A couple of kids got “married” the other day. They agreed to be friends.
Not forever and ever. Just until the end of the day. Then they had cake. The “bride” was 9; the “groom,” 10.
It was the 3rd- and 4th-Grade Wedding at Beth El Synagogue. The brainchild of former Beth El teacher Margo Riekes, the mock wedding has been an annual event since it was first held in the early 1980s.
“I was teaching Jewish wedding customs, and I found that most of the children had never been to a Jewish wedding,” Riekes said. “If they had, they were so young they were either ring bearers or flower girls and had no idea what was going on. When you teach something that they have no relationship to, it's hard for it to stick. So I decided the best way to teach it is to teach about the customs and the rituals, and then do it.”
That concept, known as experiential learning, has taken hold at the synagogue.
“Experiential learning is something that's hands-on, that's out of the box,” said Eadie Tsabari, Beth El's director of congregational learning.
She heads the synagogue school, known as BESTT (Beth El Synagogue Talmud Torah), which educates children in pre-kindergarten through grade 12, including Hebrew High School.
“We try to determine the focus of every project we do. So whether it's a holiday or whether it's about a person, we try to figure out what are the main and most important facts that we want the kids to learn, and try to convey that in such a way that they can use all of their senses around that particular thing,” Tsabari said. “They're still learning, but just in a way that's fun and exciting to them, and positive — absolutely positive.”
Learning takes place through games, food, art and other activities. When possible, more than one activity is included in a session.
During the recent Purim holiday, for example, participants in an after-school program helped prepare traditional tri-cornered hamantaschen pastries and did crafts, including making groggers — noisemakers used during the annual reading of the megillah, or Book of Esther. Activities related to Passover, which begins tomorrow night, included a student seder (ritual meal).
The number of experiential learning activities at Beth El has increased during the year Tsabari has been in charge of congregational learning.
“That's my philosophy, along with lots and lots of other people in the world,” she said. “It's not like I created it. It just makes sense to me.”
Attendance is up.
“They all come, and they participate. And that makes us a community,” Tsabari said. “That's actually what we're trying to build. Not so much different classes, but a community with the whole school.”
To Steven Abraham, assistant rabbi at Beth El, everything in Judaism is experiential.
“What makes Judaism fun and come alive is doing it,” he said. “It's much more enjoyable to learn through doing than to just learn through talking about an idea.”
Abraham said experiential education is a trend at Conservative synagogues such as Beth El.
Working hand-in-hand with synagogue-based activities is the Jewish camping movement, which Abraham said generates the best “return on investment” of anything done in Jewish education. Many Beth El youths go to the Camp Ramah location near Conover, Wisc., and Herzl Camp in Webster, Wisc. “These two places essentially are a bubble of Jewish identity,” he said.
Though campers participate in traditional activities such as basketball, baseball, swimming and crafts, they also pray several times a day and keep kosher, what Abraham called “doing Jewish.”
He said a goal at Beth El is to keep the good feelings going after the kids return from camp.
“We really want be able to play off of the love affair that they have with camp,” he said. “Because there's no question that what they're doing works. It's not a wheel that needs to be reinvented.
“Our feeling is, for the time that we have them, we want to make Judaism come alive. We want them to experience Judaism. We want to talk about it, but we don't want to talk about experiences. We want to be making experiences to take part in. That is our business.”