Congregation: Mishkan Shalom, Philadelphia, PA
Education Director: Rabbi Erin Hirsh
Grades: kindergarten through eleventh grade (students in seventh grade and older participate in a joint program with Germantown Jewish Center)
Mishkan Shalom was formed in 1987 by adults who were looking for a place to meet their spiritual needs and to support their engagement in political activism. After a few years, they started having children and realized that they needed a religious school. Originally, the school was a Shabbat school and was very integrated into the congregation. It was very small: a couple of teachers taught around twenty students.
Growth since Rabbi Hirsh arrived at Mishkan Shalom seven years ago:
Seven years ago, both the administrative structure and the curriculum were inadequate to serve the school. The school had 150 students and was run by a part-time director who worked only twelve hours per week. As result, nearly all of the students and parents involved were dissatisfied. The school committee participated in the Designated School Program, which helped them to understand their problems, hired Rabbi Hirsh and began a four year process of curriculum development. They intentionally involved the congregation throughout this process: group of facilitators was trained to lead listening sessions with every stakeholder in the congregation, including students, parents, and congregational committees. They then consolidated the information they had gathered, drawing out key themes, to create an educational vision statement from which Rabbi Hirsh created curricula. The community could then return to the vision statement to evaluate each curriculum. The high level of communal involvement in planning led more people in the congregation to feel connected to and value the school.
Rabbi Hirsh is aware that she has been successful in improving the school because when she was hired, the students hated coming to congregational school. Now, most of the students like coming to school most of the time.
Resources that Aid in Growth:
Rabbi Hirsh has relied on the enthusiasm and dedication of her “amazing ed. committee” as the school has grown. The Designated School Program has also been vital to the school's progress. Parents of children in the congregational school are also helpful. They are required to participate in the school coop through volunteering on the Ed. Committee or the School Fund-raising Committee, serving as guest teachers, or helping with the general administrative needs of the school. The school is also very well staffed: there is a highly skilled Assistant Ed. Director, Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, and a School Administrator. Rabbi Hirsh states that the size of the school could double without her needing to increase the size of the staff.
Challenges in Growth:
- A major stumbling block in the school's growth historically has been that congregants tended to join Mishkan Shalom to further their own spiritual journeys. They emphatically didn't want their synagogue to be like their parents' synagogues, which focused on Judaism for children to the exclusion of other congregants' spiritual needs. Thus, they sometimes neglected to realize the importance of the school in the congregation. The community's involvement in restructuring the school helped congregants to rethink their relationship with the school.
- The school used to hire many rabbinical students as teachers, but their high rate of turnover became problematic.
- The students' lives are over-programmed, and congregational school competes with homework for secular school and extracurricular activities.
- The school is struggling with how to teach the Holocaust. Parents disagree about what is appropriate to teach children at different ages, and the students' secular schools also educate them differently on the topic.
- The school needs to fundraise constantly to support itself. It conducts many fundraisers throughout the year, including Hannukah toy fairs, ice-skating parties, flower bulb sales, Passover haggadah sales, and a Purim carnival.