Take lemons. Make lemonade.
In this case, parents face two kinds of lemons — unavoidably sour situations. First, Hebrew school as a model doesn’t work; hasn’t worked, really, for decades now. And second, unless a child has a stay-at-home parent, the hours between school and the end of the workday have to be filled somehow, but how?
The lemonade? It’s called JPlay.
The innovative afterschool program set to open at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston comes with a backstory.
It’s the extension of Jewish Kids Group, an Atlanta-based “afterschool engagement model,” as it calls itself, a model funded by the Marcus Foundation and now overseen by the Jewish After School Accelerator. The B’nai Abraham program is one of four around the country, chosen after a rigorous application process and part of the first of what is intended to be many cohorts as the educators behind it refine it to fit each new setting.
That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Here’s the story.
Rachel Dobbs Schwartz is the Jewish Kids Group’s chief innovation officer.
“Twelve years ago, Ana Robbins saw the need to innovate in Jewish education, and she tried a bunch of different models to find one that was more sticky than what we saw in the past,” she said. (“Sticky” is educator-talk for “effective in the long term.”) After experimenting with other models, “she landed on this one.”
The model is informal, experiential, immersive education; straightforwardly, it’s putting kids in a low-key Jewish environment, full of Jewish values and vocabulary. There’s a curriculum, but no lesson plans; playrooms, not classrooms.
“We” — that’s Jewish Kids Groups — “now serve more than 200 students per day, in more than 29 public and private schools in four different locations across Atlanta,” Ms. Dobbs Schwartz said. “The goal has been to innovate; once Ana figured out how this works, she brought me on. I’m the creator of the accelerator program.” That’s the After School Accelerator, which works with the model Ms. Robbins created and is funded by the Marcus Foundation. (That’s Bernie Marcus’s philanthropic vehicle; he, of course, is the Atlanta-based Jewish billionaire who founded Home Depot.)
“We are figuring out how to scale the impact of the program,” Ms. Dobbs Schwartz said. “Not in size — we want to continue Jewish Kids Group as a lean, innovative machine — but we want to figure out a way to share the impact with the world in a way that is beneficial.
“We know that there are plenty of underutilized spaces across the county” – she’s talking about physical space, available rooms — “and we also know that many of the organizations are looking for innovative ways to serve the community, and to meet parents where they are.
“We have seen staggering statistics — there’s been a 40 percent drop-off in enrollment in supplemental schools over the last 13 years.
“We know that if we are dedicated to creating the Jewish future, we have to be innovative.”
The accelerator accepted applications from synagogues and approved four of them; as well as Livingston, they’re in Cincinnati, Miami, and Roswell, Georgia; they’re Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated, and of different sizes. “The goal is for them to launch at the beginning of the school year,” Ms. Dobbs Schwartz said. The accelerator offers seed money, curriculum, workshops, and intensive coaching; the goal is to customize the model to fit the demographics, needs, and goals of the synagogue that’s housing it.
Melissa Weiner is B’nai Abraham’s director of Jewish Learning; she’s also adding a new title, director of JPlay Afterschool. The program she will direct, officially an afterschool enrichment program, will be “informal, project-based, with arts and music and dance.”
Six months ago, she had no idea she’d be undertaking such a challenge, but the process went quickly, she said; she applied to the Jewish After School Accelerator in March, B’nai Abraham was accepted in April, and the program there will be up and running in September.
“The accelerator was looking at communities to determine which ones could launch it with some degree of success,” Ms. Weiner said. “For the next few years, it will not be available to anyone else within a 15- to 20-mile radius,” although eventually each center could offer its own satellite program.
“In our inaugural year, the kids will be transported from select public schools in Livingston,” Ms. Weiner said; which school will depend on which parents enroll which kids. If there are enough from West Orange, transportation can be arranged, if there’s one from, say, Whippany, that would be harder. But absolutely everybody from preschool to fifth grade is welcome.
The program isn’t open only to synagogue members; it’s not instead of religious school unless parents choose for it to be. It’s open five afternoons a week, and parents can choose which days work best for them. It’s not divided by age or grade level; instead, it’s created with the assumption that sometimes kids will want to be with other kids exactly their own age, and other times they’ll want to be in a more diverse group. There will be enough space for groups to form and reform naturally. The model its creators are going for is less school, more family.
“The goal is not synagogue membership, but community,” Ms. Weiner said. “We are giving them community, in a space and a place that works for them.
“We hope that it will become a space of new Jewish community, where families can learn and grow together in meaningful ways.”
The program will provide “a warm hug at the end of the day when your parents can’t be with you,” she said. “It’s a multi-age, active, child-based experience. It is not a classroom. It is a Jewish space, where kids have freedom of movement. They are free to do things they would do at home — and it’s all infused with Jewish content.
“When you have a snack or go to the garden or it’s somebody’s birthday, it’s infused with Jewish content. It will have kosher snacks, time for secular homework; it will be full of Hebrew language and Judaic and Hebraic content.
“We will provide music and art and movement as part of the day.”
Ms. Weiner and her staff — which will include the site director, who is a state-certified K-8 teacher with 30 years of experience, as well as specialists and other teachers — soon will be in the business of creating community, one small child and one young family at a time.
Parents can apply to B’nai Abraham’s program at www.JPlaynj.org.
Synagogue administrators or educators who are interested in learning more or joining the program for the fall of 2025 — and are at least 15 miles from Livingston — should go to www.jewishafterschools.com.