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Goal: Jewish education, connection, community—we池e trying to create educated and committed adult Jews.

Our program begins with kindergarten. We have found that engaging our students and their families as early as possible yields the greatest results. I know every family in the congregation and guide each student through b地ei mitzvah preparations. The rest of the congregation is on board with this effort, making students of all ages feel welcome and included in the community.

About 60% of our post-b地ei mitzvah students are volunteer tutors in our Hebrew school. Seventh and eighth grade religious school classes alternate between years during which they utilize the storyline curriculum (wherein they design a synagogue community), and years during which they engage in a creative research project. KAST (for ninth-twelfth graders) is taught by a youth group advisor and me. (We split lessons so we each teach part time.) Some lessons are study- or text-based while others focus on social or social action activities.

Since the launch of the program, we have had a noteworthy retention rate. And, of the few who have not continued their studies post-b地ei mitzvah, one is still active in the Jewish world: she continues to chant Torah, attend services and is currently studying at High School in Israel. She is not a loss!

Explain how the program did or did not help you reach your goal:
Our goal is reached because of community involvement. Each child is known by many if not all of the adults in our congregation. Each child has a personal relationship with me [the rabbi] and with the educator. Our religious school takes the student's commitment of time seriously and regularly raises the standards and expectations of their work. We teach Torah and haftarah trope and expect that every student will regularly chant Torah post-b地ei mitzvah. Our KAST curriculum also rotates based on a close observation of what our students need to know about being Jews rather than what they suggest piques their interest. We also do not assign anyone a bar or bat mitzvah date until we know s/he is within a year—capabilities wise—of leading services well. Everyone in our congregation is invested in our students and has clear and high expectations of them. We find that has been quite successful. (An added bonus of the congregation痴 investment: every bar and bat mitzvah service is attended by about 70% or more of our congregation. B地ei mitzvot are community events.

Number of potential participants: 64
Number of actual participants: 61
Year program began: 2005

How did you measure success?
Numbers are important. Luckily, we have an extremely low drop rate. Thus far this year [2012], we have had 85% attendance across the entire religious school but it is 90% for KAST! We send about 10-15 students to Camp Kalsman each year and are working to increase those numbers. As a congregation we offer scholarship money to help offset camp costs. And our kids fight to come back and volunteer in our Hebrew school program. In addition, we have regular service attendance from about 50% of our high school students. They also really adore each other and can feel that they are deeply cared about and well known by their congregation.

What did you learn from this program?
There is no quick fix. As a rabbi for 16 years, it is clear to me that the only program which can have any measure of success involves constant sustained interest and attention from all of the professionals, and a giant percentage of the congregational adults. The post-b地ei mitzvah program cannot operate on the sidelines of everything else; it must be central and important. It must use a significant percentage of the rabbi's time and energy; it must involve many, many members of the congregation. Why would anyone stick around unless they felt important and vital? I work very hard to make sure my students all see their value to our congregation and are treated with the respect and privileges of congregational life they have earned.

Did you make any changes after your initial foray into this program? If so, what were they?
I have been in this congregation for four years, but while curricula may change, my experience was similar in my two previous congregations, one of which was a 700 family congregation. Sustained energy and interest from professionals, volunteers and congregants are the keys to making this a success.

If you could run the program again, what changes would you make?
There are always curriculum tweaks. For example, I plan to add more music to our program in the coming year. But I think, overall, we're doing pretty well.

Is there anything that would be important for another congregation to know if they were to implement this program or something like it?
Dedication. If we keep students busy and we up the expectations regularly and we constantly engage in real relationships with the kids before, during and after b地ei mitzvah, then we don't need to suddenly have a campaign to keep them engaged in high school. I'm all for awesome flashy programs. That's part of not wasting their time when they are with us. However, I think the exact curriculum is far less important than taking the students seriously and constantly engaging in relationship with them. This can be done in every size congregation. I've seen it, the rabbis, other professionals and the laity just have to make it a constant priority.

How much did it cost the congregation? How much did it cost the participants?
I don't imagine our religious school budget or tuition costs are significantly different from other congregations. However, because of our volunteer teaching staff, our school is completely self sufficient, including covering the salary of our educator, part or our administrator and part of my own salary.

What were the roles/responsibilities of the people implementing the program?
Our classes are primarily two grades together (K-1, 2-3, 4-5, 6, 7-8, 9-12). Each class has at least two teachers, 2-3 has three and sometimes four teachers. KAST (9-12) has either me or our youth advisor (who has been a volunteer but we are moving toward paying her a salary), plus our educator and administrator. We ask only a one semester commitment from our teachers, but some do teach for both semesters, and so many come back year after year it has been hard to find spots for new people interested in teaching.

This summary is part of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, which endeavors to address the challenges of engaging teens and families post-b地ei mitzvah. To read others like it, search keyword 土outh engagement, and click here for the next one.

To learn more about engaging your members early on, contact one of the following URJ specialists:

And for curriculum ideas, contact a URJ Lifelong Learning Specialist.
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CONGREGATION KOL AMI        122 Households
1006 NE 146TH ST, STE B   VANCOUVER  WA 98685-1411
360.896.8088    360.574.1267

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