An Exciting Start to Sukkot at Vassar Temple

Vassar Temple Seventh Graders Accept TorahThree dinners. A youth group meeting. A beautiful Sukkot service. Seventh graders accepting Torah. Dessert under the sukkah.

All of this was part of Vassar Temple’s celebration of Sukkot.

The evening began with three dinners. The 5th-7th grade Hebrew School students
met in one classroom for pizza. The post-bar/bat mitzvah students enjoyed Chinese food in the sukkah. The parents had pizza and salad (and some purloined Chinese, too).

Over dinner, the 8th-12th graders met to organize their youth group, electing peer leaders and starting to plan their year.

Then with sundown everyone came together for a celebratory service, during which the 7th graders received their own copies of the Plaut Commentary, a book they will use to prepare for bar and bat mitzvah.

Afterward we moved outside to break bread together under the sukkah.

As I said during the service, I love Sukkot.

Vassar Temple Gathers Under the Sukkah

Vassar Temple Gathers Under the Sukkah

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Vassar Temple Religious-School Students Celebrate Sukkot Under the Sukkah

Vassar Temple religious-school student Cameron J., right, shakes the lulav under the sukkah.

Vassar Temple religious-school student Cameron J., right, shakes the lulav under the sukkah.

Vassar Temple religious-school students took their usual weekly worship service outdoors in celebration of Sukkot. In spite of heavy overnight rain, the weather cooperated beautifully, creating the perfect opportunity to appreciate the first day of fall in the sukkah.

Each student also had the opportunity to shake the lulav and recite the traditional blessing.


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Building a Better Hebrew School

Twenty-five years ago Hebrew education was turned on its head, because in 1988 the Board of Jewish Education of New York released the astonishing results of its city-wide survey of Hebrew education.

Researchers had scrutinized synagogue-based programs of every variety. Most were Reform and Conservative, while others fell into different categories of practice. Most met a few hours a week over 1-2 days, others more or less frequently. They used a wide range of textbooks.

But they all had something shocking in common: All of the students in the varied programs knew exactly the same amount of Hebrew! Or, as the report put it, there was “no correlation between correct pupil responses [and the] number of instructional hours per week.” Students who attended eight hours of Hebrew education per week didn’t know more Hebrew than those who attended just one.

This finding was so counter-intuitive, and so critical of the Hebrew programs that were in place, that many people at first simply refused to believe it.

In this regard I’m fortunate, because my position on the faculty of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion gave me the opportunity to observe dozens of Hebrew schools first hand, not just in New York but across North America (and even a few in Europe).

Not surprisingly, I saw exactly what the report described: Hebrew programs were failing.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one to notice. As I started running national seminars on Hebrew education, I learned that most Hebrew-school principals were equally aware of the ineffectiveness of their programs. And this is for sure: the parents and students knew that the Hebrew programs weren’t working.

But change comes slowly. The inertia of the status quo is hard to overcome. “But we’ve always done it that way” is a prevalent unspoken motto, along with “but it worked just fine back when….”

Still, the landscape of Hebrew education is finally changing, and not just because of the 1988 report. With over 50 years of solid research about how children learn languages, it’s becoming easier to identify the specific shortcomings of our traditional models and to create more streamlined and appropriate programs to take their place.

Building on half a century of data, research, experience, and expertise, we’ve designed a Hebrew program at Vassar Temple that’s exciting, efficient, effective, and modern.

By teaching the entire alphabet, along with the vowels, in 5th grade, we avoid the drudgery that in the past has accompanied Hebrew School. (Research has dispelled the myth that students do better the earlier they learn the alphabet.) Because the students learn everything so quickly, their progress serves as a source of pride and motivation.

In 6th grade we focus on a brand new skill: reading without vowels. Advanced eye-tracking experiments show that the brain automatically focuses only on the consonants in Hebrew. So unlike traditional models that are at odds with how the brain naturally functions, this approach meshes with a child’s innate ability.

Seventh grade is devoted, naturally, to bar/bat mitzvah preparation. The students apply what they’ve learned over the prior two years as they prepare for this milestone in their life. The pay-off is two-fold. Because the students use their skills, they feel proud of what they’ve learned. And because of what they’ve learned, bat/bat mitzvah preparation is less stressful and more fun.

We augment these classes, which take place on Wednesday afternoons from 4:30 to 6:00pm, with Hebrew instruction for everyone on Sunday mornings.

