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Mesorah Learning, Kehilat Rodef, replace CTT

Rebecca LobelONCE upon a time — until very recently, actually — the Denver Jewish community had something called the Community Talmud Torah.

Hundreds of Denver Jewish kids passed through its classes in the 27 years that it existed. Meeting on Tuesday nights, they learned the fundamentals of Judaism, Jewish holidays, basic Hebrew, rudimentary Torah — all the foundational lessons that constitute what Jewish educators have long called supplemental or religious school.

Then the CTT came to an end.

Facing daunting obstacles in enrollment and finances, the school held its final classes this spring. The Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, which in recent years took an overseer’s role, facilitated the school’s closure.

Advocates of Jewish religious school in Denver need not despair, however. In the place of CTT, two new religious schools have sprung up. Both are determined to take CTT’s place in the community and improve upon it.

They are the Mesorah Learning Center and Kehilat Rodef, projects of BMH-BJ and Rodef Shalom, respectively.

BMH-BJ and Rodef Shalom were the originators and long-time sponsors of the CTT.

Marlene RichterWhat’s happening today can be seen as a de-consolidation of the congregations’ educational arms.

The Community Talmud Torah opened in the fall of 1984, a joint project of BMH, Beth Joseph (later destined to merge into BMH-BJ) and Rodef Shalom, “to serve all children in the Denver metro area,” as Diane Hochstadt, chairman of the school’s organizing board said at the time. Rabbi Stanley M. Wagner of BMH helped get the school off the ground.

The CTT was intended to serve as the religious school for those three congregations, but was also designed as a community-wide Hebrew and religious school, hoping to attract students from other congregations and the unaffiliated community.

In recent years, as financial and attendance pressures strained the CTT, educators at CAJE did their best to salvage the school, but their efforts were ultimately in vain.

REBECCA Lobel, newly appointed director of Mesorah Learning Center, describes the CTT separation as a wise and timely decision.

“This past school year, both synagogues decided that CTT was no longer really meeting the needs of their congregants,” she says, “so both shuls decided to instead put their brainpower and budget toward creating individual, in-house religious school programs instead.”

Lobel, who also teaches Judaic courses at Regis University and has taught both adult and children’s Jewish education courses, adds that Mesorah has abandoned the old CTT idea of Tuesday evening classes in favor of the more traditional model of Sunday mornings.

“After polling a lot of members of the synagogue, we decided that a Sunday morning program was a better fit.”

Mesorah Learning Center will serve children in grades K-7 with classes held at the BMH-BJ facility on Sunday mornings, 9:30 a.m.-noon.  The nine-month school term will begin this year on Aug. 28.  Some form of summer learning is expected to be introduced next year.

Lobel expects the school’s initial class to consist of some 30 students this fall.

Students at Mesorah will study Hebrew (reading, writing and conversational); age-appropriate Jewish holidays, lifecycles and ceremonies; Jewish values and identity; ancient and modern Jewish history; and, for older kids, some Torah reading and interpretation.

Although it might seem apparent that religious differences may have led to the CTT split – Rodef Shalom is Conservative while BMH-BJ falls between modern Orthodox and traditional – Lobel says this was not the case.

“I wouldn’t say that it was fundamentally theological or denominational differences. It was really more just looking at the CTT program and where it might be falling short in its ability to meet the needs of the members.

“Having been involved with BMH before — I’m a member here — and having been involved with CTT, I think it was the right decision at the right time for the synagogue.

“Hopefully, it will show young families that we have a full spectrum of educational programming for people to participate if they join this synagogue. Before we weren’t able to say that as clearly.”

Mesorah intends to follow the CTT example of attracting youths from unaffiliated families. The intention, Lobel says, is not to use the school as a recruiting draw for the synagogue, but if it does result in memberships, no one is likely to complain.

“Our school is open to any affiliated or unaffiliated family; you don’t have to be a member of the synagogue to come to our school. It’s going to be very much a welcoming and inclusive community.”

There won’t be any pressure on school families to join the synagogue, she adds, “although we are hoping that people might take advantage of the fact that part of the participation in Mesorah gives them access to our Shabbat programs at no extra charge.

“Then we also have a lot of young family programming that we hope families will choose to participate in. So we encourage that, but it’s not a requirement.”

Mesorah’s religious orientation will be largely in line with BMH-BJ – which Lobel describes as “a modern Orthodox synagogue” – and adds that “within the synagogue there is a wide range of observance among the families . . . but we teach from a traditional viewpoint.”

“Our Hebrew program will be structured primarily on an ability level,” Lobel elaborates.

“While we’re trying to keep kids in the same grades together for Hebrew, if we have a wide variance in Hebrew ability we’ll be doing regular assessments and teaching them more at their level so that everybody is being challenged.

“We know, for example, that there will be second graders coming into our program this year who have not had any Hebrew instruction.

“We will have an on-site tutoring program for kids who might need to do some catch-up work to where other people in their grade are being placed. Likewise, we’ll have some kids whose Hebrew ability is at a much more advanced level.”

Students in the upper grades at Mesorah will likely participate in BMH-BJ’s Bar-Bat Mitzvah preparatory program, which is separate from the school, and will be required to do additional schoolwork for that.

“We won’t necessarily cancel class every time there’s a holiday,” Lobel says, “but we’ll have a holiday component at the beginning of school and we’ll also encourage families to participate in whatever else is going on at the synagogue around that holiday.”

