A New Model For Jewish Learning Community

Thanks to our friends at Jkid Philly and Jewish Learning Venture who shared this blog post about Makom Community (also below). Also, if your children are between the ages of six months and 8 years and are not yet getting free PJ Library books and CDs in the mail, definitely sign up for that while you're there! 

I’m working on an exciting project adds a new dimension to Jewish life in Center City. We are a meaningful and vibrant learning community through our daily afterschool, camp, and family learning experiences where we ignite joy for whole family Jewish engagement. Our work is driven by a few principles:

  1. Children are naturally curious and want to learn

  2. Parents want to interpret Jewish tradition for their own families

  3. Urban life needs Jewish infrastructure

1. Children are naturally curious and want to learn

Supporting children as they ask questions and discover the world is one of the most empowering things we as a community can do. When our children can ask deep, probing questions about themselves, Judaism, and our world, they have a strong start toward the skills that will help them make meaning of the world throughout their lives. At Makom Community, we explore child-generated questions through art, drama, music, and play.

These social-emotional skills we focus on also help our students to form friendships and be part of community throughout their own lives. They are the same skills they will need to make decisions today about whether to start a new project or take a few minutes to relax. And our students, at Makom Community are all engaged in thinking and communicating about their own emotions and processes as they play and explore in our fun and safe environment.

2. Parents want to engage deeply with Jewish tradition and be empowered to interpret that tradition for their children.

Parents love to have something to share, to give their children the most they can in every way. We believe that there are deep benefits to children seeing their parents engaged in Jewish learning. One feature of Makom Community family programming is this: Some element of the program is taught to at an adult level. The children are still in the room. They might be playing with the silks we’re getting ready to use or heading to the snack table to grab some food, but they hear what we are discussing in adult terms. After a couple minutes of sharing and grappling with a Jewish idea at an adult level, I step back and ask the adults to interpret that idea in a way that makes sense for their family.

This process sends a powerful message that we all have more to learn from Jewish tradition and that it is deep and compelling throughout our lives. Parents and grandparents—whether or not they had one kind of Jewish education or another themselves or whether they are even Jewish themselves—become the interpreters of Jewish tradition for their own children. This brings the thoughts and perspective of every parent into the conversation.

3. Urban life is a beautiful thing, and it needs the support of Jewish infrastructure to flourish and work for Jewish families.

Philly is a great city. I LOVE it here. Naomi, my wife, and I both moved to Philly when I began pursuing my masters at Penn. We fell in love with this city and want to stay here to raise our kids, one day. Makom Community represents the kind of learning and family environment that we want for our own children—empowered, deep, and personal. 

I see wonderful people working to make their neighborhoods better, more livable. Jewish infrastructure is one of the things we need to add to Philadelphia for more families to be able to stay living in the city. That means affordable access to Jewish life and Jewish education, having high quality and affordable care available after the school day, and it means a thousand other things, too. But one thing at a time…

The need for childcare after the school day provides an INCREDIBLE opportunity for immersive Jewish learning, where the rhythms of the day and year are those of the Jewish calendar.

After being active at Hillel, doing alumni work with Birthright Israel, creating quality learning and dynamic school environments as a synagogue Education Director in Maryland and in New Jersey, and dreaming about opening my own school for decades, I’m excited to be building this new community in Center City at such an exciting time.

All this excitement will be happening out of our new home base at 21st & Chestnut—we’re renting from the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Our afterschool program runs Monday to Friday from 3-6:30pm, and we also offer vacation camps during school breaks and on snow days. To learn more, go to www.makomcommunity.org.


Presenting about Makom Community at Gratz College’s Doctoral Seminar

Earlier this spring,  I spoke with Dr. Saul Wachs, who is now a member of our Advisory Board. He was excited about the new model for Jewish education that Makom Community brings to Philadelphia, and asked me to come and present at the final session of Gratz College’s doctoral seminar this spring. I was so honored to be asked, and greatly enjoyed presenting Makom Community’s model of Jewish Education to the thoughtful and diverse doctoral students, all of whom study various aspects of Jewish education while working in the field, too.

Thanks to video conferencing, I met with this cohort of doctoral students from around the world— educators from Baltimore, Florida, Philadelphia, Israel, California, and more. I told them about our journey so far—How I have shared coffee with interested parents and other stakeholders in our community, how our community is now celebrating Shabbat monthly with families from all over the city, and how our efforts are building toward a joyful learning community for families in Center City.

They were excited to hear about this new educational model, and had some astute questions. I’ll share a few of them here along with my answers.

Q: You mentioned that you’re working to be accessible to interfaith and LGBT families. How do you do that?

