The adults are dressed in variations of Chanukah silly: blue T-shirts and sunglasses with white plastic frames. Some are wearing wreaths of blue and silver stars of David. On other heads the stars flap at the ends of springs like antennae.
They lead lines of children around Temple Beth Ami’s sanctuary, clapping to and singing “Oseh Shalom,” the prayer for peace.
This is the Rockville congregation’s Sunday morning religious school service.
Five years ago, the Reform congregation began thinking about religious school education in a new way. Beth Ami’s school has 750 students, about 350 in grades 3-6, and the synagogue wanted all those kids to learn and be excited about being in synagogue.
So they looked at the most beloved Jewish children’s institution – camp – and tried to figure out what makes it work.
“Why do kids want to go to summer camp and are reluctant to go to religious school?” asks Kim Roberts, Beth Ami’s director of education.
Among the answers is that at camp, children form a community and they learn through camp activities, she says.
That’s the direction that Roberts and the congregation decided to take their school. The philosophy is embedded in the school’s name: Machane, or “camp.” Machane has two complementary parts. One is L’mala, or “upstairs,” which is curriculum based and where students Hebrew skills, Shabbat liturgy, about holidays and Jewish values.
The other part is L’mata, “or downstairs.” That’s the camp-like part. For grades 3-6, there are song sessions, art, movement and drama, and sessions where students can follow their own passions: sign language, Yiddish and Jewish personalities.
Roberts says the activities are opportunities for children “to find a path into Judaism.”
Now in its fourth year, the Machane L’mata program has begun to be recognized more widely. In October, it was included in the Slingshot Guide’s Washington, D.C., edition of innovative Jewish non-profits.
“They took what’s good about camp and brought it to religious school,” says Will Schneider, executive director of the Slingshot Fund, of why Machane L’mata was chosen. “They found a need – that the Hebrew school model wasn’t working. It was a creative approach to address that need.”
The Union of Reform Judaism has sent educators to see the program in action, Roberts says. And the Chicago Jewish Federation has taken an interest.
Back in Beth Ami’s social hall, eight students – two from each grade 3-6 – are standing in front of a pyramid of soda cans as disco music throbs. These are the students who have correctly answered questions like “The name Maccabee also means this” and “What is the theme of the Chanukah story?” They’re armed with rubber bands and have a minute to knock all the cans down. The first one to do it gets a prize.
DJ Chris Shultz pumps the kids up: “We’re here to make learning fun – and give you some Starbucks gift cards,” he says.
Once a month, Machane L’mata gathers for a large-scale program, like Harry Potter Passover. Today, it’s the Chanukah game show. For more than an hour, the kids play games, their eligibility to compete largely determined by their knowledge of Jewish facts.
Roberts says that the high-energy and whimsy are age appropriate ways to learn and build a school community. The service “shows them that they can connect to prayer on their own terms. They see that there’s personal value to prayer and community. They don’t realize how much they’re learning.”
Machane offers Sunday-only and Sunday-Tuesday options. Three quarters of families opt for Sunday only, which runs from 8:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. “Sunday only is more like a camp structure,” Roberts says. “You’re here for a longer period of time.”
The camp-like approach appeals to Andrea Fedock of Clarksburg, whose twin sons also attend an area overnight camp.
“For us, this is almost an extension of camp,” she said. “It’s attention grabbing and engaging.”
As they do at camp, Robert Oshinsky’s two children say the blessing after meals at the end of Machane’s morning snack time. The Rockville resident likes the energetic and hands-on aspects of Machane L’mata.
“It’s not like an old teacher droning on,”
The program uses teen assistants along with adult teachers. Like camp counselors, the teens relate to the kids in ways adults do not. “The kids love the teens,” says Potomac resident Michael Gartman, whose three children attend Machane. “They keep them interested.”