Education: History and Evolution

Before there was a rabbi, even before there was a temple, there was Micah education. As founding member Betty Ustun remembers it, four families living in Southwest, DC, “thought they should have religious education for their children. That’s how we got started.” Jewish education for adults as well as children has remained central throughout Temple Micah’s history. For many years the phrase, “a teaching congregation,” appeared as part of the Micah logo.

In the beginning, the religious school was run as a cooperative. Adult members of the congregation—parents and singles—taught in the “Sunday” school, which was held on Saturday because St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church (the congregation’s first permanent home) used the facilities on Sunday. A parent—Stan Siegel in the ‘60s and Milt Mortman in the ‘70s—coordinated the volunteer teachers, although Hebrew teachers were paid. In 1967, 34 children were enrolled; tuition was $30 for a member’s child, $50 for two or more children. Each of the few b’nai mitzvah occasioned a community-wide celebration.   

Professionalization began when Barbara Klestzick was hired in 1979, first as education coordinator and then education director. But during the 17 years of her tenure, religious school teachers continued to be volunteers. “We were extremely fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers,” she recalled recently. At that time, students began studying Hebrew in fourth grade twice during the week after school as well as on Saturday.

Barbara Klestzick, Education Director, 1979 to 1996

I started family education day. We cancelled the regular classes and invited parents to join their children and teachers. I loved it and the kids and parents had a great time…Rabbi Zemel made a big difference…Everybody’s thoughts and ideas were important to him. And, it was great when Teddy started.

When the congregation moved into its own building in 1995, the religious school switched to a traditional Sunday school schedule. By the late 1990s, many of the Sunday school teachers were paid, as well. In xxxx, after-school Hebrew lessons were consolidated to once a week on Tuesdays.

The Task Force That Led to Machon Micah

Mary Beth Schiffman talks about the Education Task Force

In 2007, Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel returned from a sabbatical very concerned about the religious school. He had spent much time during his sabbatical studying, investigating and thinking about Jewish education and concluded that the 20th-Century model no longer worked in America.  He created a broad-based education task force to look beyond Micah’s religious school and think outside the box about what Jewish education was really trying to accomplish. “We spent a full year dreaming about what Jewish education could be like, what we could do to encourage the formation of a strong Jewish identity in our children and adults, how we could do things differently,” said Mary Beth Schiffman, task force chair.  The second year, the task force refined its conclusions and applied for grants to help implement the envisioned changes.  “It was a very exciting time, one of the most challenging and interesting things I’ve done at Micah,” Schiffman said.

The task force did not come up with a curriculum but with three guiding principles: Judaism must be taught in Jewish time–with lessons about Shabbat on Shabbat, for example; it must be experienced, not imparted in the abstract; and it must involve the whole temple community.

In keeping with this new guiding philosophy, the “religious school” name had to go. Instead, Machon Micah (Micah Institute) was born in 2009, designed to engage everyone from 0 to age 120. Although youngsters would still attend on Sundays, lessons would be hands on with frequent all-community learning events scheduled on Saturday. Traditional Hebrew school that tried to teach conversational Hebrew was abandoned. Instead, then-Education Director Deborah Srabstein came up with an innovative approach whereby students had one-on-one lessons from their homes using Skype technology.  At temple on Tuesdays, they studied prayers instead of Hebrew grammar.

Machon Micah has evolved over the last several years. As of 2016, 221 children are enrolled. In 2014, Rabbi Josh Beraha signed on as director of congregational learning with the charge of creating a new and different curriculum.  One result is that instead of attending Sunday classes, seventh graders spend the year working on an independent project with their families, guided by a new member of the Machon staff.  “Being a part of the Machon—kid or adult!!—should be formative rather than informative,” Beraha said. “I want for our children (and for us, this can’t be overlooked!) to walk away from Micah feeling a sense of purpose in this world, a desire to uncover what it means to be human and a desire to be on a continual path toward uncovering meaning and relevance in life.”

Zemel concurred: “My hope is that kids come away from their Micah experience knowing that Judaism is a celebration of life, that human life is sacred and that Judaism has something very serious and important to say about the human experience.”

Rabbi Zemel explains what he wants children to learn

Education for kids – the most important thing is the delivery system … to create a positive social experience in a Jewish environment.

Rabbi Beraha on Machon Micah’s goals

Part of being Jewish is understanding that there’s always more to learn…Education doesn’t need to be in a classroom with a teacher and a chalkboard.

Rabbi Zemel on what adult Jews need to know

What are the areas I want a Jew to be conversant with? That is the conversation I’m planning to have with Rabbis Josh Beraha and Susan Landau throughout the year.

Rabbi Beraha on challenges of adult Jewish education

I think Judaism is not a first language for many people…Our challenge is can the synagogue be a place that stands apart, that offers people experiences that don’t match other experiences.