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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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12 Comments »

  • letters in the age says:

    Great stuff as Obama said, (yep i know it sounds cheesy but hold your breath any-way),

    Yes you can, go for it!!!!

  • Emes says:

    Wow, this idea is revolutionary! It certainly has its merits, though I couldn’t imagine the educators going for it.

  • Yoram Symons says:

    Thanks for the comments people. Much appreciated :)

  • frosh says:

    Hi Yoram,

    I think this is a great idea. It’s really fabulous that people in the community are starting to come up with alternatives to the fund-draining school system.

    I love how it caters for both kids at the Jewish private schools as well as kids not at those schools, and creates a way to bring them together.

    I actually think it can work well with Jonathan Schauder’s idea.

    At minimum, kids could learn some basic Hebrew at a state school during regular language classes as part of the regular curriculum, and then learn the “shule-curriculum” at shule.

    It’s time for community machers to stop defending turf, and start looking to explore and embrace these new ideas and synergies.

  • Yoram Symons says:

    Absolutely.

    This is definitely not an alternative to Jonathan’s idea. It is something that could work in tandem with the Glen Eira college concept.

    And yes, one of the thoughts behind it was to engineer a social platform for students of both Jewish and non-Jewish schools to mix. The idea of Jewish schools giving credits for attending the Shabbat services was to establish numbers.

    After being involved at Ark since 2008 it has become acutely obvious that getting anyone to shule is a difficult task, let alone children. Shule competes against activities like soccer, tennis, football, golf and of course sleep. The power of the day-schools is that kids have to attend. They are forced to be there. The schools thus have the ability to transfer the power of that fiat to other institutions via different means.

    But a strict translation of my idea or not, the real point is for orgs in melb to be thinking in terms of synergies and strategic alliances. From reform to chabad, from Jewish care to jnf, all orgs are motivated by the singular goal of preserving the Jewish community. The fight is always over the details and who gets the glory.

  • Daniel Newstadt says:

    What do people think about sponsoring Yoram Symons, “the failed Hollywood Screenwriter…who is still waiting by the phone, For Hollywood to call, in setting up as a Hollywood (I mean Jewish) Conversion Rabbi for aspiring yet failing Heathen Sceenwriters to be able to join the fold…Maybe we should call the club “Monkey Mouse”? The sign above the Ark could read…”May the Schwartz be with ME”!

  • letters in the age says:

    Not nice Daniel, i don’t know either of you but with comments like that no-wonder people are leaving the fold……………

    Catty sarcasim with no wit.

    Cliched stereotype don’t you think?

    cheers

  • ariel says:

    This could work.

    What if a trust fund were set up so that Jewish day school fees were more comensurate to the subsidised Catholic schools?

    What if the teachers at the shule class were employees of the sister school and got paid to teach, say X periods a week to Y number of students.
    Then it wouldn’t matter how many of the X students attended the formal school class or the shule class on Shabbat, the teacher would be paid by the school for teaching the right numbers.

  • Rachel SD says:

    Yoram, your mini drashas sound a bit similar to one of the StorahTelling programs which is modelled on the lost tradition of having a translation during the Torah reading. Amichai Lau Lavine, who I think started the program, did it in Australia at Shira once.

    http://www.storahtelling.org/programs_shultime.jsp?link=programs

    I agree that shul can be a great learning experience, although I’m not sure how many shuls in Melbourne actually provide this for someone not already literate in prayer and what happens at shul. It would be great if shuls were collaborating to create strategies for making shul more interesting. I think that your idea of the fairly wide-ranging collaborations that you suggest is probably fairly radical in the context of how our community works, but it needn’t be, and the collaborations could even become more wide-reaching.

    I also wonder if the Jewish schools wouldn’t like this idea because it would challenge their ability to say that they are the only option for Jewish education. I hope this wouldn’t be their attitude but I went to the recent Jewish community ‘Groundswell’ forum at Monash and the two speakers who were involved with the schools seemed very defensive. Again, it doesn’t have to be like that.

  • rivqa says:

    I like this idea, and think it can give families a broader range of Jewish flavours to teach their kids. There’s no Sfardi school in Australia, for instance.

  • Truman says:

    I disagree.

    Firstly, this is not about Jewish education, but education in general.

    Mount Scopus Memorial College is the top ranking, non-selective school in the state. Parents do not pay simply for the Jewish part of the school. They pay for a top-ranking education, in an independent school. That doesn’t come cheaply. Parents pay this kind of money, because education is highly valued.

    Secondly, the Jewish day schools cannot, and I repeat, cannot be aligned with certain synagogues across the city of Mebourne. Students are able to discover their own Judaism and what it means to them, they are totally able to choose (with or without their families) which place of worship is right for them.

    As nice as a “free Jewish Education” sounds, I’m afraid it will not happen any time soon.

  • Jonny says:

    Thanks Yoram. Interestingly I have been very engaged with these types of collaboration ideas on the Glen Eira College framework. Spiritgrow mixes it’s services with mini talks, meditation, singing, discussion and eating. My kids love it. And it is the basis I hope for giving kids more and more exciting and engaging options for exploring spirituality. I certainly think that Shuls could be more proactive in providing education services for their closest schools in all sorts of ways.
    Thanks for the article. Jonny Schauder

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