It is a Monday afternoon at String of Pearls’ religious school, and students curiously watch as their principal, dressed in a robe, headscarf, and dangling earrings, sets up a table with bowls and mixing ingredients.
Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum, clad as the biblical matriarch Sarah, puts out ingredients the students will need to make grape leaves, which relates, at least incidentally, to the life and teachings of the medieval Torah commentator Rashi.
As students arrive, they take turns mixing the herbs, then sing “Hinei Ma Tov” together before splitting into groups according to their grade level assigned to individual classrooms. A tzedaka box sits in the center of the common room.
The one-day-a-week school is not a typical synagogue-based religious school. It meets at the campus of Princeton Day School, while String of Pearls, a Reconstructionist congregation, worships at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton.
Its goal is to maximize learning in an admittedly tight time frame.
Sitting down with NJ Jewish News prior to the students’ arrival, Kirshbaum explained how the curriculum of the school, which serves students in first through sixth grade, was revamped this year to address the reality of a “precious two hours a week” for instruction.
She consulted with two rabbis, including one from the Chabad hasidic movement.
Instead of holding holiday observances, such as a model seder, or erecting a school sukka, for example, the congregation shifted the celebrations to community-wide observances.
Classroom time is divided between teaching prayerbook Hebrew and other areas of Jewish instruction. Hebrew study consists of seven core prayer groups that the whole school learns together — the Amida, for example — on age-appropriate levels. Once every three weeks, the students call the voice mail of “Reb Donna,” as she is known, and recite the prayers they have just learned back to her; she then sends them corrections via e-mail.
“I see the kids growing in leaps and bounds in their telephone poise,” Kirshbaum said.
Families at the school seem pleased with the changes.
“It’s a great Hebrew school for us,” Julie Zimmerman of Princeton, a parent volunteer, told NJJN. It offers a sense of community, she said, while the kids appreciate the “experiential-type activities and learning.”
Lisa D’Ambrogio, who also lives in Princeton, said she believes the new approach truly maximizes what the students learn. With the call-in system, “they get feedback and they get to demonstrate what they know.”
“The students are actually learning the prayers more quickly this way,” she said. And through this method “they’re retaining a lot more — at least my son is.”
How does Rashi, the 11th-century Torah commentator, fit into all of this? The students go beyond merely reading and reciting p’sukim from the biblical texts, turning to Rashi for further elucidation on its ethical teachings.
“Rashi is so kind and wise and ethical,” as well as being “down to earth,” Kirshbaum said.
When studying passages about Sarah’s name being changed from “Sarai” (my princess) to Sarah, for example, Kirshbaum created an imaginary dialogue between Rashi and his grandson. They discussed the matriarch’s experiences of being an outsider when Abraham has a son with his concubine.
“Rashi” suggests that this experience effectively transforms her into “Sarah,” meaning “everyone’s” princess or mother.
Hands-on activities serve “as a hook” into bringing Torah studies and ethical lessons to life. Students made oil lamps for Hanukka when learning about biblical artifacts.
To illustrate the story of Esau selling his birthright for a pot of stew, the students will grow lentils in the fall right on the campus grounds.
Kirshbaum’s idea for the grape leaves came from the knowledge that Rashi himself experimented with herbs in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.
“I like to be as authentic as I can be,” said Kirshbaum, who was ordained at the Reconstruction Rabbinical College in 2008.