A: Though we make sure to create welcoming space and use language that communicates the same, modeling is the strongest way to show that we are a welcoming community. We model that we are LGBT-friendly when my wife and I stand at the door to greet families as they arrive. We model that we are interfaith friendly by creating opportunities for parents of all faiths are empowered to participate and interpret Judaism for their children (more about that below). When diverse families are among the founding families of a community, the welcoming environment is quickly knit into the fabric of our community.

Through modeling and setting up an environment where all the parents in the room are critical to the experience, we welcome parents from all faith backgrounds. At each Shabbat celebration, I stop and teach a Jewish concept at an adult level. Then, I ask the parents to interpret that idea for their own children. Each family discusses this new idea, and then we return to share some of our ideas and continue to welcome  Shabbat. In this way, each of the parents discusses ideas and values with their own children. Parents from any faith tradition are empowered and encouraged to share their thoughts with their children. This serves two vital purposes for all our families:

1) Parents are empowered to interpret Jewish tradition in a way that is personally meaningful.

2) Parents are modeling for their own children the value of continuing to learn about Judaism and the process of meaning-making as that learning continues throughout our lifetimes.

Q: How have the synagogues in the area responded to this new addition to the Jewish education options in Center City?

A: I’m so glad you asked! I have worked from the outset to build relationships with all the synagogues in the area so we can think creatively about points of synergy and ways we can work together to build up the Center City Jewish community.

Families who come to Makom Community but are not already members of an area synagogue either have not yet seen a compelling reason to join a synagogue, or have decided that none of the synagogues in the area seemed like a good fit for them. These families may find their home at Makom Community when otherwise they might not have found any point of connection with the Jewish Community. Makom Community graduates our students at the end of 5th grade.

When children graduate Makom Community’s afterschool program, they have a strong foundation in Jewish knowledge and ideals, and are ready to begin Bar & Bat Mitzvah preparations. We then work with parents and local rabbis to find the right fit for each family to facilitate this exciting milestone. After getting to know a family over the course of months or years, we hope that we can help guide them toward a synagogue in the area that might be just the right place for them to connect.

Several Center City synagogues have Sunday-only religious school programs. Others have programs on a mid-week day. Families who are already members of a synagogue in the area may enroll their children in both the synagogue school and Makom Community’s afterschool program. And those will be some lucky kids!

Q: How is Makom Community planning to be financially sustainable?

A: Through careful budgeting and judicial use of resources, Makom Community’s strategic plan projects that by the third year of operation we will be almost entirely sustained by tuition alone. This is not because tuition is particularly high—our afterschool program and camps are priced competitively, with scholarships available. Rather this is a direct result of careful budgeting and increasing enrollment. As with any new organization however, Makom Community does have start-up costs that need to be raised, and we are pursuing that start-up funding through a combination of grants and individual donations. 

These and other thoughtful and interesting questions sparked wonderful discussions about paralells in the doctoral student’s research and projects. I look forward to hearing more from the doctoral students at Gratz as their projects continue to unfold, and sharing more with them about our journey, too. Thank you, Dr. Saul Wachs, for inviting me to speak with them!

Brain Picking, or Listening and Sharing to Build Our Community

Grateful. Sitting here right now, I have a new sense of gratitude. Since beginning my work toward launching Makom Community almost a year ago, I have met with one hundred and something people to bounce ideas around, learn from them, and ask them to connect me with other folks in our community who might add to the conversation.

All of these one hundred and some conversations have shaped my vision for Makom and helped me to build a plan for bringing this new venue for Jewish education to Center City Philadelphia.

The first handful were people I already knew who had some expertise to bear on the project-- folks who have started non-profit organizations, parents in Center City, adults who grew up in Center City, and interested friends. From that handful, I asked who else they would suggest I talk to. And the amazing generosity of people who are three or more steps removed from me and took the time to talk with me is truly amazing. These are folks who are excited enough about the prospect of Makom and new models for Jewish education that not only did they share their time and expertise, they shared their networks, too.

In each of these conversations, I’ve asked some of the same questions, and I’ve invited each person to collaborate with me on this project. I asked them for general feedback on the Jewish afterschool enrichment model, I asked them about other smart people they think I should talk to, and I asked them whether they might know someone interested in helping underwrite a new venture like this one.

In each of these conversations, I’ve asked new questions, too. I’ve gotten to learn from executive directors of existing organizations about the legal decisions they have guided their organizations through. I’ve heard about strategies for fundraising. I’ve heard about unmet needs of parents and families with young children in Center City. I’ve heard from directors running programs similar to Makom in other parts of the United States. I’ve heard from directors and board presidents working with similar populations but in a variety of models.

All this brain picking and learning from the unique expertise that each of these people bring to the table has shaped the vision and plans for Makom, and I am so grateful to continue to find people who have expertise to share with me in the months and years to come. Are you one of those people? Be in touch-- I’d love to hear from you.