Innovation Station

A favorite part of Temple Beth El’s 6th grade retreat for families going through the Bar or Bat Mitzvah process is this “leap of faith” zip-line experience. The next retreat will be on location at Temple Beth El complete with an escape room experience since recent fires have affected their usual retreat facility.

The Act of Listening Leads to a Youth Programming Revolution of the Best Kind at Temple Beth El

Have you ever spoken to someone who seemed truly engaged and interested in your every word? It probably made you feel understood, even important. The power of listening has led to a revolution of the very best kind at Temple Beth El of South Orange County in Southern California—one that has positively transformed youth programming in recent years to deliver exactly what families want and need right now to continue their walks with Judaism.

The revolution started to take shape back in 2010 when Temple Beth El made the decision to evolve its Religious School supplementary education program for pre-kindergarten through 7th grade youth from a Sunday-based program to a Saturday Shabbat-based program. The synagogue community had been collaborating since 2008 with the Legacy Heritage Foundation to develop best practices for Shabbat education and began to see the need to really listen to what they had learned through this collaboration and apply some of those learnings to the Temple Beth El community at large.

“In 2010, we were still feeling the affects of the economic recession, so it just made a lot of sense to move our Religious School program to Saturday and bring in a church to rent our facility for use on Sunday morning,” says Temple Beth El’s Director of Engagement Rabbi Rachel Kort. “Sometimes you need that sense of urgency to really take a leap of faith and live out your values in the community.”

In 2010, the synagogue also decided to shift to a learning-by-doing, or project-based, education model. The goal was to create authentic experiences for children to learn and give back to the community in which they are a part. Soon after this shift, 4th graders were learning about the land of Israel and the modern state. Instead of learning by reading or hearing a teacher speak about it, they threw a birthday party for Israel and created birthday party games to help teach the younger learners. And when 6th graders were learning about biblical prophecy around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they built a modern prophets gallery to share with others.

“We started making these big moves in overall education, and then in 2012, we knew it was the right time to align our Bar and Bat Mitzvah program with the greater values of what the people wanted,” shares Rabbi Kort, who, together with the synagogue’s entire professional team, began conversations about reinventing the process.

As luck would have it, at the same time, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) was inviting congregations to apply to be part of a community practice they were calling “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.” They were seeking a select cohort of congregations, including lay leaders, congregational staff and education thought leaders, to help address a major challenge in the Jewish community: the staggering number of post-B’nai Mitzvah dropouts. Ultimately, Temple Beth El, who has dual affiliations with the Reform and Conservative Movements, was proud to be one of 14 synagogues chosen to participate.

And so the listening began again. The Temple Beth El team was paired with a coach to lead them through the process and began identifying a task force of 16 people—including temple members and members of their professional team—to serve as the “voice” of the community. Since Temple Beth El has dual affiliation, they made sure this group included two Conservative Jews as well as two non-Jews who were raised in Jewish families. “The success of this experimentation and the changes truly came from us pulling together a beautiful cross-section of our community to really get the pulse of our religious school in general,” says Rabbi Kort.

This task force was asked to engage in deep discussions about their goals for their children’s Jewish education as well as the Bar and Bat Mitzvah process. They were asked questions like, “What experiences have led to the positive Jewish feeling and great pride of being Jewish for you and your children?” They were also asked about their top values when it comes to the process, and articulated:

  • Creating a strong sense of being Jewish
  • Peoplehood and Jewish friendship
  • Connection to Judaism as a family
  • Jewish experience as something positive

Ultimately, they set the goal of “creating a sense of grade-level identity that endured beyond the Bar and Bat Mitzvah not only for students, but also for families.”

While URJ was using the term “Revolution,” it felt too radical for many in the Temple Beth El community, who took pride in the traditional Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies that were so meaningful for their family members. So, they decided to create a revolution of their own kind—to keep what was still very much valued and experiment with changing or improving other areas of the process.

Their first area of experimentation was retreats. They created retreat curriculum for 6th grade families that included team-building and community-building activities, and initially thought it would be nice to make it an overnight event. But after considering that families would have to pay for this after paying their Bar or Bat Mitzvah deposit, they settled on one full day—sun up to sun down—at a location just 30 miles from the temple. They held their first retreat in the spring of 2013. “In our initial year, this was all new to families,” remembers Rabbi Kort. “We didn’t have close to the 100 percent participation we wanted, but those who did participate were ‘all in.’” Since then, these participants have been Temple Beth El’s biggest advocates for the retreats, sharing their positive experiences with other families. In fact, they’re now at 80-90 percent participation. “Families really make it a priority now,” adds Rabbi Kort.

The Temple Beth El team also experimented with their 5th graders overnight at the temple as well as with Shabbat morning activities to build a stronger community. They’ve created an incredibly fun and meaningful Shabbat experience for the kids, where one of the rabbis takes them to a local wilderness park for a hike that combines Jewish learning with team building.

“One of the really incredible things to come out of this is that we worked with our task force to create a collective goal and initially experiment with a focus on relationship-building and grade-level identity beyond the Bar and Bat Mitzvah process. Members of our clergy team have since expanded on these initial initiatives, and that’s been exciting to see.”

For instance, the temple’s 6th and 7th graders have a service attendance requirement that wasn’t effective in getting them there. The team developed a program called “Angels of Welcoming” that pulls together helpers for Friday evening and Saturday morning services. With their parents, students help with everything from greeting to handing out challah and Kiddush wine. They also deliver challah loaves to congregation members who are homebound on Friday evenings. “They always work in groups of families so they get to know others,” says Rabbi Kort. “The success of this has even revived our ritual committee to develop a committee focused on getting other people signed up to help with services.” The 6th and 7th graders also collaborated on a group mitzvah project, in addition to their individual projects. They created curriculum around feeding the hungry and volunteered at a local soup kitchen.

Through this continued focus on relationship and community-building, the temple has seen an impressive increase of students participating in the 8th grade and beyond. “We used to have a 60-percent retention rate for post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and now we consistently have 80 percent. The changes in our focus in the Religious School, plus to this program and the fact that we’ve worked to make the 8th grade program more appealing, have really made a difference.”

She adds that, “It’s important to listen to the voices of your community when you are reinventing and reimagining.”

Behind the Revolution

In addition to being paired with a coach, Temple Beth El enjoyed these elements of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Process:

  • Monthly webinars with the other cohort participants

  • Interaction with smaller subgroups

  • Pairing with another congregation looking to revamp its family retreats

  • Invitation to participate in a second phase of the process

To learn more about Temple Beth El of South Orange County, click here.

To learn more about B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, click here.

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