Holiday-themed boxes bring Judaism to the doorstep

Judaism Unboxed

Alarmed by a drastic drop in enrolment in part-time Jewish schools, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has created an innovative way to reach out to young families, who may be missing out on Jewish education this year.

Last week, about 2,000 families received a box filled with activities and creative ideas to celebrate the holiday of Tu b’Shevat, and more boxes are planned for upcoming holidays.

Supplementary schools, which run on afternoons and weekends, have seen a drop of between 50 and 60 percent in enrolment this school year, said Yael Bendat-Appell, senior director of Jewish engagement at the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.

In 2019-2020, about 3,300 children were enrolled in 26 supplementary schools affiliated with UJA.

The pandemic has forced parents to re-assess their options for Jewish education, said Bendat-Appell.“When prioritizing what to sign their kids up for, in-person school was the priority,” she explained.

When public schools were open and in-person, parents were reluctant to expose their children to yet another cohort of students at supplementary school.

And now that schools have moved online, many parents feel their children are burned out by the end of the school day, without adding more online classes.“

After a full day of school, virtual learning is a big ask of kids,” said Bendat-Appell.

For some families who were already watching their younger children struggle with distance learning, the decision not to re-enrol in supplementary school may have also been due to affordability, she said.

While the drop in enrollment may be understandable, it is deeply worrying to educators, she said.“We fear families are going to be less likely to return to supplementary schools when things resume back to normal. We really want schools to have strong relationships with those families, so there’s a greater likelihood that this moment of lower engagement because of COVID, doesn’t lead to lower educational experiences in general.”

To help schools connect with current students, as well as former students who had not enrolled this year, Federation developed a themed box containing potting soil, seeds, and a compostable pot, as well as indoor and outdoor activities designed by Shoresh, a Jewish environmental group. The boxes were offered free to supplementary schools, and a small grant was available to help with the distribution.

Schools were also encouraged to develop a program to enhance the experience.

Holy Blossom Temple asked volunteer drivers and teachers to deliver 150 boxes, which also contained an invitation to an online event, said Lisa Isen Baumal, principal of youth education and family engagement at the temple.

The Sunday after the boxes were delivered, Holy Blossom, along with Temple Sinai and Temple Emanu-El, hosted a holiday program featuring educators from Shoresh and children’s entertainers Judy and David singing Tu b’Shevat songs.“

We had over 100 families online with us, it was great,” said Isen Baumal. A lot of the families who participated are not enrolled in school this year, she noticed.“

It was an especially nice way to connect with families that don’t live in the neighbourhood.”She received an appreciative note from a family in Pickering, Ont., about 40 kilometres east of Toronto, who were delighted to receive a hand-delivered box. “We made an effort to try and reach everyone.”

At Danforth Jewish Circle, a congregation in Toronto’s east end, volunteers delivered about 50 boxes to families. The local public schools and the congregation are not in a predominantly Jewish area, noted Alysse Rich, director of education.“

Our students can be the only Jewish person in their class or in their school, so coming together is really important.”

The boxes also had an invitation to a virtual Tu b’Shevat seder the school was holding during its usual class time.“One of the things that’s nice is that the boxes are offering us a tangible way to be in touch with people,” she said. “It’s a way to say, ‘remember that we’re still here and we’re still here for you, even if you can’t fathom one more minute online.’”

Danforth Jewish Circle’s classes started outside this year but have now switched to online. Despite Zoom fatigue, about 60 children are enrolled in the school this year, compared with 80 last year.“

It has surprised me, even now that public school is virtual, people are still showing up,” Rich said. “People still need community and people still need stability.”

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