Empowering the Learner: Rimon is changing the learning experience

They get in the car and they’re actually excited — I can tell they were having fun and truly engaged.

A teen in the Rimon initiative.

A teen in the Rimon initiative.

Mindy Haenn isn’t recalling a day her kids spent at an amusement park or a birthday party. She’s describing what it’s like pick up her kids—Julia in 6th grade, Kaila in 5th, and Justin in 2nd — from school every Sunday at Temple Sholom in Broomall, Pennsylvania.

“I grew up going to Sunday School, as we called it, and this is so different,” says Mindy. “What my kids experience now is hands-on learning that gets them thinking creatively about Jewish culture, ideas, and values. And they’re happy about this because they don’t always realize they’re learning.”

Mindy’s older two daughters were at Temple Sholom before it introduced Rimon — a new, dynamic education program that puts families and students in control of their learning — in Fall 2013. Her girls remember what school used to be like, and now love the choices they get in Rimon.

“They have so many more opportunities to explore Jewish themes and topics now; their curriculum doesn’t just revolve around the holidays, Mindy adds.

My older daughter did a report on a Jewish heroine, Diane von Furstenberg, a fashion pioneer who’s now a major philanthropist. She loved learning about her. And the teachers do a great job of incorporating music, photography, dance, and other activities into Jewish learning. It’s really more like camp now, which is great.

After a year of planning, Temple Sholom launched Rimon to create a new learning environment that mirrored some of the innovations taking place in the secular world.

“We wanted to focus on the learners, to offer education with the greatest impact possible,” says Lori Green, Education Director of Temple Sholom.

Rimon is based on three principles—students should have education rooted in the past that look towards the future; education should be a part of building a community; and parents and students should have a strong voice both in how and what they are learning.

Temple Sholom members Eric and Amy Lerner of Newtown Square have seen the impact on their ten-year old son, Ari.

“The students retain so much more because they focus on a few core areas for a longer period of time,” notes Eric. “And the fact that they can choose a chug, an elective, makes for a more personal experience and gives the students a chance to explore a subject that they want to.”

This year, Ari chose to be in a group looking at historical Jewish figures through the lens of journalism. His chug, “newspaper club,” offers him the chance to interview clergy members and learn how to write articles about what students are learning at school. Other chugim include Jewish Values Through Sports, Holidays Through the Art of Card-Making, Make Your Own Ritual Objects, Jewish Folkdancing, It’s A MusicFest! And, Imagine It!  Dream It!  Build It! All of the learning and activities occur within group settings that expose students to a variety of teachers.

It’s a lot more fun this year because I get to choose what I want to learn about. I get excited to be with my friends, try different things, and learn with different teachers.

Rimon not only offers students the opportunity to learn differently, but also allows them to have an impact on the congregation as a whole.

“Our 4th & 5th grade students studied the concept of ‘inclusion’ last year, and ultimately made a real difference in the physical space of the congregation,” says Green. “They went around the sanctuary and examined it from the perspective of individuals with different challenges.”

The students then delivered a presentation attended by many members of Temple Sholom’s Inclusion Committee, with recommendations of changes to make.

“The kids were very impressive, and clearly gave real thought and consideration to making the congregation more inclusive,” says Regina Levin, chair of the Inclusion Committee.

We’ve now affixed a second lower mezuzah to the Temple entrance door so people in wheelchairs or of any height can reach it. We also now have services on two upcoming Friday nights scheduled for kids with special needs, and recently did a special program on seeing-eye dogs. Working with the kids on these changes has been a wonderful experience, and they really have helped create a new culture of respect and sensitivity.

Beyond the students, Rimon has changed education for the entire family unit. There are opportunities for families to learn together throughout the year through activities outside of Temple. Whether a visit to a Jewish museum or going on a nature walk with a Jewish learning component, families are given four Sundays to learn together, take pictures of their activities, and then share what they learned on a closed blog. Rimon also brings families together for other events, such as social action opportunities, to build connections among families around Jewish experiences.

“They’ve really put a focus on connecting what Ari is learning to our life as a family,” adds Lerner. “It’s a wonderful experience to be a part of, and it has deepened our connection with the congregation and community.”

Rimon is a product of Jewish Learning Venture’s LeV initiative, designed to help Philadelphia-area congregations transform Jewish education for elementary school age children and their families. A Philadelphia-based agency that improves local Jewish learning, Jewish Learning Venture works closely with congregational leadership and educators. Jewish Learning Venture is part of a national network with four other communities—known as “Shinui,” which means “Change” in Hebrew—designed to help share and implement new models in part-time Jewish education.

Learn more about Rimon here.

A Different Kind of Summer Camp

— by Sasha Ben-Ari

The summer of 2011 marks twenty years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the beginning of a new era for Russian Jewry.  For pain-filled decades, this was a population discriminated against, both in the practice of their religion and in pursuing educational and professional opportunities.  

Two decades later, the situation has changed dramatically. No longer hindered by the constraints of communism and a regime, Russian Jews today, alongside with their compatriots in post-Soviet countries, enjoy most of the liberties previously associated with the West.

Despite this transformation in the society, the challenge of openly displaying Jewish pride in Russia and other former Soviet republics remains a very complex one.  On the one hand, Russian Jews are free to observe their faith and enjoy freedom of expression. In reality, however, many stigmas envelope public displays of observance which is a reflex rooted in decades of anti-religious attitude from the communist era. Sentiments of this kind continue to pervade Russian society.  

In recent years, communal leaders recognized that we were literally losing the battle to sustain Jewish souls and sought to design an innovative solution to focus on youth from Russian speaking families and countries and address this specific challenge. The answer came in the form of one of childhood’s most beloved institutions – summer camp.

More after the jump.

One prime example of turning the tide is Project Rimon, an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which for the past three years has been gathering campers together in locations around the world and provided a common ground for Russian speaking Jewish youth who are united by this unique cultural challenge. Participants in the Israel program include Russian speaking teens from former Soviet countries, new immigrants who have come to Israel over the last few years as well as Israeli born children of the great Russian aliya in the early nineties. These children often consider themselves more Israeli than of Russian origin.

In Israel, the population is more of a mosaic than a melting pot. Those with strong identities that deviate from the standard Israeli one can often feel alienated. The Rimon camp organizers realize that while the campers do not have to “feel” Russian, they can uncover the other ways they are one cohesive group – their Jewish heritage.

As is the case with many of Jewish Agency programs, the magical panacea crystallized in focusing on Israel as the source of Jewish pride and inspiration.  Over a two week time frame, these children, many of whom viewed their Judaism as only a fact of their ethnic heritage but never a fundamental, defining aspect of who they were, begin to discover that their Jewish identity could become a central facet of their lives.

By developing leadership and creative skills and having dialogue about Judaism and Israel, the campers begin to change their outlook on what it means to be a Jew and how to incorporate their Judaism into their daily life.
For example, on a day trip to Hasmonean Village in Central Israel, campers discovered their personal and family connections to the land and people of Israel through the language, the food and the dress of various local attractions. Actually seeing the how they are part of the history and heritage of the Jewish people is an important part of the Rimon educational program and one that has the most powerful impact on its participants.

The camp never tries to distance the child from his or her cultural identity – the opposite actually – and we firmly believe that this must remain an integral part of how the camper views themselves.  The many questions campers have of their “dueling identities” between being culturally Russian and Jewish is addressed with compassion and knowledge and children begin to recognize that their strength and uniqueness lies in the very complexity of their cultural heritage, with the connection to Israel at the core.

The author moved to Israel from Moscow in 1990 at age 8. She most recently served as a staff counselor at Project Rimon’s summer camp in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem.