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At a Waltham Sunday school, Brandeis students become the teachers

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  September 19, 2011 01:10 PM

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Kindergarteners at the Boston-area Jewish Education Program work on art projects at Sunday school relating to the upcoming Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana.

Jon Muchin, a recent Brandeis University graduate, stands at ease in front of the assembled fifth graders, acoustic guitar slung around his striped sweater as he removes his clasped hands from behind his head and starts to clap.

“Bo-Bo-Bo-Boker Tov!” music teacher Muchin sings emphatically to the group of roughly 20 kids, waiting eagerly for their response to his Hebrew “good morning” salutation.

Despite the early class time and initial lackluster reply to Muchin’s greeting, his enthusiasm catches on as the Sunday school students stand up and chime along with the song leader’s music choices. Today's songs include an upbeat piece on blowing the shofar, or a traditional ram’s horn, for the impending Rosh Hashana holiday celebrating the Jewish New Year.

Muchin’s unbridled energy might take people aback in other situations, but at the Boston-area Jewish Education Program, also dubbed “BJEP,” parents count on the youthful passion that college students bring to the table as Brandeis University students educate children from kindergarten through seventh grade on the Hebrew language, prayers, Bible stories and Judaic culture.

Since 1967, BJEP has embraced restructuring the traditional model of Hebrew learning from an organization-affiliated school equipped with experienced teachers to an unaffiliated, idealistic program that employs Brandeis students whose backgrounds range from reform to orthodox.

The program usually enlists 180 students ranging from five years old to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah age of 13, and emphasizes the vigorous, yet playful, attitudes the college students sport, said BJEP director Dena Glasgow.

“I always tell families when they call me that what makes us who we are is the Brandeis students,” Glasgow said. “So if they like the idea of engaging with young people, this is the right place for them. It makes us standout, and unique, this synergy between students and teachers.”

Although the school stands unaffiliated from a synagogue, organization or institution, BJEP has fostered a special relationship with Brandeis – it was founded by some of the university’s professors, and still holds classes in multiple classroom buildings on campus.

“We’re independent, so we are very flexible and can do exactly what we want,” Glasgow said, noting that BJEP welcomes some interracial and same-sex families that other area synagogues might not accept. “We don’t have a larger infrastructure dictating what we’re doing so we can be a little more adventurous.”

As Brandeis students munched on bagels and one music teacher lightly strummed an acoustic guitar in the background, Laura Dubin, chair of the school’s Parent Board, said she has brought her 9- and 11-year-old to BJEP for five years because of the nontraditional atmosphere.

“This is not your parents’ Hebrew school,” Dubin said. “I like the young teachers, and the spirit they bring to the classroom. They are looking at modern issues through the eyes of a young person. It’s not that my children see them as their peers, but there is a different amount of credibility when they learn from a young person.”

Financially, while BJEP tuition ranks on par with traditional Hebrew schools, not requiring families to sign up for a synagogue membership and involving the parents to help run the school keeps costs low, Glasgow said.

“We save money by having parents do all sorts of jobs – such as picking up bagels and coffee one day, one time a year. And some parents do way beyond just the one job,” she said. “It’s also a different [financial] model, since the infrastructure is different. Those who aren’t joining a synagogue find the tuition is more economical, and for some it is definitely a way to access a Jewish education that doesn’t require them to spend the money at a synagogue.”

One hurdle the school faces includes maintaining a reputation solid enough to keep parents and students coming back for more, Glasgow said.

“How do we make it feel authentic when it’s one morning a week?” she said. “But part of our success is because it works with people’s harried lives. We also add additional opportunities for families.”

As most American Hebrew schools go, BJEP works as a preparatory course for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, or the rite of passage where Jewish student becomes a man or a woman at the age of 13. But since the school has no synagogue affiliation, they help provide Bar and Bat Mitzvah support and tutors, and work with Brandeis to procure space for their students to hold the actual ceremony.

“There are rabbis or Jewish educators who stand in for a synagogue rabbi,” Glasgow said. “It’s nice that families can tailor the Bar or Bat Mitzvah for what’s right for them.”

For the Brandeis students, teaching at BJEP provides not only a steady paycheck on campus, but also a learning experience.

Brandeis junior Rena Singer has taught at the school for three years, and although she currently majors in philosophy, the time she spent educating kindergarteners at BJEP has encouraged her to seek out a rabbinical or teaching-based career.

“It gives you a really great introduction to working with kids in a classroom setting, and a good introduction to the teaching world,” she said. “I’m considering becoming a rabbi, so it gives some insight into how a religious school runs.”

Singer said she likes the idea of college students teaching younger kids about Judaism, as they relate better in age and mindset.

“Many of us went to Sunday school not so long ago,” she said. “We’re younger, we have tons of energy, and we’re more patient. Many of us were also involved in youth groups and camps, so we bring knowledge and leadership we learn from that into the classroom.”

Singer said she also thinks having teachers with a variety of Jewish backgrounds adds to the experience.

“Last year, I was teaching with a modern orthodox girl, and we had different views on what to say when kids ask big questions,” she said. “We worked together to settle on answers we both agreed on.”

Students also expressed passion for the subject material taught at BJEP. As fourth-grade teachers passed out apple juice and challah at snacktime on Sunday, student Elena Smith raised her hand quietly and earnestly answered what she liked best about Sunday school.

“I like learning the stories,” she said matter-of-factly, adding that she could not simply choose a favorite Biblical story.

Smith also cited her admiration of learning about the various Jewish holidays, and started listing her most favored celebratory days.

“My favorite is Hanukkah, but I like Rosh Hashana too,” she said. “At Rosh Hashana, I get to see all my family and have a big meal.”

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