Goal: Create learning and community-building options for students whose schedules may not be perfectly designed for religious school.
We created a hybrid camp-like program and used that experience in the place of traditional religious school. Our students attend Nisayon for two weeks during summer vacation and for one week during winter break, when they attend daily from 9:00 am – 4:00 pm at our synagogue. During each of the fifteen camp days, students have two hour and fifteen minute lessons addressing the theme of the year. (So far the themes have included Israel, Torah, mitzvot and lifecycle.) In addition to their two lessons, they interact with clergy and have daily t’filah
, Israeli dance, music, art, sports, chugim and swim. Added to that are a family Shabbat program, service and dinner during camp and a Sunday afternoon family program (from 3:00 – 5:00 pm) each month. During the family program, parents spend half of their time learning and interacting with their children and the other half with other adults, learning with our clergy.
For our students in fourth through sixth grade, Hebrew is taught in private tutoring either in the home (again, trying to simplify families’ lives) at any time that is convenient for a family or at the synagogue. Nine times per week, we offer small group sessions of not more than six students at the synagogue for each grade level.
Kindergarteners through eighth graders can participate in the program. The program continues expanding up to include ninth and tenth graders. The vision is to ultimately have a Nisayon high school program through twelfth grade.
Explain how the program did or did not help you reach your goal:
Nisayon met and exceeded the original goal. The first year, 50 students (about 35 families) signed up, and now, there are over 200 “campers,” with about 150 families enrolled. Students have been able to connect on such a deep level that they (and their parents) have begged for additional years to be added to the program.
We succeeded in creating a program that doesn’t compete with the hustle and bustle of our families’ lives but rather offers a rich, meaningful experience for students and their families. To further connect the adults (who only attend for two hours per month), we have created a Parents Night Out/Kids Night In evening, giving the parents a chance to go out socially in grade level groups while their children are at the synagogue, learning and having fun with their counselors and teachers.
Number of potential participants: 600
Number of actual participants: 200 campers
How did you measure success?
Families offer a lot of feedback, and we work together to implement changes and new ideas. Not only has the program grown in size, but adding more grades exceeded our expectations of impact on the program.
What did you learn from this program?
Families desired a program for their children that gave them an opportunity to connect with others, and would give them an opportunity to interact with and learn from the clergy in an intimate setting. Big groups just didn’t work; families felt it wasn’t personal. We learned that bigger isn’t necessarily better, and no matter how good the experience is for children, if parents aren’t happy, they will not continue in the program. For that reason we created the parent’s night out/kids night in programs we are implementing this year.
Did you make any changes after your initial foray into this program? If so, what were they?
Nisayon means experiment, and we’ve been clear with families that the program isn’t set in stone; we are all learning together. One of the biggest changes includes adding more grades, allowing the older students to be CITs and eventually counselors. These camper/staff members are trained in child development, general rules of working with kids and Judaica so they have their own Jewish learning as well.
If you could run the program again, what changes would you make?
We wouldn’t have allowed for such fast growth. The growth was so quick that it caused problems. For example, one thing that made the program so wonderful was the intimacy, the closeness of participants. With the quick expansion, participants didn’t feel that same sense of caring and warmth. In addition, with space limitations, the growth became uncomfortable.
Having recognized this, the program has been split into two sessions, which has helped regain the sense of closeness among participants.
Is there anything that would be important for another congregation to know if they were to implement this program or something like it?
It was expressed very clearly to the congregation that Nisayon means experiment - the program shouldn’t be set in stone, and it’s going to change. It will be a learning and growing experience for everyone.
Create what works for you and your community, and be willing to change it. Each year will be different, and you may need to do more work and adaptations as the program develops.
Make the families a part of the process. The educator won’t have all the answers, but with parental input and your professional expertise, you can create something that will have an impact on the participants and the entire community.
How much did it cost the congregation? How much did it cost the participants?
The first year, it ran at a loss to the synagogue, and charged $200 less than the regular religious school. The second year it cost the same as religious school. In the third year it was $200 more than regular religious school, and now it’s over $300 more than regular Religious School.
It is a costly program to run, with a need for many specialists—music, dance, krav maga, life-guard, art, et al. In addition to the specialists, each class has a regular teacher. The synagogue also purchased an above ground, full size swimming pool.
What were the roles/responsibilities of the people implementing the program?
In addition to the specialists, Katherine Bambam directs Nisayon and the high school program, full time. She manages the curriculum, hiring staff, etc.
This summary is part of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, which endeavors to address the challenges of engaging teens and families post-b’nei mitzvah. To read others like it, search keyword “youth engagement,” and click here for the next one.
To learn more, visit the URJ’s Lifelong Learning web page or contact a Lifelong Learning Specialist.