The 21st century is an exceptionally rewarding time to be Jewish in America. The combination of a vibrant Jewish community and newly understood ways of engaging each new generation holds the promise of an unparalleled golden age of Judaism, and we’re thrilled to take part in building it.


Dr. Joel M. Hoffman served on the faculty of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for ten years, and in 2008 he chaired the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, the largest gathering of Jewish educators in the world. He currently directs the education program at Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY. He can be reached by e-mail or through the school’s website, which also has more information about the educational programs at Vassar Temple.



[This essay also appears in the August, 2013 issue of The Voice.]

Why Learn Hebrew?

Why should people learn to read Hebrew? And why do we insist that children learn it before bat/bat mitzvah?

There are lots of good answers, I think, but unfortunately some bad answers get in the way. In fact, one of the most widespread answers is outdated, and another is simply wrong.

The outdated answer is that learning Hebrew is learning to be literate. That used to be true, but it isn’t any more. As we Jews traveled around the world over the course of 3,000 years, we often used the Hebrew alphabet to read and write: first in Hebrew, then Aramaic, Arabic for a while in Spain, our dialect of German (“Yiddish”), and so on. But now, if a child has to learn only one alphabet, the Latin alphabet is almost certainly a better way to go.

The wrong answer is, sadly, also the most common answer across the American landscape: children have to learn Hebrew to participate in worship. But it’s not true. (Never mind the fact that even if it were, many children would see a win-win here, and opt neither to learn Hebrew nor to go to services.)

The cat’s out of the bag regarding transliteration. People know it’s there. They know that the words of our sacred liturgy can be written in Hebrew letters or in English ones.

A more important though less widely recognized reason to reject this common second answer is that most people learn the prayers by praying, not by reading the prayers in a classroom. (This is why we have expanded worship in our religious school.)

So if Hebrew is no longer the best path to literacy, and if it’s not the only route to the narrow reward of worship, why should children learn Hebrew?

Here are my top five reasons:

  1. Hebrew is part of our heritage, and learning it helps the next generation connect to its past.
  2. Hebrew is part of the eternality of the Jewish people, and this generation has an obligation not to break the chain. A time will come when English will go the way of Greek and Latin. (Not many people know that it was the Muslims and the Jews who brought the classics to a European audience that could no longer read Aristotle or Plato.) But Hebrew is still around.
  3. Hebrew forms a connection with Israel, and can be a stepping stone to a greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
  4. Hebrew is fun, particularly for children. Children like puzzles, and decoding Hebrew is a wonderful puzzle. (If learning Hebrew isn’t fun, something has gone terribly wrong.)
  5. Study for its own sake is part of our heritage. Even if Hebrew had no other purpose at all, it would be valuable because we believe in learning.

I’m thrilled that starting this fall we’ll be bringing all of this excitement, joy, and tradition to Wednesday afternoons at Vassar Temple.



Dr. Joel M. Hoffman served on the faculty of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City for ten years, and in 2008 he chaired the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, the largest gathering of Jewish educators in the world. He currently directs the education program at Vassar Temple, which attracts Jews from throughout Dutchess County, New York.

Vassar Temple Religious School Closes Year With Breakfast

Vassar Temple Seth A. Erlebacher Religious School Final Breakfast

Students, parents, and teachers mingle during a year-end breakfast at Vassar Temple’s Seth A. Erlebacher Religious School

Vassar Temple’s Seth A. Erlebacher religious school ended the year on a high note yesterday with a communal breakfast, year-end activities, and a chance for the older students to attend a moving Confirmation service led by four 10th graders in recognition of their progress in religious school.

The final event of the school year is a picnic and teacher-recognition service on Friday, June 7.

Vassar Temple Implements Innovative ‘Sababa’ Center to Enrich Religious Education

Poughkeepsie, Mar 4, 2013 — Vassar Temple opened its innovative “Sababa” Center to enrich religious education yesterday morning. Supplementing a classroom-based curriculum in the Seth A. Erlebacher Religious School, the center provides small-group and individualized experiences to the entire student body. The center takes its name from a slang Hebrew word for “great,” reflecting the center’s goal of offering great Jewish learning in an alternative format.

