Two religious schools in the Pacific Northwest, Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle and Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane, have each won the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s prestigious Frameworks for Excellence School award which they sought, not only for the quality of their instruction, but also because their congregations pitch in to make learning exciting, meaningful, and fun.
Both schools submitted several years’ worth of documents, including newsletters, emails, press releases, handouts and more for their entries. The frameworks committee then rigorously evaluated the quality of communications between synagogue staff, leadership, parents, and students.
“Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane has been a framework school for over 10 years,” said Wendy Light, the USCJ award coordinator. “This is their second renewal. Congregation Beth Shalom is actively working to raise their standards and concretize their curriculum. Their rabbis are very involved, their education directors are education professionals, and everyone isn’t working in their own cubicle.”
Irit Eliav, director of education at CBS is 34, and growing up she spent a lot of her time planning activities in her Conservative synagogue in South Florida. She moved to Seattle in 2000 to earn her Master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington, but then found herself drawn back to Jewish communal work.
The USCJ praised Eliav as a “high-energy education director…driven to provide exciting, kid-friendly, high-quality, joyful education for her students.”
“I’ve been doing this in some shape or form since I was 12 and I just found myself coming back to Jewish things,” Eliav told JTNews. “I think people [here] are going to be thrilled and excited. We have something happening from birth to 18 all the time.”
Whether it’s “Pajama Havdalah,” where upwards of 300 people — mostly kids in their pajamas — attend, or a mock reenactment of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in turn-of-the-century dress, or a lesson on Judaism and science using a portable planetarium from the Pacific Science Center, or a presentation from beekeepers harvesting honey for Rosh Hashanah, CBS goes all out.
“It’s our philosophy anyway, that education is not what happens during the hours of Hebrew school,” Eliav said. “Experiential education is what works. What we focus on in all our programming is bringing Judaism to life.”
Eliav said the synagogue is not afraid to challenge even the youngest of its students in age-appropriate textual learning. They run classes in Hebrew decoding and prayers, and for holidays students study original texts, commentaries, and evolving holiday customs.
The middle school focuses on Jewish ethics and the high school will be part of the newly launched community-wide Livnot Project.
TBS in Spokane couldn’t be more pleased about the recognition. As a smaller Jewish community, larger congregations often get the attention, said Jennifer Bortz, the synagogue’s education committee chair. speaking on behalf of its two interim directors, Michelle Crandall and Iris Berenstein, who were gearing up for the new school year. Bortz told JTNews that it’s gratifying that a synagogue doesn’t “need to have a huge membership to have a huge impact.”
“We have a very diverse community here,” Bortz said. “Our school is set apart, not just by its dedication to upholding the framework standards, but by its dedication to honoring diversity and to making the effort to be as inclusive as possible. We want to send the message ‘Come and we will try to meet your needs.’”
As with CBS in Seattle, the Eastern Washington congregation attributes much of its success to its members and staff who commit themselves to volunteering for anything that needs to get done.
“The result of this community participation is a marvel to see,” Bortz said. “We are incredibly proud of our youth….Many stay vibrant and actively involved…working as teaching assistants…attending our high school program, and joining in wholeheartedly for camp and youth group experiences.”
Eliav also had great praised for the volunteers who make all of CBS’s events possible.
“We have a really fabulous religion school committee,” she said. “We have a culture where everyone should roll up their sleeves and help out.”
In this new school year, Eliav said the congregation hopes to turn its attention to the middle school program.
In Spokane, Bortz said that being a framework school keeps TBS “on its toes.”
“We’re always dreaming about taking the next step and how to bring things to the next level,” she said. “As our society changes, we too must change, developing new and creative ways to maintain our student body and embrace our evolving membership.”