While a report this spring by the New York-based Jewish Education Project showed a decline in Jewish supplementary education in North America over the past 15 years, participation in after-school and weekend educational programs in British Columbia is on the rise.
Since the 1990s, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has provided small grants to local supplementary schools; at present, it funds 11 programs. And, in 2015, Federation convened the Jewish Education Task Force to look into the state of part-time education.
“Through this work, we recognized the importance of focusing on innovation and change to attract a new generation of families,” said Shelley Rivkin, Federation’s vice-president of local and global engagement. “We were able to provide innovation grants and professional development opportunities for supplementary school educators to learn new and diverse ways to offer Jewish education. More importantly, we expanded the definition of fundable supplementary schools to include Shabbat, family and Hebrew literacy programs.”
According to Rivkin, while the Jewish Education Project report brought attention to the fall in enrolment elsewhere (see jewishindependent.ca/drop-in-jewish-learning), Federation’s experience has been that enrolment here has either remained stable or grown in the last few years.
“We have seen significant gains in supplementary school enrolment in both the regional and emerging communities, where families are seeking opportunities to connect with other Jewish parents and provide opportunities for their children to have Jewish experiences,” Rivkin said.
For example, BC Regional Hebrew Schools, operated through Chabad and funded in part by Federation, has become an important part of building Jewish community life in places like Langley, Coquitlam and Whistler. Likewise, programs directed toward Hebrew-speaking families, which have a broader focus on Israeli culture, are attracting new families who are looking for different content.
“We have seen all of our supplementary school providers adapt and change in response to changing demographics. All offer a range of activities utilizing innovative teaching methods and engaging content to appeal to a diverse group of children and their families,” Rivkin said.
The same is true for the Lower Mainland, where Federation notes that supplementary schools are making a difference as well.
“The Jewish Federation’s Supplementary School Grant helps us in many ways,” said Noga Vieman, education director of Congregation Har El in West Vancouver. “First, we believe that every child in every Jewish home deserves an enriching Jewish education and experience. The grant helps us keep the program reasonably priced, and offers us the opportunity to create scholarships for those in need, so that financial challenges will not prove a barrier to getting quality Jewish education and becoming part of the Jewish community.”
The grant also helps Har El provide its teachers with fair compensation, allowing the North Shore Jewish centre to attract and retain quality educators with a passion for working with children and building the future of the Jewish community in the region.
Further, part of the grant Har El receives is dedicated to funding classroom assistants to help increase inclusion.
“In our program, this money goes towards paying for an education assistant for a child who is blind, and also for teens who help children with different learning abilities, and who need personal support during class,” Vieman said. “This helps to create intergenerational connections, and keeps the teens involved in the community past their own education in our program.”
At the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, the Federation grant has been used for Pnei Mitzvah, its secular humanist program for youth aged 10 to 14 that focuses on the Hebrew language, Bible stories, Jewish holidays and Jewish culture.
“We have been growing the program in recent years and have expanded it province-wide through an online cohort,” said Maggie Karpilovski, executive director of the Peretz Centre. “This growth would not be possible without Federation’s funding. It allowed us to attract expert teachers and innovate the delivery model so that it is accessible to more Jewish families throughout the region. As we are the only secular Jewish humanist organization in BC, and the Jewish community is spread out quite widely, it is important for us to make our programs accessible.”
Jen Jaffe, school principal at Temple Sholom, confirms the value of Federation’s financial support. “The grants allowed us to become more accessible to students of varying learning needs,” she said.
At Temple Sholom, the funding has been used to contribute to the school’s madrichim program and create a “learning hub” space for students with needs including sensory materials and furniture. The space is used each time school is in session.
“We need to celebrate these successes,” said Rivkin, “and applaud the educators and parents who are ensuring the survival of part-time Jewish education.”
To donate to Federation’s annual campaign, visit jewishvancouver.com.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.