Vassar Temple Sababa Center

Vassar Temple Sababa Center

“Most teachers can reach about 90% of their students most of the time. We designed the Sababa Center to make sure that the other ten percent are also engaged in productive learning,” explains Vassar Temple’s Director of Education, Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, who holds a PhD in linguistics and who has consulted on Jewish education across North and South America.

“Everyone is unique,” Hoffman adds, “and the Sababa Center encourages students to express their individuality by giving them a maximally responsive learning environment for at least part of the day.”

Unlike traditional “resource rooms,” which focus only on remedial help, the Sababa Center helps each student move past the inherent limitations of classroom-based education. The Sababa Center is for any student, “whether bored, unable to keep up, or otherwise unengaged,” says Hoffman. “In other words, everyone.”

While classroom learning tends to be curriculum based, the Sababa Center helps students explore tangents to what they are learning in class, and find their own personal connection to that material. Accordingly, the Sababa Center is staffed by teachers with diverse approaches and a wide range of knowledge and skills.

Students rotate through the Sababa Center for 15-20 minutes at a time.

The Sababa Center is funded in part by a grant from the Ann and Abe Effron Fund.

Vassar Temple, affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, is an inclusive center of Jewish practice and study: http://www.VassarTemple.org. The Seth A. Erlebacher Religious School at Vassar Temple serves students in grades K-12: http://www.School-VassarTemple.org

Vassar Temple Hosts Community-Wide “Gesher” Bowling Event

Good form!

Good form!

As part of an ongoing effort to bring the various Jewish communities in Poughkeepsie closer, Vassar Temple hosted an afternoon of bowling fun for teens from local synagogues.

Some students bowled in the traditional style, some in more creative ways, and some just watched, as everyone schmoozed and laughed.

(Photographs by Rachel Marcus and Dr. Joel M. Hoffman.)

RAC Trip, Monday: Lobbying on Capitol Hill

Rebecca Shaw, Aide to Representative Chris Gibson (Left), Engages in Frank Conversation With Vassar Temple High-School Students Brianna E. (Foreground), Kiley Q., and Ali D.

Rebecca Shaw, Aide to Representative Chris Gibson (Left), Engages in Frank Conversation With Vassar Temple High-School Students Brianna E. (Foreground), Kiley Q., and Ali D. as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Monday was the big day.

After an intensive weekend of studying, exploring, debating, and discussing, and after a long evening of writing and rewriting, the students set off to lobby their legislators on Capitol Hill.

The logistics alone demanded complicated charts: Each student is represented on the Hill by two state senators (Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand for us), and one local representative (in our case, Sean Maloney from 18th congressional district or Chris Gibson from the 19th).

I don't know how to convey the thrill of seeing Vassar Temple high-school students engaged in a policy debate at this high level in Washington.The students chose their own topics from among the many they’d been introduced to over the weekend: gun safety, LGBT rights, stem-cell research, etc. And some students worked together. So there was partial overlap among the issues that they had prepared, but we didn’t want to present the same issue twice in front of the same person, and we didn’t have time for more than three presentations. Additionally, we were not the only congregation in New York State, so the Senate presentations required additional coordination.

In the end, everyone spoke at least once, and some people spoke twice. (I’ll post the students’ remarks separately.)

Reeti Kumar, Aide to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Takes Notes From Vassar Temple Students.  Left to Right:  Reeti Kumar (in Blue), Danielle B., and Brianna E.

Reeti Kumar, Aide to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Takes Notes From Vassar Temple Students as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Left to Right From Center: Reeti Kumar (In Blue), Danielle B., and Brianna E.

Our first visit was to Senator Gillibrand’s office, where we were greeted by Ms. Reeti Kumar, an aide to the senator. We met in a stairwell because the senator’s office wasn’t large enough to accommodate our entire group. Danielle B. spoke in favor of more accurate sex education, and Brianna E. addressed LGBT rights in the workplace.

From there we moved on to Senator Schumer, along the way almost literally bumping into Senator John McCain. Once we arrived, an aide to Senator Schumer, Patricio Gonzalez, took us to a conference room where Noah C., Rachel M., and Isaac H-W turned to gun safety.

Patricio Gonzalez, Aide to Senator Charles Schumer, Responds to Students From Vassar Temple and Beth Torah of Upper Nyack.  Clockwise From Head of Table:  Patricio Gonzalez, Noah C., Rachel M., and Isaac H-W.

