Gidon's Blog

Educational Innovation at SAJ...Join the Conversation!

by Gidon Isaacs on Oct 7, 2011

The Havdalah Project was conceived by the SAJ LOMED Committee, which met approximately once per month and used a combination of text study and discussion to develop and refine a shared educational vision. One of our first outcomes was a vision statement, which we think articulates the SAJ Hebrew School’s core goals. The draft of this statement is shown below:

The SAJ Hebrew School nourishes the whole life of our children. We will develop the Jewish self as a way of connecting with the world at large. Our open environment reflects the Reconstructionist tradition which invites all questions to promote a shared search for meaning. We foster a culture of respect, enriched by the diversity of our community.

The school's experiential approach to learning inspires children and their families to embrace the joys and journeys of Jewish life. Our explorations of Jewish culture, arts, history, holiday rituals, Hebrew language and prayer engage and animate our learners.

Children at SAJ develop connections to values and traditions that span generations. They are empowered to engage in spiritual practices and to grapple with complex issues of belief and faith. Our students go forward with a rich foundation in Jewish life as they become active participants in our synagogue and responsible citizens of the world.

The committee would now like to engage the SAJ community in a conversation about our shared educational vision and how we will continue to make it a reality.

This conversation will take place at online venues and two “town hall” meetings in the near future. Please look for announcements of these dates.

Some topics for you to consider include:
• Which concept in the statement resonates the most with you personally? Why?
• What picture of our classroom culture does the statement draw for you? What approach to Judaism is evoked?
• Based on the vision statement what kind of adults are will our learners become?

Previous Posts

The Havdalah Project Returns!

Nearly two years ago, a group of SAJ Hebrew School parents began a conversation about creating new opportunities for kids and their families to share joyful, engaging Jewish experiences. The goal was to extend these experiences beyond the SAJ, into our children's homes, and then back again, fostering greater connections among our families and the congregation.  Read more»

The Havdalah Project

Photo of Havdalah set

The Havdalah Project
Written by Edward Guttman

What we are doing
The SAJ Hebrew School is creating opportunities for kids and their families to share joyful and engaging Jewish experiences. Our goal is to extend these experiences beyond SAJ into your homes and back again, creating greater connections among our families and the congregation.

The Havdalah Project is our pilot program — our chance to try some new ideas and learn what works. We decided to start with Kitah Gimmel. Future events, activities and experiences will be extended to other classes.  Read more»

Exciting News at SAJ Hebrew School

Photo of children at Havdalah service

Written by Gary Drevitch, Kitah Gimmel parent and Lifnei LOMED committee member and Joel Topcik, Lifnei LOMED committee chair

We have exciting news about a new Hebrew School project that we hope will become a model of what our school and our children can achieve.

Since early 2010, a group of parents has been working with Gidon as a Hebrew School Steering Committee, to clarify our school's vision and to find ways to experiment and innovate in order to empower our kids and engage you, their families.

The first fruit of these discussions is the Havdalah Project, a test program that reflects core values our committee identified as central to the school's mission, such as family participation, experiential learning, and the joys of Jewish life.  Read more»

Purim's Sense of Community

Our Purim celebration - amazing, fun-filled, and extremely well-attended romp that it was - got me thinking about community. There is a great deal of talk these days about the importance and value of community. Judaism has always been attuned to this need, but there is also a societal moment of recognition of this need as traditional structures, neighborhoods, families, workplace, have been crumbling, for decades now. There is the recognition of an acute need to find and build our own communities and so organizations talk about their abilities to do just that.  Read more»

Back to the Future

The end of the school year is a time to reflect on the year that has passed and it is also a time to look forward towards the future. This has been a great year for the Hebrew School with our wonderful new cantor, an amazing staff, many new families joining our community and veteran families getting more involved. A big step for us this year was forming a steering committee for the Hebrew School -- a body which began the process of articulating a vision statement. Coming off of our latest meeting it is this work on which I want to focus, as this vision statement will draw from our past in order to chart a course for our future -- an apt discussion for the close of the school year.  Read more»

Dealing with Bechukotai

This week there are two portions read on Shabbat Behar and Bechukotai. The second portion is the classic source for the details of the pact between Adonai and the Jewish people. In short, the Torah tells us that if we keep God’s commandments the land will be fruitful providing us with its bounty and we shall be safe and happy. On the other hand, if we do not obey God’s commandments, we will be rejected by the land and punished by God.  Read more»


Yesterday was the fifth and final session in this year’s professional learning. You can read about previous sessions here, here, and here. Our focus for the year has been experiential education.  Read more»

Experience and Structure

Two events this past weekend prompted me to think a great deal about the notion of “crafting experiences”. On Friday Cantor Lisa Arbisser led a Jazz service. The unique combination of music and prayer drew people in and transported them to a spiritual place. The experience of the service was powerful and immediate, organic and flowing. It was not an experience that felt planned or highly structured, yet that is the irony of immersive and moving experiences. Most of them feel unplanned and improvised, but the truth is they are highly planned and structured.  Read more»

Experience and Structure

Two events this past weekend prompted me to think a great deal about the notion of “crafting experiences”. On Friday Cantor Lisa Arbisser led a Jazz service. The unique combination of music and prayer drew people in and transported them to a spiritual place. The experience of the service was powerful and immediate, organic and flowing. It was not an experience that felt planned or highly structured, yet that is the irony of immersive and moving experiences. Most of them feel unplanned and improvised, but the truth is they are highly planned and structured.  Read more»

