Elementary school-aged students at Congregation Oseh Shalom’s religious school in Laurel have been getting a new kind of education recently, as the school is working to introduce several post-COVID-19 initiatives aimed at broadening the educational opportunities and skills they can provide to their students.
The primary initiatives that the school has been working on implementing since 2022 as part of a four-year plan are having a Hebrew proficiency program and having a curriculum based around positive Jewish values.
The school came up with the plan after COVID-19 through extensive interviews with members of the congregation and determined what the areas of focus should be for improving the educational opportunities for the community.
They then sought grants to secure funding for their projects, which allowed them to begin putting these ambitious and inventive initiatives into place.
The school is teaching around three main Jewish values: Bal Tashchit – “thou shall not destroy” – and Ha’achalat Re’evim – feeding the hungry. They’re also planning to roll out a new initiative soon called Caring for Creation, where students will get the chance to work with the school’s Sacred Grounds Committee, which is focused on planting native plants and protecting the Chesapeake watershed.
“We worked on a curriculum that was new and had an Eco-Judaism student rabbi work with our congregation for a year and that went very well,” said Oseh Shalom’s religious school director, Rabbi Rebecca Gould. “She actually had the students create a carbon footprint document of the synagogue, which was then presented to the board of directors.”
Gould added that they began to compost and recycle more as an impact of the students’ projects.
The other related initiative is the Feeding the Hungry curriculum, where students went to feed the homeless, learned about food insecurity and tied it to Jewish values like the concept of Pe’ah – leaving the corner of the fields for the hungry.
Gould said in an email that teaching the children these concepts allows them to “learn a generosity of spirit and they learn to love Judaism.”
Another way that the children are getting to learn to love Judaism is through a first-of-its-kind Hebrew language program among local elementary schools, according to Gould. She said that this type of Hebrew language learning is something that can be found at Jewish day schools, but that she wasn’t aware of anything like it in a supplementary school.
The idea came from one of Oseh Shalom’s congregational rabbis, Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde, who had connections with a couple of experts in the area. The educational model to teach this was something that the synagogue had already been using during COVID-19 over Zoom, so Gould said it wasn’t a difficult transition to incorporate it in the classroom.
The results have been quite positive so far, with a lot of excitement toward the program both from the students and members of the congregation, some of whom are stepping up to further fund the program.
“We started last year with integrating the Hebrew into our specials, such as cooking and crafts, so that the children are learning the vocabulary of real-life vocabulary and doing a learning and approach that’s interactive and fun and relevant,” Gould said.
She added that several parents have told her stories of their children asking for fruit in Hebrew and began singing in the language as well, which was something those parents were very pleased to be able to have in their homes.
Gould also said that congregants without children in the program are delighted that there’s been an integration of modern Hebrew learning into their religious school, as a lot of traditional Hebrew schools don’t always place much of an emphasis on learning it.
In addition, Gould said the program is important due to Hebrew being an integral part of the modern Jewish identity and that learning it sets the children up with a strong foundation and sense of Jewish identity from a young age.
“When children understand that Hebrew is their Jewish language it allows them to be proud, proud Jews. And I see a lot of excitement and engagement, especially with the pre-K through second [grade] group. And really just getting the children excited about Hebrew is a really important goal,” Gould said.
Despite all of these accomplishments already, the program is still looking for room to expand, with Gould saying that they’re looking to increase family programming in the future and are looking at more grants to be able to accomplish a wide range of educational goals.