Religious schools find innovative ways to engage students in Jewish learning

ELYSE PICKER, Special to the Jewish Light

Students at KoREH (Kol Rinah Education Hub) in a file photo from December 2018. Photo: Bill Motchan

Religious school. If you attended as a child, your memories may be along the lines of mine: something you had to do that took up extra time after school and on the weekends and was often quite dull.

However, after surveying the directors of eight religious schools in the St. Louis area, it’s clear that times have changed. In recent years, curricula have evolved to include creative programming, hands-on learning and community building that are anything but boring.

The COVID pandemic, while certainly a challenge this past year when determining how to safely deliver high quality instruction, led to even more innovation that has and will continue to shape many of these programs for years to come.

Innovative curriculum and engaging programming

Across the board, religious school directors have dedicated significant time to creating an atmosphere of Jewish learning that children will want to participate in. Almost all of the schools focus on experiential learning, with electives, Hebrew language instruction and opportunities to engage the whole family, which fosters a sense of community and helps develop each individual child’s Jewish identity.

At United Hebrew, grade levels are strategically combined so that younger students have older ones to look up to, and older students have the opportunity to be leaders and role models to younger students.

Temple Emanuel prides itself on having a smaller, more intimate program in which everyone knows everyone else. Parent involvement is a strong component, with family breakfasts to start off Sunday mornings and opportunities for adult learning and socializing with other parents while children are in their classes.

At Kol Rinah, the religious school experience was relaunched a few years ago with an emphasis on what it means to be a Jewish person and part of a Jewish family, Jewish community and a chain of Jewish peoplehood.

Creating Jewish community is also a key component of the learning at Temple Israel, where classes are deeply engaged and immersed in learning about the Jewish holidays, Torah, Israel, tzedakah, mitzvot and Jewish history in each grade level.

Shaare Emeth, the largest program in the area, also continues to develop and update its program offerings to meet families where they are in their Jewish journey. It is launching a new B’nai Mitzvah Academy for sixth and seventh graders to prepare them for their special day.

At CRC, families will find a welcoming, diverse community with a personal learning environment and a focus on tikkun olam.

B’nai Amoona has worked hard to create an inclusive environment in which teachers meet each individual where they are in their learning, with a focus on multisensory activities.

For families looking for a religious school program for a child with special learning, behavioral or emotional needs, COAST provides that space for children to celebrate being Jewish. Each child is paired one on one with a Washington University student volunteer for games, learning and fun. The activities are customized for each child and cover Jewish holidays, Jewish themes and Torah stories.

At Aish HaTorah, programming includes a fun, exciting Hebrew School program for school age children, bat mitzvah tutoring for girls and offers babysitting for children 3 and under so adults can attend classes as well.

Hebrew language instruction

All of the religious school programs include Hebrew language instruction as a part of the curriculum, with some programs focusing more on Hebrew reading and understanding prayers for b’nai mitzvah preparation; others also focus on conversational language.

Most programs introduce Hebrew in the early elementary grades, with more structured learning as children get older. Opportunities for one to one or small group Hebrew tutoring can be found at Temple Emanuel and Temple Israel.

Kol Rinah uses the Hebrew Through Movement curriculum, which feeds into a natural, experience-based mode of language learning, vocabulary building, decoding and reading.

B’nai Amoona’s program emphasizes Hebrew as a living language while also teaching Hebrew for prayer learning.

COVID challenges and lessons learned

Every school, with the exception of COAST, operated during the past school year, though everything looked very different.

The greatest challenge for program directors last year was figuring out how to safely deliver instruction to children coming from different school districts while adhering to the COVID guidelines and restrictions at the time.

With building Jewish community a central tenet of all religious schools, program directors and teachers had to get creative while keeping students in their class cohorts during in-person learning (with several programs moving as much as they could outdoors) and dealing with the potential isolation of virtual learning.

The shift to virtual, hybrid and limited in-person learning, though a significant challenge, had some unexpected rewards as well. Some families found that virtual learning made it easier to attend religious school.

At places such as Temple Emanuel, there are plans in place to continue offering virtual learning for Hebrew. Shaare Emeth and CRC also plan to keep some virtual learning in place for families that responded well to it. B’nai Amoona shifted its entire midweek program to a virtual platform this past year and plans to continue that this upcoming school year, with in-person learning on Sundays.

With life slowly returning to normal, all of the religious school programs are looking forward to welcoming more children and families back to their buildings this coming school year and being able to bring back special programming and holiday celebrations. Some anticipate an increase in enrollment with more families ready to reengage with synagogue life.

One thing is for sure, the wide range of religious school offerings in St. Louis makes it easy to find the program that’s right for your child.

