks are given autonomy to direct their own learning — with supervision from the fellows, of course.

Part of Studio 70, a Berkeley-based alternative education network, Edah is a 7-year-old afterschool program for pre-kindergarten to grade five. The aim, Fenton says, is to be a Jewish bridge between the end of the secular day school and the students’ return home. Studio 70 currently operates the main Edah program in Berkeley and has launched a pilot program at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

“What’s really innovative is that we’ve taken part-time Jewish education, what might be considered religious school or Hebrew school, and put in an entirely new model,” says Fenton, who’s mostly known as Yoshi at the school.

“Parents need or want their kids to be in a Jewish educational program,” he says. “And for the 85-plus percent of youth learners who aren’t in Jewish day school, that is supplemental education, which typically happens at a time when other recreational activities [take place].”

With the 11-month fellowship initiative launched in August, Studio 70 expanded its mission, training recent college graduates to become Jewish educators.

“We’re looking for staff people who are Hebrew speakers who have enough productive language skills that allow them to actually teach,” Fenton says. “They need to have an understanding of developmental psychology and pedagogical theory, and our approach in general — understanding children through their own communication lens.”

All four current fellows are full-time employees. In the mornings, they receive training. “We have faculty from Israel, from Berkeley, from Boston, and they come in and teach them in a few different [areas],” Fenton says. “We also have an in-house specialist who runs the fellowship, provides individual mentorship, helps them understand the curriculum.”

In the afternoon, when the kids arrive, the fellows have an opportunity not only to implement the programming but also to try out the teaching styles they’ve picked up during the training sessions. In addition to teaching the fellows, Studio 70 also gives instruction to educators at Jewish institutions across the Bay Area, among them the Brandeis School in San Francisco and Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.

Fellow Etai Wolins, 22, is a Berkeley native. He went to Berkeley High School and attended UC Berkeley before landing the fellowship. He says his new position is largely the result of luck.

“I just saw a job posting … but for someone out of college, employers kind of need to take a chance. I didn’t want to be in education — it’s kind of funny — it was the worst job that I could think of five years ago,” Wolins says. “At this point I very much want to be in education.”

Though Wolins didn’t initially aim to become an educator — his degree is in international development — teaching at Edah has proved a welcome challenge with vast rewards.

“Coming in I thought it was going to be a bit different than it was,” he says. “I felt the intense stress of the job, and the huge rewards from being here when the kids flourish. Like every day, I’m learning something new, the kids, they’re teaching you things, and having the support that this program gives is a perfect combination.”

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a staff writer at J. He can be reached at max@jweekly.com.