12 Nov Kol HaLev Jewish Afterschool: Hebrew School Reimagined
We are a Jewish engagement and education organization in Central Palm Beach County. The goal of our Jewish Afterschool program is to engage Jews in Palm Beach County in meaningful Jewish education, joyous holiday programming, and open and accessible spiritual experiences and community. We are an incorporated nonprofit synagogue in FL, and have 501(c)3 recognition.
89% of Jewish children in Northern Palm Beach County do not attend any Jewish education, whether Hebrew School or day school; Our goal is to engage these children, as well as adults, in Jewish education and community. On a deeper level, we hope to inspire our participants develop a deep sense of what it means to be Jewish, and to continue to learn and practice Torah through their lives. We want to transform Judaism from being the “traditions of our grandparents” to being a meaningful spiritual practice for contemporary Jewish families.
Rabbi Siff is a Conservative & Renewal rabbi who worked in traditional pulpits since he was ordained in 2006. He witnessed first-hand that synagogue was increasingly irrelevant to young families, and that even in those families that were involved, children participated grudgingly, developed negative attitudes toward Jewish identity through their involvement. He realized that Central Palm Beach County had experienced massive Jewish growth (86,000 Jews in Boynton Beach/Lake Worth), but local families were not connecting to Judaism through traditional offerings; 89% of children are not involved in Jewish education. Rabbi Siff even witnessed his own children being turned off from Judaism because of services they couldn’t relate to and that were unwelcoming to children.
In 2019, Rabbi Siff decided to create a community which would provide meaningful, substantive, joyous Jewish learning and community to the families in the area. Rabbi Siff invited other community leaders to help form Kol HaLev, and formed a board and achieved 501(c)3 recognition. He spoke with numerous local families about their needs and what they saw lacking.
The first year of operation, Kol HaLev offered “Jewish Camp Afterschool,” an afterschool program offering hands on creative activities such as baking, arts and crafts, and drama and video making, around Jewish content. In addition to the Afterschool program, Kol HaLev offered Holiday outreach programs as well as Shabbat Services. The Shabbat services were unique in a few ways: services were brief, incorporated music, discussion, and a Torah reading in Hebrew and English; also, substantive childrens programming was offered at the same time. These programs reached families looking for substantive, relatable Judaism that was not being offered in local synagogues.
In the wake of the global pandemic, we pivoted to offering a la carte, virtual Judaic classes. Our a la carte model has allowed us to offer a range of classes for a range of learners, and enables students to cater their classes to their interests. Our classes fall along two trends:
- Creative arts based classes, offering meaningful Torah study through creative arts modalities. Currently we offer drama, and we plan on expanding into art, music, and other modalities.
- Text study classes, which offer the rigorous content of a day school experience but afterschool, and studying texts in English. Currently we offer a class on mitzvot and a middle school class on “Torah and Today.” Students and families appreciate our substantive approach to Jewish learning; these classes are the most popular.
Even though a significant portion of our first year’s students were unable to continue virtually, our enrollment more than doubled when we went virtual.
We have discovered that the online format, despite its limitations, has some huge advantages. Offering classes virtually has allowed us to draw on a national talent pool, and thus be very selective in our hiring process. It also has enabled us to start reaching a broader audience, and creates huge growth potential. It also means we do not need to have a space for the program, or worry about transportation, and it is more convenient for parents, who do not have to go out of their way. Because of this, we see online classes as a major part of our future even after the pandemic.
We currently offer virtual, a la carte Jewish classes for children. Roughly half of our students are in PBC, and half are out of state.
Based on feedback from local parents as well as our own experience as parents, we design our programs around 3 C’s:
- Creative: we engage the whole child, using all of their senses, and engaging their creativity. And we are creative in thinking about our own products, resisting doing things just because “that’s what people do”
- Compelling: Often we hear the complaint that traditional synagogue & Hebrew School isn’t “relevant.” We share Torah which impacts how we live our lives, which is about serving God “with all our heart” (hence our name).
- Convenient: Modern families are busy, and children are busy. We offer 1-hour classes at different times, around family schedules. In addition, by being virtual, we require no shlepping on the part of parents.
Our offerings are unique already because they are designed around the interests and needs of the Jewish community, allowing us to serve the Jewish community in uniquely impactful ways.
Our classes roughly fall along 2 styles. We offer creative arts based classes, such as our “Torah through Drama,” where drama is used as a modality for learning Biblical stories and and values. We also offer more day-school style classes, engaging children in substantive text based learning primarily in English. These classes include “Torah and Today,” a middle school curriculum exploring contemporary everyday ethical issues, and our Mitzvah class, an elementary level class exploring how Torah calls us to lead holy lives.
We also offer public programs such as Jewish holiday themed story hours, and we publicize our offerings both through free venues as well as paid advertisements. We plan to further reach local families by partnering with other community organizations, such as JCC’s and book stores, in order to offer classes in local venues. We have conducted joint programs with PJ Library and are developing other community relationships.
As we grow our capacity, we also plan to add other creative modalities to our offerings:
• Cooking—Learn about Jewish holidays, Shabbat, & kashrut through cooking
• Jewish art—Engage with Jewish teachings (e.g. Pirke Avot) through artistic expression
• Crafts-creating Jewish ritual objects, and understanding their symbolism
• “Mitzvah Missions”-children learn about Jewish values, and do volunteer projects together which live out those values
We are unique committed to quality. We break open the box of “Hebrew School” by inviting each child to study something meaningful to them, and we never encourage students to take classes that aren’t right for them. We only offer classes which we believe will have a positive impact on students, both in substance and technique. We are also very selective with teachers, doing a national search for professional level teachers, in order to attract and retain top notch educators. Because of this, our staff includes rabbis, day school teachers, and a professional actress.
What are the results? Our students love class; we hear that they are look forward to it, and we also see them animated in class. One child, Maya S., said “it was 100 million zillion billion times better than **** **”. Another child, Daniel, who previously hated Hebrew school, is always asking when drama class is, and begging for us to have live Shabbat services again!
More importantly, our children are learning to be great human beings, who improve themselves and are blessings to the world. When a student avoids saying something hurtful, that is success. When participants demonstrate that they have internalized and strive to live out Jewish values, when parents tell us their child was hospitable like Abraham, or stopped them from speaking negatively, then we know we have been successful.
Please help us make this vision a reality with a generous contribution.