Shabbat Centered Model: Gesher

Peninsula Temple Beth El (PTBE), San Mateo, CA

Model Description | Update 2017

Model description adapted from The Express Innovation Guidebook, 2011.

What Were You Trying to Achieve with this Model?
  • Enable families to connect to one another and the congregation more deeply

  • Experience worship embedded within the larger context of Jewish learning

  • Learning no longer limited by available classroom space or setting

  • Families experiencing Shabbat in real time

  • Multiple learning experiences to meet varied needs of learners

  • Gesher met the desire of a small but vocal group of parents who were looking for more engagement for themselves, more family connections, and stronger connections to the congregational community.  Also, a growing student population meant that the congregation would need to move to double sessions of Sunday School in order to find space for all learners. When faced with the choice of replicating the existing model or creating an alternative model, the congregation chose to launch an alternative model.
Relationship of Model to Congregational Learning System:
  • Major holiday celebrations are congregation-wide.

  • All congregational families are able to participate in the K-6 Family Shabbaton Retreat.

  • Children in grades 4-6 still come for mid-week Hebrew.

  • Social events are offered for specific age groups outside of Gesher.
Who are the Learners?
  • Children in grades K-6 and their families.

  • A self-selecting group.

  • Initially the congregation hoped to have twenty families participate in Gesher. Fifty-five families participated in the first year, some of them joining the congregation expressly to be a part of this program.

  • Next year the number is projected to be 60-65 families.

  • Families with children in day school also participated, a first for the congregation.
Who are the Educators/Learning Facilitators?
  • Members of clergy work with parents.

  • Teachers had a combination of experience with classroom, informal, and experiential learning.

  • PTBE was able to hire some teachers with significant Jewish background because of Shabbat vs. mid-week plus Sunday morning commitment.
What is the Learning? How is it Designed?
  • A combination of family study, adult and child parallel learning.

  • The worship component varies depending on the time of day that the class meets, but it includes Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat morning and Havdalah.

  • Learning also involves a combination of formal study and action.

  • Content is organized thematically so that all age groups are learning about the same theme on age-appropriate levels.

  • 5th and 6th grade junior book club will be launching in the coming year.

  • During Shabbat Day Family Study and Worship Experiences, families meet in small groups with similar age kids. Families begin together, move into separate groups for parallel study of parashat hashavua – adults with clergy and kids with teachers – and then come back together for sharing or a family activity followed by participation in Shabbat worship. Next year the parallel study will focus on Middot (values) with study of Torah woven in as well.
Where Does the Learning Happen?
  • All Shabbat meetings take place at the synagogue except two times a year when families participate in Shabbat BaBayit, Shabbat dinner in one another’s homes.

  • Families meet in various synagogue spaces including classrooms and the sanctuary.

  • Sunday afternoon learning occurs outside of the synagogue.

  • Initially, the third learning experience of the month was scheduled for Sunday afternoons with half an hour overlap between regular Sunday School and Gesher programs. However, families preferred the opportunity to come together on Shabbat. As a result the third learning opportunity each month is scheduled for Shabbat afternoon.

  • Moving learning outside of the exclusively classroom setting proved a key component to the alternative program. While initial Sunday afternoon learning took place at the synagogue, next year some will take place off-site in response to parent feedback.

When Does the Learning Happen?
  • Gesher meets on the first Shabbat evening, second Shabbat morning, and third Shabbat afternoon each month. Friday night services run from 6:30-7:30 pm. Families attend Shabbat dinner before services at 5:30 pm or following services at 7:30 pm. Shabbat Day Family Study and Worship Experience meets from 9:15 am – 12 pm and from 3:45-6:00 pm in the afternoon on the second and third Saturday’s in the month respectively.

  • There are four additional Sunday afternoons each year involving family learning or off-site excursions.

  • The program begins with a mini-shabbaton in the fall.

  • 4th-6th grade students attend mid-week Hebrew class.

  • In the spring, families attend the Family Shabbaton Retreat which is also open to learners in the regular Sunday School program.

  • With a clear calendar in hand well in advance, parents enjoy the flexibility of the schedule and the varying times and days holds kids interest as well. The new approach to scheduling enabled the educator to hire teachers with richer Jewish backgrounds who didn’t have the time to commit to a twice weekly model.
What is Inspiring about this Model?
  • Gesher parents are increasingly involved in synagogue leadership.

  • Adults are rediscovering Judaism as a result of being at synagogue with their families.

  • Kids are more engaged in their learning.

  • There is increased attendance at Shabbat worship services.

  • Gesher has created a positive buzz in the larger community about the congregation.

  • Some new families joined the congregation in order to participate in Gesher.
Professional Learning:

The Director of Education for K-6 provided training sessions for those teachers who would be working with entire families together in addition to children.

Key First Steps and Recruitment Plan:
  • The Education Committee met for two years to research and develop Gesher.

  • Before launching, the Director of Education for K-6 held two community conversations during regular Sunday School for parents to find out about the alternative program.

  • Education Committee members attended the community conversations in order to provide the lay and parent perspectives.

  • The model was also presented to the Board of Trustees as part of the implementation process.

  • A Gesher brochure was created and was distributed once community became familiar with the program.

  • The community conversations were a critical first step towards launching the alternative model. They provided an opportunity for an in-person introduction and explanation which could then be followed by a detailed brochure.
Role of Governance and Clergy:
  • The Education Committee and Rabbi/Educator were initially responsible for the creation of Gesher.

  • Currently the Gesher Focus Group, made up of some members of the Education Committee and several Gesher parents, meets with the Director of K-6 education to provide feedback and guidance.

  • The Gesher Focus Group created a survey that went to all Gesher parents. The results of the survey led to the move to Shabbat afternoon meetings each month instead of Sundays and to the adoption of a theme based vs. grade based curriculum for Gesher.
  • In the first year, the congregation received a Legacy Heritage Innovation Grant.

  • Without the grant, PTBE will need to charge Gesher Families more than they charge those in the regular Sunday School program.

  • Childcare for younger siblings is provided for a fee.

  • Need to budget for a separate Gesher brochure.

  • Additional staffing is required to implement program.

  • There are additional costs for meals and materials.

  • Grant money in the first year enabled the congregation to charge Gesher families the same amount as those participating in the regular Sunday School program. In the coming year, some costs covered by the grant will need to be passed on to the families.
How Do You Describe Your Congregation?

PTBE is a large Reform congregation, approximately 810 family units. They have a senior rabbi, a cantor, 3 rabbi/educators, an early childhood director, and Senior Youth Group Advisor/Director.


Related Resources

Learners come together within the context of Shabbat to worship, study, eat together and connect to one another. A list of Shabbat Centered Models has been assembled here.
Provides learning for the entire family on Shabbat, a family retreat, or Sunday school hours. Locations include the synagogue, Tikkun Olam project sites, or homes. A list of Family Learning models has been assembled here.

Related networks

Suri Jacknis
This continuing network will help you develop best practices in the field of family education. You will set your own goals for enhancing your model of family learning, for experimenting with various strategies to engage the whole family, and /or for increasing parental/family engagement in Jewish experiences and learning. Together we will consider ways to help parents and families see Judaism as a gift that can add connections, meaning, and joy to their lives. In this way, more Jewish children and families will thrive as human beings and as Jews.