Putting the “Community” in Jewish Community Day Schools

“We want him to get a sense of Passover, to touch the symbols and feel the excitement and hear the music,” said his mother, Sara, a rabbinical student. “And for us to do this as a family with new people and in a new setting is important.  It’s good to branch out.”

That’s one of the objectives at Hannah Senesh Community Day School here in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, where a new initiative is seeking to highlight the “community” in the school’s name.

SmallCity@Senesh, a project launching this year with support from The Covenant Foundation, reaches beyond Hannah Senesh students and parents to engage the greater community in informal Jewish education – from holiday programming like this week’s Step Into: Passover event, to Jewish learning opportunities for teens and adults of every age.

“Jewish non-profits and institutions share the same goal, to build places for Jewish life and learning and build community for the future,” said Nicole Nash, Head of School at Hannah Senesh, which has 170 students in grades K to 8.

“A school can be uniquely positioned not only to be a place of learning for students and their families, but also to expand that and infuse the greater community with Jewish educational programming. As a part of the community, I think we have that responsibility.”

Step Into: Passover was the first major thrust of the new initiative, and the Luria family was just the target, unaffiliated with the school, but searching for new ways and places to absorb Judaism, learn and engage as a family in a Jewish environment, and meet others like themselves.

So the event was somewhat of a Passover-themed cornucopia, offering something for everyone, and serving as an example of how the overall initiative might evolve.

The gym was transformed into a matzah-making assembly line, which proved to be one of the more popular activities.  Nearby, kids and their parents designed matzah covers on fabric and cardboard matzah trays.  And upstairs, a Jewish meditation class offered a quieter option, as did Haggadah study sessions.

The event attracted 300 people from throughout Carroll Gardens and nearby Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods. And of the approximately 60 families there, most were not formally connected to the school, but came from the greater community – exactly the audience for SmallCity@Senesh.

The turnout, officials said, highlights the need for the initiative, and how a community day school can be particularly positioned as a venue for programming. It is, they said, a neutral place appealing to relatively unaffiliated Jews who want to be comfortable exploring Judaism, moving at their own pace toward greater engagement.

“Brooklyn is filled with unaffiliated and minimally engaged Jews who – for whatever reason – are looking for more involvement for themselves or their families or both,” said Amy Glosser, Chairperson of the Board at Hannah Senesh. “This is an appealing option for those who want to enhance, to whatever degree, their Jewish lives and identities.”

That’s exactly the formula that appealed to Mike Benson, who was at Step Into: Passover with his six-year-old daughter, Bibi, who does not attend the school. “To make Jewish learning accessible, especially for those of us who aren’t particularly religious or knowledgeable, but who want connection, is just very valuable,” he said.

SmallCity@Senesh is an outgrowth of the school’s Sundays@Senesh program, which beginning last year, offers programming for toddlers each Sunday morning. The success of that program, funded by UJA-Federation of New York, underscored a hunger for broader offerings.

“We’ve been successful making Hannah Senesh a resource and a venue for the community,” said Lisa Kleinman, a former chairperson of the board and one of the school’s founding parents. “The next step is taking it wider through SmallCity@Senesh.

“This school is 17 years old, and the intention was for it to be not only a day school, but a place that transcends the entire community. We think of it as a center for the community and with this program it is finally happening and becoming real.”

In fact, Step Into: Passover was a pilot for SmallCity@Senesh, to test the waters and gauge popularity. Come the fall, a fully developed program of holiday events, weekday evening programming, a parenting series and other programs targeted to various age groups will be offered, said Angie Lieber, Director of Development at the school.

Those at the national level are noting developments at Hannah Senesh, and the potential for a Jewish day school to redefine its place and role in a community.

“Jewish community day schools are both a reflection of the communities in which they are found, and a symbol of the community’s aspirations for what it one day might be,” said Marc Kramer, Executive Director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. “Community day schools focus, of course, on their students.  Yet at the same time, they serve as the energizing nucleus of the broader community.”

For sure, Brownstone Brooklyn has its own geography, resources and DNA, with a mixture of Jews from various backgrounds and levels of engagement.  But Hannah Senesh officials said they hope other community day schools may see themselves as channels for community outreach and growth.

“As Jews, we are all thinking about the sustainability of our community,” said Glosser. “And a key part of that should be using education to reach Jews, no matter where they are geographically or along the spectrum of observance, affiliation or knowledge.

“So we’re creating a symbiosis and a relationship with those beyond our walls here, with the hope of enhancing and strengthening Jewish community overall.  We see this as a truly replicable model elsewhere.”

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation

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