Monday, June 13, 2011

An Atypical Religious School Educator

Barb Heller is not your typical religious school educator. A singer/voiceover artist/ actress, Barb devotes much of her energy to teaching kids how to utilize the arts, including dance, drama and theater to grow holistically and connect to Judaism. She founded a workshop, Page to Stage Performers, and a camp, Kids Express Performing Arts Camp, to enrich Jewish youth’s through the integration of speech, meditation, Jewish studies, acting and song.

This past year, Barb engaged in a new experiment, the New School for Jewish Identity, a dynamic after-school program to enrich students in Jewish learning through the arts, with a focus on accessing student’s affective and creative strengths.

While this program has been featured as part of the Los Angeles Federation’s Next Big Jewish Idea, the program was unable to secure funding to operate for another year.

As a community, how do we continue to support experimentation in educating Jewish youth not currently engaged in Jewish day school education? How do we continue to support innovative and creative educators, such as Barb Heller?

To understand Barb’s experience working within this unique religious school model, we must hearken to her own works as she expresses her feelings of joy for what she has accomplished and concerns for continuing this critical work in the future:

"It is with a heavy heart that I share the following news, 
Sorry kids, we won't have this after-school program next year." 


"Is that how I should start out my end of the school year speech?"  I think late one Sunday evening as I start to think about how I'll end the last class of our "Ground-Breaking, dynamic, after-school Jewish Learning Pilot Program".  

Maybe I should just level with them, "Its not your fault. Its a lack of funds."  No, they won't get that.  Some of these kids were tossed out of their former Jewish Learning Institutions because of their learning differences.  Some voluntarily left because their Academic Subjects weren't challenging enough.
Most just left because their parents didn't have an extra $18k to spend on their kids' education.  They don't wanna hear about money.  They didn't ask for this situation.  They just wanted a place to feel proud to be Jewish and not have to hide it from the other kids at school.  

How can I put into words how exciting it was this year to start out in October with a handful of kids, end in June with double the amount, and meanwhile have most of the kids ask me weekly, "Can we have this program every day after school and not just two afternoons a week?"

Maybe I should just talk about the hardest day so far at the school, the moment when one of our third graders said to me after our Pesach, "Zar" meditation when I posed the question, "What makes you feel stuck in your life right now?" And his answer was, "Going to a non-Jewish school."

Maybe that was the moment when I began to think that perhaps our school wasn't the right solution to the over-arching Jewish Education Problem in our community.  Perhaps the solution was not to create more after-school programs that cater to kids dropping out of Day School, but to try to make it more affordable in every way for Jewish kids to be immersed in Jewish Day Schools.

Or, maybe I should just talk about how our students did prove my hope-filled theory that being able to bring singing, dancing, writing plays, poetry, drawing and doing pantomimes with our parshyot and chagim actually did make it more meaningful for all grade levels and observance levels.  Maybe I should thank these kids for inspiring me and helping me to see Jewish learning in a different way and for helping me to bring inspiration back into the after-school Jewish learning space.  

When I approached my Supervisor, Cecelie Wizenfeld, back in August of last year about this project, we both had the right kind of wonder stardust for it. Rabbi Elias of Congregation Mogen David was thankfully, so supportive, and within weeks we had our business cards made, poster up outside the building, and kids at desks on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons learning Hebrew Language, Torah, Tefillah, and Music.  

We started with the hope that these "Day School Drop-outs" would find a safe space to grow Jewishly and feel supported.  I feel we accomplished this.  But what happens to them now?  Half of our kids are going back to day school, the other half are either getting too old for our program and will hopefully find themselves at NCSY for their new After-School HS Learning program, but the other few, where will they go?  How do I tell them that we can only continue operating if we get at least 3 x the amount of kids for next year and is this a worthwhile goal? Shouldn't we be fighting for that larger number of kids to be back in Day School?

This summer, I'll be attending an Educators Program at Pardes.  I hope to learn a bit more about the future of Jewish Education and what we can do for the kids who would prefer to go to Day School but just can't afford it right now. For this population is growing and there must be a way to help them quench their thirst for Jewish Learning and personal growth.

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