Patricio Gonzalez, Aide to Senator Charles Schumer, Responds to Students From Vassar Temple and Beth Torah of Upper Nyack as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Clockwise From Head of Table: Patricio Gonzalez, Noah C.Rachel M., and Isaac H-W.

Then we split up. I took one group to Representative Gibson’s office, and Rabbi Hantman took the other to Representative Maloney.

We had an appointment with Rebecca Shaw, aide to Representative Chris Gibson. In a sense, this was our most important meeting yet. Democratic Senators Gillibrand and Schumer were mostly, perhaps entirely, in agreement with our positions. But we didn’t know about Republican Chris Gibson.

I should be clear that the RAC is non-partisan, as was our visit. We were not and are not campaigning. But the general Democratic platform more closely aligned with the issues the students chose than the Republican platform did.

Kiley Q. (Left), Ali D., and Brianna E. Outside Representative Chris Gibson's House Office in Washington, DC.

Kiley Q. (Left), Ali D., and Brianna E. Outside Representative Chris Gibson’s House Office in Washington, DC.

Rebecca Shaw turned out to be gracious, welcoming, and engaging. She took us to the representative’s office, where Brianna, Kiley, and Ali offered their well-researched and carefully-thought-out positions on LGBT rights in the workplace, more accurate sex education, and gun control. After each one, Ms. Shaw responded, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing.

What followed was the highlight of the weekend for me. Rather than simply taking notes to convey to her boss, Ms. Shaw continued with a frank conversation about these important issues. While there was disagreement in the room, the conversation was respectful, cordial, and, it seems, honest.

Isaac H-W (Left), Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C. Outside Representative Sean Maloney's House Office in Washington, DC.

Isaac H-W (Left), Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C. Outside Representative Sean Maloney’s House Office in Washington, DC.

Danielle B. (Right) Explains Her Position on Sex Education to Ryan Lehman, Aide to Representative Sean Maloney.

Danielle B. (Right) Explains Her Position on Sex Education to Ryan Lehman, Aide to Representative Sean Maloney.

I don’t know how to convey the thrill of seeing three Vassar Temple high-school students engaged in a policy debate at this high level in Washington.

Because the visits to Representatives Gibson and Maloney took place at the same time, I couldn’t watch Isaac, Noah, and Rachel talk about gun control, or Danielle talk about the need for better sex education. I understand that an aide named Ryan Lehman greeted them on behalf of Representative Maloney, and engaged in a similarly engaging and exciting conversation.

Our meetings ended just before 1:30. We’d spent three hours on the Hill, lobbying in three different buildings. Exhausted but flying high, we had a delicious lunch in a congressional cafeteria, returned to the hotel, and drove home.

From start to finish, the trip was a huge a success.

Vassar Temple Students Walk to Capitol Hill to Lobby Legislators, Part of the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Vassar Temple Students Walk to Capitol Hill to Lobby Legislators, Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.


High-School Students Isaac H-W (Left), Noah C., Rachel M., Danielle B., Brianna E., Kiley Q., and Ali D. on the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

High-School Students Isaac H-W (Left), Noah C., Rachel M., Danielle B., Brianna E., Kiley Q., and Ali D. on the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

RAC Trip, Sunday

High-School Students Working and Schmoozing in the Lobby of the Sheraton Pentagon City as part of the RAC's L'Taken social-action Seminar.

High-School Students Working and Schmoozing in the Lobby of the Sheraton Pentagon City as part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Sunday at the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social-Action seminar started with an innovative program that examined the peace process in the Middle East through the lens of Israeli politics.
Students Debating Israeli Politics and Middle-East Peace as part of the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.  Foreground:  Isaac H-W

Students Debating Israeli Politics and Middle-East Peace as part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Foreground: Isaac H-W.

Then the participants jumped into their second opportunity for in-depth study of an issue currently before Congress: nuclear disarmament, judicial nominations, disability rights, gun control, clean energy, reproductive rights, and more. As they did the first time around, the students chose an issue to investigate, learning about their topic as well as Jewish perspectives and legislative backgrounds on it.

Then, with their day of lobbying approaching, the participants spent time learning how to be an effective advocate in Washington, a process that included hearing from Rabbi David Saperstein, the man who directs the Religious Action Center, and under whose leadership the RAC became second only to AIPAC in terms of Jewish influence in Washington.

Taking a Break.  On our way to the National Mall.

Taking a Break. On our way to the National Mall.