How I Was Awakened to the the Fusion of Synagogue Music and American Jazz

I first became aware of the blending of Jewish synagogue music with American jazz music when I purchased an album a few years ago called Hazanos. It was a musical compilation created to accompany a documentary on the famous American cantor Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson, entitled A Cantor's Tale. I expected to hear some traditional cantorial melodies sung by Cantor Mendelson and perhaps some music composed for the movie.  Read more»

Cherubim I and Thou

This week includes one of my favorite “God in the details” moments in the Torah. Attentiveness to minute, seemingly irrelevant details, reveals a deep and powerful message, helping us to see another possibility for holiness in our everyday lives.  Read more»


I have written previously here, and here, about earlier professional development sessions with the Hebrew School teachers. Our third session took place yesterday and we focused on the foundational elements of experiential Jewish education: recreation and socialization. To briefly recap, our ultimate goal in experiential Jewish education is “challenge,” to create educational experiences that push participants to gain new perspectives, expand their comfort zones, and ask new questions, to name a few of the desired outcomes. In order to create the possibility for the comfort and the atmosphere necessary to be open to challenge, the educational setting must first include elements of recreation and socialization. Recreation is a sense of feeling at ease and having fun. Ideally there should also be an element of choice; of participants choosing of their own volition to participate (already one can grasp one of the fundamental challenges of Hebrew School education particularly with an experiential approach. How many participants, i.e. children, actively choose Hebrew School as an option?). Recreation creates the feeling of a “safe space” for the participants and creates a sense of social connection between them as well. Socialization provides participants with those elements of Judaism and Jewish culture – knowledge, skills, and attitudes -which help them identify as Jews. It also gives participants a common “language,” (sometimes the literal language of Hebrew) which also happens to be a Jewish one.  Read more»


We think of our Jewish tradition as one preoccupied with behavior – proper behavior, just behavior, ethical behavior, behavior that helps to “repair the world.” This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim is one of the most central textual sources for this idea.  Read more»


A few events from this past week have led me to think a great deal about community. To start, there was a new parent check-in on Tuesday where parents came to hear about programs and events for the rest of the year. More importantly, they were her because of their commitment to carve out time in their family's busy schedules for events going on at SAJ. On Friday night we had a spirited family service followed by lots of kids playing and a good community conversation amongst the adults. This was all capped off yesterday with our bake sale for Haiti and Tu Bishevat celebration.  Read more»

Tu Bishevat and Shabbat Shira

This Shabbat is a particularly joyous one for us, the Jewish people, as we celebrate both Tu Bishevat and Shabbat Shira. Tu Bishevat is certainly the more familiar celebration, the holiday sometimes called “The New Year of the Trees” and also explained as the birthday of the trees. Shabbat Shira is the Shabbat when the Torah portion Beshalach is read which contains Shirat Ha-yam “The Song of the Sea.” This is the song of rejoicing sang by the Israelites after they have crossed the Sea of Reeds safely escaping Pharoah and the Egyptian forces.  Read more»


Back in November I wrote about the teachers’ professional development for this year. At the time I promised that I would update you as the sessions took place and yesterday we held our second session. Our focus for the year is experiential education. We are exploring a conceptual framework which helps us to better understand what elements are needed to make a successful experiential lesson.  Read more»

Why A Hebrew School Blog?

Photo of SAJ Hebrew School Director, Gidon Isaacs

I want to welcome all of you back from your vacation with exciting news for the Hebrew School community. With this first writing of the new year we will be launching our Hebrew School blog. I have wanted to establish this blog for some time and now, in doing so, I want to lay out its value by answering the question, “why a Hebrew School blog?”  Read more»

Chanukah and Reconstructionism

A seemingly minor point in the practice of Chanukah got me thinking about the place of Reconstructionism in the Jewish tradition. I was reflecting on the fact that the blessing over the Chanukah candles includes the formulation "asher kidshanu be-mitzvotav vetzivanu le-hadlik ner shel Chaukah" - who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the candles of Chanukah. This phrase "commanded us" is not something to be taken lightly. In the framework of Jewish law, we only use the formulation "commanded us" for rituals whose roots are in the Torah.  Read more»

Yisrael - What's In A Name?

This week's portion, Va-yishlah (Gen. 32:6-36:43) includes one of the most powerful narratives in the Torah, which also happens to be the foundational story of our people, quite literally; the story contains the origin of the name Yisra'el. I want to encourage you to look at the verses yourself (Genesis 32:23-33) to read a deeply mysterious and psychologically compelling story that feels as fresh today as it must have upon its composition thousands of years ago.  Read more»

Teaching About God

Last Wednesday through Friday, I attended the RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) biennial conference held, this year, in at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Chicago. The conference was a great opportunity to share ideas with colleagues who are coming from a similar perspective on Judaism and on educational philosophy. In fact, my greatest take-aways from the conference were the ideas that emerged from engaging with such thoughtful colleagues.  Read more»

The Making of Experiential Jewish Education

As some of you may know, I have the privilege of participating in the Leadership Institute for Congregational and Synagogue Educators a two and a half course of study focusing on the three pillars of Judaic knowledge, pedagogy, and leadership. This year as part of the program, each participant was given a grant to support professional development for our teachers.  Read more»