Visit to Temple Beth-El of Great Neck (FACEtime)

Part of the Impact Now Cohort of Congregations at The Jewish Education Project

Model Description | Model Narrative

It’s a Friday night at the synagogue. Though services won’t start for a couple hours, the building is alive with the sound of 4th and 5th grade students and their families. The environment is casual and friendly as the students and parents of the 5th grade class break up into family units to tell their family’s Jewish story. I overhear someone’s father having trouble producing his side of the story, and the teacher—acting more as facilitator, really—comes around to his group. She asks him if he went to religious school when he was a kid. He had. “What was that like?” she asks. He seems mildly taken aback that even this might prove a worthy Jewish story.

In the next room, 4th grade families are learning about Mishkan T’filah, the current prayer book of the Reform movement. Each family makes its siddur into a family artifact by composing family prayers on a bookplate. Students are directed: “Write a prayer for your family.” And to parents: “Write your hopes and dreams for your children.”

This FACEtime, an alternative Jewish childhood education model developed at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, NY for families with kids in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades. On Tuesdays, FACEtime students attend religious school, where they study a fairly mainstream supplementary curriculum of Judaica and Hebrew. But instead of a second day of the same every week, all the families in each FACEtime class come together several times a year for Shabbat and social action programs—such as the one I began with. And to supplement the reduced in-class Hebrew instructional time, FACEtime includes HEBREWtime, a monthly one-on-one Skype session with a Hebrew tutor.

Moving from a model that guarantees two days of instruction time every week to just one was a big adjustment. “We realized, by moving to a one-day-a-week model, the Hebrew wasn’t enough,” says Beth-El Director of Education Michael Witman. “HEBREWtime makes sure they are still getting the same level of Hebrew as in the two-day-a-week model.”

And families love it because of higher degree of flexibility. Most do HEBREWtime over Skype, though some prefer to do it in-person. Either way, families schedule it for times that are convenient for them, which is great for families that live far away and students with packed schedules.

In addition to easing the burden on busy families, HEBREWtime also makes it easier to meet each student where they are because tutors keep detailed documentation on each student’s progress, meaning that students get more personalized help and assessment. “It makes it easier for us to accommodate students who want more Hebrew enrichment as well as students who need more help and more time with the material,” says Witman. “And as a director, that’s very exciting. That’s something we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Part of the magic of FACEtime, it seems, is the simple fact of kids seeing their parents learn and parents seeing their kids do the same. “When kids see their parents engaged with Jewish learning, they will grow up to be as well,” says 4th grade FACEtime teacher Elijah Chajet.

Tali Morand—the 5th grade teacher from the beginning of the story—sees this element as the heart of FACEtime. “Most parents don’t see their children in a classroom setting, and children don’t get to see their parents in a classroom setting. So this is a very special and unique dynamic between parent and child that they literally are unable to get outside of FACEtime,” Morand says. “It’s beautiful to see a parent and child as classmates and to see them studying Torah together…. And it’s also beautiful because the kids get to teach the parents.”

That dynamic allows for one of FACEtime’s most important outcomes, the forging of connections between in-synagogue subject matter and at-home family conversations. “There’s something really amazing about watching a conversation that begins here, in the temple, in religious school, that continues on outside the doors of the building and is able to follow the family home,” says Rachel Barnehama, Morand’s 5th grade co-teacher.

For example, toward the beginning of the 5th grade session I witnessed, Morand brought up a prior lesson, in which families were given “cell phone sleeping bags” to try using on Shabbat. A few families shared about the conversations this had prompted at home, including one family, who had been inspired by the lesson to ask everyone at their family’s Passover seder to shut off their phones.

All of which adds up to a program whose most obvious effect—and the parents, staff and kids I spoke with all brought it up again and again—is the strengthening of bonds among family members. “I think that many parents, when they think about what they want for their children, they want them to appreciate Judaism as a family endeavor,” says 5th grade FACEtime father Todd Schulman. “One of the things I like about the FACEtime program is you actually get to learn and experience with your children, sitting with your children, eating with your children, and listening to the rabbis, the teachers and the other students. For me, that’s what helps create the family bond.”

Because the source of the stronger family bonds is a synagogue-based program, bonds between families and the synagogue also grow stronger. Barnehama connects this with increased attendance at other synagogue events. “We had an event on a Sunday about two months ago, where one piece was for the congregants and one piece was for the students in the religious school. And we had a huge attendance, and it was really amazing to see that people are starting to attend more regularly because of [FACEtime],” she said.

To successfully strike a balance between less time and more content is among the wildest dreams of many in Jewish education today. That FACEtime is more flexible and less time-consuming than more traditional models is an achievement on its own. Yet, FACEtime also manages to simultaneously add value to the experience by opening up and deepening the strong familial elements of Jewish tradition—elements beyond the reach of traditional religious school models.