After almost five hours of work, we again left the hotel for a break, this time headed for the Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall, and dinner in Pentagon Row. Our group dined together, processing what we had done so far and preparing for the challenge coming up in the evening.

Back at the hotel, the students chose an issue on which they would lobby Congress the next day.

Then, after a specific briefing on their issue, the students sat down for the hardest work of the weekend: crafting their message to their elected leaders.

Vassar Temple High-School Students Crafting Their Messages to Congress as part of the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Vassar Temple High-School Students Crafting Their Messages to Congress as part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Clockwise from left around table: Briaana E., Noah C., Isaac H-W, Rachel M., Danielle B., Kiley Q., and Ali D.

Speaking effectively to a senator or representative’s aide is demanding. The students knew they had to be informed, accurate, persuasive, clear, and convincing, as well as personal and Jewish, while also inclusive, to say nothing of polite and concise. Their messages would be conveyed to the men and women who create the law of the land, and had the potential to influence the lives of millions of people in America and around the world.

Less than half the population of America votes. Even fewer people take the time to be in touch with a Congressman or Congresswoman. These students were not only reaching out, they were showing up, in person. They wanted to do a good job.

So they spent hours weaving together their personal convictions, their issue’s legislative history, statistics in support of their argument, and background about the people they would be addressing. Armed with laptops and snack food, the students spent hours perfecting what they would say.

Then, exhausted but prepared, they went to sleep, looking forward to their day of lobbying.

Students at the RAC's L'Taken Socal-Action Seminar Attending a Briefing on Israel.

Students at the RAC’s L’Taken Socal-Action Seminar Attending a Briefing on Israel.


Students at the RAC's L'Taken Socal-Action Seminar Exploring Issues Surrounding Workplace Discrimination.

Students at the RAC’s L’Taken Socal-Action Seminar Exploring Issues Surrounding Workplace Discrimination. Standing on left: Brianna E.

RAC Trip, Saturday

Celebrating Havdalah at the Jefferson Memorial with the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Celebrating Havdalah at the Jefferson Memorial with the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Our first full day at the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken seminar featured Shabbat celebrations, an introduction to lobbying, an excursion to DC, and explorations of key legislative and social-action issues.

Learning about the Political Process at the RAC's L''Taken Social-Action Seminar

Learning about the Political Process at the RAC’s L”Taken Social-Action Seminar

Students Preparing a Mock Legislative Campaign at the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar

Students Preparing a Mock Legislative Campaign at the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar

After Shabbat morning services, the students engaged in a full-scale lobbying simulation that demonstrated the complex interplay between money, power, and politics. Participants were tasked with fundraising, lobbying, organizing, protesting, and more. As they worked through the process, they learned both the theory and realpolitik sides of how a bill becomes a law.

After a break for lunch, we left the hotel to explore Washington, DC. The weather worked in our favor, gracing us with a warm, dry day.

We started with the Martin Luther King Memorial before moving on to the National Holocaust Museum.

Because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center, the MLK Memorial is a source of pride for us not only as Americans and Jews, but specifically as members of a movement that continues to devote so much energy to working toward a nation guided by the prophetic goals of justice and equality.

And at the Holocaust museum, we reflected on a tragedy of nearly incomprehensible proportions, even as we marveled at the progress we have made in the past several decades.

Then we set off for Georgetown, with down time for strolling, shopping, and dining.

Before returning to the hotel, we gathered for a moving Havdalah ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial.

Students Gathering in the Hotel Lobby as they  Prepare for Monday.

Students Gathering in the Hotel Lobby as they Prepare for Monday.

To top off the evening, the participants selected an area of study from among an array of topics currently before the Congress: reproductive rights, clean energy, embryonic stem cell research, LGBT equality in the workplace, gun control, combating malaria, torture and indefinite detention, and more. In smaller groups, the students studied their issue, learning about the current state of affairs, as well as Jewish perspectives and legislative backgrounds.

By the end of the day, the participants had spent time with other teenage Jews from around the country celebrating Shabbat, exploring the capital, and delving into the issues they could try to impact on Monday.

Vassar Temple Students at the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.  Left-to-right:  Brianna E., Ali D., Kiley Q., Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C.

Vassar Temple Students at the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Left-to-right: Brianna E., Ali D., Kiley Q., Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C.


Ali D and Kiley Q frolicking.

Ali D and Kiley Q frolicking.