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The Shule-School Alliance – Another Model for Free Jewish Education

August 15, 2011 – 6:41 pm12 Comments

By Yoram Symons
My cousin and a number of his friends had decided to embark on that peculiarly Melbourne-ish hobby of starting a shule. There was nothing too out of the ordinary about that. Jews in Melbourne start shules more often than Chadstone adds extensions. It was the fact that he wanted to discuss this new shule with me that was so out of the ordinary. See, once upon a time, I’d been a good frum boy. I davened three times a day, wouldn’t read newspapers on Shabbos and hadn’t even held hands with a girl until I was nineteen. But that was all a long time ago.

I’d given up my addiction to halacha years before, and like every addiction, the best way to give up is to go cold turkey. I hadn’t opened a gemorah, seen the inside of a shule, or shopped at a Glicks in years. But well, desperate times call for desperate measures and my cousin was pretty desperate. He and his friends were sorry refugees of the bloody implosion of Kew Shule. The community in whose bosom they had suckled since childhood had been snatched from their thirsty lips and this violent weaning had ripped a void in their souls that craved instant healing.

Without a rabbi, without a premises and without anyone who could daven mussaf, this forlorn band of bankers, stockbrokers and property developers were in acute need of ecclesiastical assistance. They were more than willing to overlook my one or two religious failings in return for providing the most basic of devotional activities I had learnt in my youth. I was to read from the Torah, daven from the amud and generally help run the goings-on of a Shabbat morning service. Normally I would have scoffed at such an offer but as it happened, I was desperate too. Not for a shule. Why would I be desperate for a long, monotonous wail-fest conducted in an ancient language by men in funny costumes where women are treated like second class citizens starting at 9:30 on a Saturday morning? No sireee. I was desperate for cash. See back in those days I was but a poor, starving screenwriter, and I while I sat vigilantly by the phone waiting for Hollywood to call, I was chronically short of funds. Shule-less this mob may have been, but cashless they were not.

With the ink barely dry on the handshake, they asked me to come along to their first board meeting. Oh goody, I thought, what a privilege. But I figured I had better put in an appearance, and surely a shule board meeting couldn’t be that boring? Could it? I listened to them drone on about the database systems and book-keepers and secretaries and how they should word their press release to the Jewish News, and then just as I was finally dozing off one of them turned to me and asked: “Is there anything you could do to make shule more… interesting?”

Oh Jesus, thought I. It’s taken them this long to figure out why Kew shule failed? Indeed why all the shules in Melbourne are failing? The masses haven’t stopped coming to shule because the database didn’t work or the secretary was incompetent. Shule is failing in Melbourne for one reason and one reason only – it’s dead boring.

“Oh definitely. There’s heaps of things we could do to make shule less sucky. I mean, more interesting.”  And suddenly I was the centre of attention.

“Oh, like what?” I hadn’t been prepared for that.

“Oh just a few minor innovations here and there. Just leave it to me.” I had gotten past that hurdle but Shabbat morning would not be so easy.

So I tried to reason it out. Shules are failing because the product they offer sucks. But why? Well, the first thing that popped in my head was that no one understands what the hell is going on. OK, so what if I just stopped the service every couple of minutes to explain stuff. But there’s so much service to explain. It goes for almost three hours. Well, what’s the most interesting part of the service? It had to be the Torah reading itself. The Torah was, after all, the famous work of literature in history. It had been an inspiration for Shakespeare, Milton, and Star Wars. If you couldn’t even make the Torah interesting then what hope did we have?

So I began delivering what I called micro-drashas. Instead of one long boring speech, I’d give four or five mini-speeches interspersed through the Torah reading to try and bring the stories to life. At first they were a little hesitant, but after explaining that Leah had soft eyes and Rachel was kind of a hottie they were hooked. By the end of the year these life-long shule tragics had an appreciation of the entire narrative and legal structure of Torah, they understood the ethos behind all of the chagim and they had covered the most important writings of the Prophets. And it dawned on me – a year’s worth of shule was a curriculum.

And so we finally get to the point. There seems to be a groundswell  in Melbourne right now to make Jewish education free. So here’s an idea. Built into the shule service is a curriculum as comprehensive as any offered by a school, yeshiva or youth-group. And unlike the schools, the shule has two advantages, it continues after Year 12 and turning up is free.

But an “interesting service” is really only half the battle. I may have been religious as a kid, hell everyone in Mizrachi was religious, but none of us came to shule to daven. We came to meet chicks. That’s why any kid does anything really. Gets a tattoo, joins a gym, starts a revolution, it’s all just a way to meet chicks. So if there was any way to get crowds of kids into a shule on Shabbat morning, you had to make it a meet-market, and then simultaneously provide free, stimulating and compelling Jewish education.  Then we might be onto a winner.

There are three mainstream Jewish schools in Melbourne, Scopus, Bialik and King David. They go into an alliance with five shules that cover the spectrum of both ideologies and geographic locations, lets say Caulfield Shule, TBI, Central, Nitzan and of course my own beloved Ark. Kids at the schools get a choice, they can either go to the Jewish studies classes offered at school, or they could get a free-period and commit to coming to one of the nominated shules on Shabbat. Because if there is one thing kids like almost as much as chicks, it’s getting to wag school. Suddenly you will have literally hundreds of kids rocking up to shule on Shabbat morning. Spread through the right Facebook groups all the kids who go to non-Jewish schools will also get wise to the party and start coming down.

You then set up a mini think-tank of educators, in conjunction with UJEB, the informal-ed departments at the schools, even the youth movements and ACJS could get in on it, to develop a general curriculum and style for the educational aspect of the service, and then put the unusually high number of young, dynamic and compelling Jewish educators in Melbourne to the task of running these services. The rabbis of each shule would be able to get in on the action as well. And then if you combined the whole concept with Glee-style youth choirs and a kick-ass Kiddush, the vision starts to take shape.

Now I know what you are all thinking. It just wouldn’t work. The schools would see it as an affront to their own curricula, the shules wouldn’t be able to coordinate the logistics, the necessary donors would attach too many caveats and the whole thing would descend into turf wars, ideological impasses and general squabbling. But here’s the truth. This community, despite its so-called vibrancy, has entered a process of decline. And even though some of the 150-odd Jewish Organisations in Melbourne are experiencing some individual success, if we want our grandchildren’s grandchildren to be raised in a vibrantly Jewish Melbourne, then every organization will have to be mochel on some its pride and find synergies with other organizations.

We need to realize that the true constituency of Mt Scopus is not the fee-paying parents of that school, and the true constituency of Caulfield Shule is not the seat-holding membership. The constituency of every Jewish organization in Melbourne is the entire community of Melbourne. The organizations are not individuals, but nodes of an inter-generational knowledge transmission network. The success of that network is not determined by how well a Year 12 class scores on their VCE or how many punters a shule brings in on Kol Nidrei. The network is successful when it creates a new generation of Jews who are themselves motivated to create a new generation of Jews. And to achieve that, every organization is critical and every organization needs to work together.

It is an eternal truth of the Jewish experience that kol yisrael areivim ze la ze. It is not fee-paying parents areivim ze la zeh, or seat holding shule members areivim ze la ze. It is kol Yisrael and kol Yisrael only. In every historical instance where that fails to be practiced disaster quickly follows. Rabbis, Principals, Presidents and Donors – you need to wise the hell up. Synergising the activities of the different organizations needs to become the cornerstone of all strategic planning. We either all make a stand together, or we all go down together. That’s the way it always has been and the way it always will be.

That’s what it means to be Jewish.

Ad kaan. (Until here)

Yoram Symons is the Executive Director of Ark. His blog can be found here.

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