For parents who are looking to enroll their children in a religious school this year, this guide below provides an overview of each program along with contact information.

Louis and Mary Millstone Religious School and Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman Hebrew School

Location: United Hebrew Congregation (Chesterfield)

First day of school year: Aug. 19 — Meet the teacher

Affiliation: Reform

Membership required? No, first year is a trial year. After that, families must become members to continue enrollment.

Grades/ages: Kindergarten – 12th grade; K-fifth grade

Time commitment: Sundays from 9-11:15 a.m.; sixth through 12th graders, 10:30 a.m.-12 p.m. One hour of group Hebrew lessons Sundays or during the week from 3:30-7:30 p.m.

Contact info: [email protected] for more information or to set up a time to meet.

Temple Emanuel Religious School

Location: Creve Coeur

First day of school year: Aug. 29

Affiliation: Reform

Membership required? Yes (though TE Tots program is open to anyone).

Grades/ages: Pre-K through 10th grade; TE Tots parent/toddler program

Time commitment: Sundays from 9-11:30 a.m.; monthly family service. TE Tots meets two Sunday mornings per month from 9:30-10:30 a.m.

Contact info: Emily Cohen, TE’s director of education and community engagement, [email protected] or 314-432-5877.


Housed by Chabad at Washington University in partnership with Ohr Atid

Location: Chabad on Campus Rohr Center for Jewish Life in University City

First day of school year: Will begin in September

Affiliation: Chabad

Membership required? No

Grades/ages: School age children with special learning, behavioral and emotional needs

Time commitment: Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon

Contact info: [email protected]

Kol Rinah Education Hub (KoREH)

Location: Clayton

First day of school year: TBD

Affiliation: Conservative

Membership required? No; joining reduces tuition.

Grades/ages: Pre-K through seventh grade

Time commitment: Sundays 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., midweek one-on-ones with teachers

Contact Info: Rabbi Scott Shafrin at [email protected] or 314-727-1747, or read

Temple Israel Religious School

Location: Creve Coeur

First day of school year: Sept. 12

Affiliation: Reform

Membership required? Yes

Grades/ages: K-12th grade

Time commitment: K through sixth grade meet Sundays 9:30-11:30 a.m.; third-sixth meet once midweek for Hebrew; seventh-ninth meet twice per month, as does confirmation class.

Contact info: Lesley Goldenberg, [email protected].

Congregation Shaare Emeth Religious School

Location: Creve Coeur

First day of school year: Sept. 26

Affiliation: Reform

Membership required? Yes, for b’nai mitzvah and confirmation classes. All others can do one trial year at a reduced membership fee.

Grades/ages: Pre-K through 12th grade

Time commitment: Pre-K through sixth grade plus confirmation class meet Sundays; third-fifth grades also meet Tuesday or Wednesday from 4:15-6 p.m.; b’nai mitzvah class (sixth-seventh) meets only Tuesday or Wednesdays from 4:15-6 p.m.

Contact Info: Rabbi Educator Lori Levine, [email protected]; Marci Diamond, assistant religious school director, [email protected]; Tammy Beaird, administrator, [email protected]

Central Reform Congregation Religious School

Location: Central West End

First day of school year: Oct. 2

Affiliation: Reform

Membership required? Yes

Grades/ages: Toddler through 12th grade

Time commitment: Pre-K through sixth grade meet Saturdays 9 a.m.-noon; third-sixth grades also meet Wednesdays 4-6 p.m.

Contact Info: Maxine Weil, director of lifelong learning, [email protected].

Congregation B’nai Amoona Myer Kranzberg Learning Center

Location: Creve Coeur

First day of school year: Sept. 26

Affiliation: Conservative

Membership required? Families do not need to be members during first year of attendance.

Grades /ages: K-12th grade

Time commitment: K-eighth grade meets Sundays from 9-11:30 a.m.; ninth-10th grade meets Sundays from 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m.; 11th-12th grade meets one Sunday per month; school meets on Saturday once per month instead of Sunday plus weekday Hebrew for third-seventh grades.

Contact info: Liessa Alperin, [email protected] or 314-576-9990 ext. 116

Aish Hebrew School/Aish St. Louis

First day of school year: Aug. 29

Affiliation: Orthodox, all backgrounds welcome

Membership required? No

Grades/Ages: Birth through adult

Time commitment: Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon

Contact info: Rachael Kornblum, [email protected]

Note: Information in this article was gathered from May 19 to July 19. Program directors are still finalizing plans for the 2021-2022 school year as COVID guidelines continue to evolve. Please contact program directors for the most up-to-date information, along with details on tuition and registration.