A conservative, egalitarian synagogue

The Shorashim Model

A documentary by the Jewish Education Project,
and companion article about Shorashim by Rachel Delia Benaim 


As the clock strikes 4:00 pm on a Wednesday, marking the start of the religious education program at Temple Israel Center, the sound of what may have been jumping beans and laughing children fills the entire second floor of the building.       

The stairwell is decorated with art projects depicting Jewish history throughout the ages and Jewish holidays. On the second floor landing, there is an open space with lounge and beanbag chairs. Around it there are a few open doors leading into learning spaces. The laughter continues to echo through the landing, as do the sounds of clacking and rattling.

Temple Israel Center, a Conservative egalitarian congregation with 840 families in Westchester, N.Y., has made tremendous strides in transforming what was once their traditional religious school program into what is now an immersive, experiential educational experience for children and their families called Shorashim. The clacking, I soon learned, was only a small cog in their revolutionary religious school model.

Sure enough, the sounds were emanating from a fourth grade's group of 8 and 9 year olds. “We’re making groggers,” said a 4th grader, in a matter of fact tone. “For Purim next week,” she said after some thought.

This isn’t unusual in Shorashim. The weekly education program consists of a thematic Jewish activity-like making groggers and talking about their significance, Hebrew language, and some sort of interactive educational component. The program day ends with communal tefilla, prayer, where kids of all ages gather.

“The philosophy behind Shorashim is that the learning that happens here is not confined to the classroom. Rather, it will break down the walls of the classroom and go out into the community; to their lives so they’re living Jewishly and not just learning about being Jewish.”

To do so, Shorashim hired full-time educators. Back before Temple Israel Center’s religious school became Shorashim “faculty were part timers,” said Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Temple Israel Center’s senior rabbi. “Many were teaching elsewhere and they came here afterwards,” he added.

Tucker explained that, in fact, a sense of community was missing in the old model. “Children and families would come to the synagogue on Shabbat or other parts of the week and their teachers weren’t there,” he said. “In addition to some of the challenges of providing Jewish education in a limited number of hours, you had the problem of it not really connecting to other things that were happening in the synagogue.”

Now, Shorashim has full time educators in addition to the overall leadership team who are available not only do the work of creating curriculum, but to also constantly evolve and hone the Shorashim experience. On top of that, they come in to run youth programming on Shabbat and to be a part of the youth and family programming in the congregation, Tucker explained.

These full time educators were hired in the hopes that Temple Israel’s education and engagement would move beyond single space education on Sundays. Their jobs are to transcend the isolated education model into a more holistic, cross-community experience.

“Now when children come in they see these people here,” Tucker said, and there’s “a continuum of learning that's happening in the congregation.”

And that’s the uniqueness of Shorashim: that it aims to be much more than just a classroom education model.

“Other people complain about religious school,” said one Shorashim learner. “But I only say good things about Shorashim! It’s very fun and different.” He explained why: “Other religious schools just have their religious school teachers. The Shorashim teachers also organize youth events and have Shabbat dinner. You see them if you go to services on Saturday.”

Evidently, the fact that there’s continuity between Shorashim and the rest of the synagogue has made an impact.

But, the meaningful learning that takes place during Shorashim program time has significant merit in and of its own right. “There’s never just sitting down and reading from a book. There’s always something fun to do—” like making groggers!

“I would’ve loved to have had a school like this as a child,” said one parent, who is also one of the synagogue’s lay-leaders who has a son in Shorashim. “The children have the opportunity to recreate the city of Shushan [the city of the Purim story] across the ballroom! They’ll never forget that.”

Judaism is filled with sensory experiences. There are sounds, there are tastes, there are fragrances. Shorashim allows the students to enjoy these experiences through a very carefully designed curriculum,” she said.