New Shabbat school clicks for whole family

Heidi Aronson and her family have discovered a new way to learn about Jewish culture — thanks to an innovative “Shabbat school” at their Berkeley synagogue. The family has had some pretty interesting experiences since starting school last October.

For instance, Congregation Beth El members Aronson, her husband, Dan, and daughters Rachel and Nina made up a song about the Bible’s Joseph — and performed it in front of 20 families at the school’s year-end celebration in May.

“It’s been great for the kids to have Mommy and Daddy working on the same project together,” Aronson enthused. “That’s what I call school.”

Heidi and Dan Aronson with children Rachel (left) and Nina work on a Tu B’Shevat project at Chug Mishpacha.

Chug Mishpacha, as it’s known, is designed for the entire family, presenting one central topic each week to be studied in a variety of ways. The adults spend the first hour studying, while children work with their peers on the same subject, at their own learning levels, under teacher supervision.

Families then come together to work on a joint project.

Debra Sagan Massey, director of education at Congregation Beth El, started Chug Mishpacha after creating a successful similar school at her previous synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sagan Massey took up her post at Beth El in January 2009.

“Our motivation was to create a really active Jewish community,” Sagan Massey said. “This is a chance for families to take what they’ve learned and ask themselves how to bring the Jewish value home with them.”

The Reform synagogue’s school began its pilot year last fall, meeting Saturdays and ending in mid-May with a closing carnival celebration. Topics explored during the school year included Joseph, Noah’s Ark, Leviticus and other Torah portions. 

Chug Mishpacha picks up again Oct. 9, this time with two tracks: Families can attend Tuesday and Thursday evenings, or Saturday afternoons after services.

The program received a grant in March from the Legacy Heritage Fund to help strengthen its intergenerational Shabbat programming. Congregation Beth El was one of seven synagogues in the United States to receive such a grant.

For the Aronson family, Chug Mishpacha was a perfect fit. Heidi didn’t attend Hebrew school as a youth in New York. “I was raised an atheist Jewish, bialy-eating Woody Allen fan,” she joked.

So the Beth El program was a good starting point for her Jewish education, she explained.

“It was a way for us to be on the same page about what Jewish education meant for our family,” she said. “When we go there together as a ritual and have discussions at our own levels, the activity itself reinforces that Jewish learning is now a part of our lives.”

Many of the parents involved in Chug Mishpacha hadn’t been part of formal Shabbat groups, according to Sagan Massey. The program must have struck a chord: Shortly after it began, five women from Chug Mishpacha came to Sagan Massey expressing interest in studying for an adult bat mitzvah. The women, including Heidi, are now on that track.

 “The introduction to regular Jewish learning has ignited something inside them,” Sagan Massey said.