At Rodef Shalom, the CTT spin-off has been designed on a somewhat broader template.

“We’ve taken all of our educational arms and put them under the one umbrella called Kehilat Rodef,” says the school’s new director, Marlene Richter.

Richter, a veteran Jewish educator who recently moved to Denver from Florida to be closer to family, has been a teacher and principal of a “religious school just like this,” and later worked as a day school principal and teacher.

Her explanation for the demise of CTT suggests that the participating congregations wanted a closer connection with their religious school students.

“The population at CTT was declining and the majority of the population were Rodef Shalom students,” Richter says.

“We thought we should see if we could bring the education home and get the kids to be more involved with their synagogue.”

She agrees that practical pressures were much more responsible for the old school’s closure than any disagreements over religious content.

“It turned out that it would be less expensive to have our children in house, connected to the synagogue. The monies we were both giving toward CTT would not keep it running. There was not enough tuition coming in.”

While Richter expects that most of Kehilat Rodef’s incoming student body this fall will be from Rodef Shalom families, children from unaffiliated families are welcome.

The religious orientation will be mainstream Conservative: “Our program is geared to the teachings of a Conservative egalitarian synagogue.”

Kehilat Rodef expects to have some 25 students in attendance when it initiates classes on Aug. 30. Students will gather from 4:30-6:30 p.m. on Tuesday nights — the traditional time for CTT classes.

“We are using the same day and hours as CTT,” Richter says, “because people have had their schedules set for years now.”

The religious school will be for first through seventh-graders, “and will dovetail into the Bar-Bat Mitzvah program at the synagogue.”

The weekly religious school will work in conjunction with other arms of the Kehilat Rodef program, including a twice-monthly Shabbat School for pre-kindergartners through fifth-graders; and Mishmar, an optional supplementary program for third through six-graders for reading skills and pre-Bar-Bat Mitzvah instruction.

“This is the religious school you remember as a child, but we’re going to include more technology,” says Richter, when asked to describe Kehilat Rodef’s curriculum.

“We’re going to do Hebrew language, with emphasis on Hebrew reading, prayer understanding, holidays, Jewish history, modern Israel, Holocaust.”

An additional class, “Daber Ivrit,” to improve Hebrew conversational skills, may be offered on Thursday nights, she adds.

Social activities will be woven into educational activities for the kids and their families.

Families who enroll their children will receive a first-year free membership in Rodef Shalom, says Richter, who sees a natural connection between the religious school and the synagogue.

“That wasn’t the main reason for Kehilat Rodef at all, but I think that if you accept non-members into the school and they’re happy with their child’s education and become part of the synagogue community . . . I believe it would lead them to at least consider joining the synagogue when they’re getting ready for their Bar Mitzvah.

“And that’s a very good thing.”

BOTH Lobel and Richter have repeatedly heard the criticism leveled against religious schools, most often from those who advocate day school education, that supplementary education falls woefully short in building Jewish identity and encouraging continuity.

Neither of them necessarily disagree.

“I think it’s preferable to have more than two-and-a-half hours a week of Judaic instruction in a child’s life, so in a lot of cases day school really is preferable in terms of creating a strong foundation in Jewish education,” Mesorah’s Lobel says.

“But also, realistically, I know that whether it’s for financial or other reasons, not every kid is in a Jewish day school.

“So we do the best that we can to supplement their education by making Hebrew school really engaging, by having really strong teachers and at the same time also making it fun, so that the traditional, ‘I hate Hebrew school’ doesn’t start at an early age for these kids and they can really look forward to that part of their lives.”

Richter agrees. “When you go only two hours a week, you just can’t get everything in.”

But looking at the basic reality in modern American Jewish life, she says, supplemental education remains a valuable ally to day schools.

“In fact, I believe that there has not been enough supplementary Jewish education offered to a child,” she says. “This is the reason why we offer three different times during the week.

“I also feel that bringing them back to their synagogue will answer some of those criticisms because they will be involved in their synagogue, which in turn is an involvement in the community. It all just mushrooms.”

Asked to describe Kehilat Rodef’s goals, Richter turns to its mission statement:

“The mission of Kehilat Rodef is to excite and educate our children about their religion, values, culture, heritage and holy language, fostering both the ability and the desire to become life-long learners and to be active participants in our Jewish community.”

In her own words: “We’re looking for children who have the basic building blocks to continue their education after Bar Mitzvah, to want to continue their education and to eventually develop into a new generation of leaders for Denver.”

Those ambitions are virtually mirrored by Mesorah, at BMH-BJ.

“Our educational goals are, first of all, cultural — to create a strong Jewish identity, cultural literacy, an understanding of and feeling a part of Jewish tradition and Jewish community.

“Literacy to me means being able to walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world and feeling comfortable and understanding what’s happening, whether it’s a Shabbat or another event.

“In addition, we want the students to have strong ability in Hebrew so that they are able to have some understanding of what they’re saying when they say a prayer and to be able to participate with others in that process.”

Lobel is nothing if not optimistic about the prospects for the Mesorah Leaning Center.

“We’ve had a really positive response from the community so far, both members and non-members of the synagogue. We will, of course, have kinks to work out as we get the program going, but I’m feeling very positive and excited about this new school.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com

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