In this blog post, originally posted at An Educator with Principals- Stan Beiner’s Journal, Stan Beiner, Head of School of The Epstein School in Atlanta, GA, discusses a Sukkot initiative piloted as a partnership between this Jewish day school and six local congregations. As reported in the Atlanta Jewish Times, hundreds of students and families participated in a hands-on Sukkot experience at their choice of one of the six congregations on the first day of Sukkot. The program at each location entailed students leading the congregations’ services as well as learning about the holiday, shaking the lulav and etrog, singing in the sukkah, and performing Sukkot-themed skits. While participation in one of the programs was mandatory for Epstein students, any child present at the synagogues could also participate regardless of school affiliation, and Epstein students could alternatively attend services at another congregation frequented by their families if they chose.
In sharing this one example of how local institutions could collaborate, we seek not to endorse a program but rather to encourage schools of all denominations to think creatively about how to link their local silos – and perhaps even take some of their own experimental risks.
Cross-posted from An Educator with Principals- Stan Beiner’s Journal.
By: Stan Beiner
There are many traditions on the holiday of Sukkot in Conservative and Reform congregations around the country…
We shake the lulav, build a sukkah, fight off bees as we eat outside, and share meals with friends and family. And of course, those hardy souls who actually attend services are provided with lots of seats to choose from and the musings of those in attendance as to where the day school families are.
Well, here we are.
The idea of First Day Sukkot was born out of a desire to take advantage of an opportunity. One of our missions as a day school is to provide children with positive Jewish experiences- to bring to life the joy of living Jewishly. So we pitched this idea. The Conservative rabbis listened, suggested refinements to the concept, and agreed to partner with us in doing something never done before: incorporate school into shul at multiple locations. Today, there are six synagogues, including one Reform congregation, whose pews are fuller and in some cases packed as we celebrate one of our Shalosh Regalim (pilgrimage holidays.)
There were challenges. Not every family was comfortable with the idea; the logistics were extensive; and every synagogue required something different. We put ourselves out there taking a risk but as I shared in a letter to our parents: “This could be a great success; it could be a total failure. It will likely fall somewhere in between. But if we don’t take risks, how can we teach our children the benefits of stepping out of their comfort zone and understanding the benefits of trying new things.”
A few years ago, Compass Magazine, a Reform publication, asked some of its up and coming young leaders what was needed to sustain a vibrant Jewish community. The ideas were novel and out-of-the-box and I loved the thinking. It made me wonder what I could do as an educator if I was not bound by the community protocols and norms. At the time I just mused. But now I grow impatient and restless.
Boundaries are now being tested. A couple of years ago, the JCC decided to try a Sunday morning concept akin to Hebrew School. Some objected because it crossed into the territory of the synagogue: all I can think is great… another door for less affiliated families to walk through. There is a new rabbi in town who came to his ordination in an unusual way and is causing ruffles with his outreach efforts. All I can think is great…another door for young disaffected Jews to walk through.
At Epstein, we have stayed within certain boundaries as well. We only have lent our Torahs to established congregations. But this year, in addition to providing a Torah to Gesher L’Torah, we were approached by a start-up havura in Decatur. When I was asked, I gave the pat answer. I wasn’t sure- I would need to check to see if that would be okay to provide support to a non-congregation. I got off the phone feeling this was wrong and called back the havura: “Take one of our Torahs. I don’t care what might be said, if a group of young Jewish singles and couples want to have their own Rosh Hashana service in Decatur, it is our pleasure to help you.” That felt right.
Judaism is reaching a cross roads. The 20th century model of Jewish community life has grown stale. It is not working like it once did. We have to begin taking more risks, trying new approaches, taking Judaism out of the walls of our buildings. Like Birthright, like Jewish camping, like the afternoon school in-town that is run like a camp, like online communities.
This year, our staff is reading Ron Wolfson’s new book, Relational Judaism. He talks about the fact that we need to move our focus away from programming and towards relationship building. While much of this is directed to the synagogues and JCCs, we are translating many of the concepts to our setting. We have to change some of the assumptions that have driven our school. And it is going to lead to paradigm shifts geared to meeting the needs of the 21st century Jewish family.
We have to start taking more risks, allowing for more experimenting, and developing partnerships like the one we seen in place today. Thank you to our synagogue partners for not just working together with us but for making this their own. Thank you to our parents for being a community that has given us the trust to pilot new programs, technologies, and new ideas like this. And thank you to the synagogue regulars for being willing to share the pews with a lot more people than accustomed to on Succoth and having to endure longer lines at kiddush lunch. To paraphrase Robert Kennedy, we can’t look at things and say why; we must look at would could be and say why not?
Stan Beiner is Head of School of The Epstein School in Atlanta, GA.