Beth El Congregation Rabbi Faith Cantor said that in an ideal Jewish community, everyone would attend synagogue regularly, and all parents would send their children to Hebrew school.
But, in today’s transient, fast-paced society, Rabbi Cantor admits that is not always plausible. In many cases, and for many reasons, getting children to Hebrew school can be difficult, she said.
“The days of if we build it, they will come are done in today’s Jewish community,” Rabbi Cantor said. “There are so many commitments people have today from both parents working to sports and other engagements. Also, there is no defined borders anymore for the Jewish community. People live all over, and in many cases, there is no synagogue or Hebrew school options in their community.”
To address these issues, Beth El decided that if the Jewish community wasn’t coming to them, they would go to the community. This led to the congregation to open satellite schools in several locations throughout the Baltimore metropolitan region in communities not often associated with large Jewish populations.
Over the last several years, Beth El has opened schools in Roland Park, Hunt Valley/Timonium, Federal Hill and Howard County. This September, the congregation will open two additional schools, both in Carroll County. One will be at Carrolltowne Elementary School in Sykesville and the other at Robert Morton Elementary in Westminster.
Beth El Director of Education Dr. Eyal Bor said the satellite schools have experienced a great deal of growth in a short time, having started out with just seven students in 2009. In the 2012-2013 school year, there were 63 students ages 3 to 13.
Bor believes the additionol schools in Carroll County will push those figures to more than 100 students this fall.
“We identified at least 250 to 300 Jewish families in the Carroll County area who could utilize our schools,” Bor said. “The trend to successful Jewish education today is you must go to where the Jews are and can’t wait for them to come to you. Our goal is to offer an opportunity where students can obtain the love, passion and education for Judaism that they might not have otherwise experienced.”
Those who enroll at the satellite school attend for 90 minutes one day a week from September through June. Students learn Hebrew and about holidays, rituals and traditions while also being encouraged to perform acts of tikkun olam.
Beth El’s assistant principal, Jill Eisen, said students come from all types of religious backgrounds, and in many cases, the school represents their first in-depth exposure to Judaism.
“We are just looking for families with an interest in providing a Jewish education to their children,” Eisen said. “Many families today don’t label themselves Conservative or Orthodox or Reform. They just consider themselves Jewish but live in an area where opportunities just aren’t available to get their children involved. We are trying to change that.”
Ellen Marks is one of the educators who teaches at the satellite schools. She makes the 40-minute commute from Pikesville to Ellicott City, where Beth El has a school at Waverley Elementary, which meets from 4:30 to 6 p.m. each Thursday. She said teaching there has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her job.
“For whatever reason, many of these children have never had the opportunity to receive a Jewish education,” Marks said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see how engaged and how excited they are about learning about their faith and heritage.”
Bor said that the success they have achieved in a short time is encouraging, and the congregation is exploring other satellite opportunities, including the possibility of expanding into the White Marsh area.
“Having to adjust is a sign of the times we live in today,” Bor said. “We see this as a growing trend in Jewish education. For whatever reason, the demand for a traditional Jewish education is on the decline, and if we are not proactive we will get left behind.”
Eric Gordon can already see the difference the satellite school has had on his two children, Ben, 7, and Zoe, 5. They attend the Roland Park school, and Gordon said he is amazed at the results.
“This school has given my children a Jewish identity; an identity that they are proud of,” he said. “I grew up in Bethesda going to Hebrew School for three hours, three days a week, and didn’t like it. My kids love it, and more importantly, they are learning a lot.”
Gordon continued: “I’m just shocked by how much they take in, in just 90 minutes a week. They know their prayers, the traditions and the holidays and we don’t even belong to a synagogue. I just could not be happier with the experience they have received.”
Beth El Satellite Schools
• Federal Hill
Meets on Thursdays, 3:45 to 5:15 p.m.
School 33, 1427 Light St., Baltimore
• Roland Park
Meets on Mondays, 3:45 to 5:30 p.m.
Roland Park Country School, 5204 Roland Ave., Baltimore
A walking service is available for students from Roland Park Elementary School and Gilman School.
• Hunt Valley
Meets on Wednesdays, 4:15 to 5:45 p.m.
The Law Offices of Heidi S. Kenny, LLC, 11426 York Road, 1st Floor, Cockeysville
• Howard County
Meets on Thursdays, 4:30 to 6 p.m.
Waverly Elementary School, 10220 Wetherburn Road, Ellicott City
• Hebrew School in Carroll County I
Meets on Mondays, 4:30 to 6 p.m.
Carrolltowne Elementary School. 6542 Ridge Road, Sykesville
• Hebrew School in Carroll County II
Meets on Mondays, 4:30 to 6 p.m.
Robert Morton Elementary School, 1413 Washington Road, Westminster
For information about school open houses and tuition, contact Jill Eisen at 410-484-4543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.