Kids will go out in the field to learn Jewish history and gain tools to cultivate the Torah — and

Area religious schools will soon encourage students to come out of the classroom and learn Jewish lessons in the wider world.

For the third year, the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education has allocated $150,000 in School Improvement Project Grants to help fund nontraditional and innovative religious school programs. Sixteen grants between $1,000 and $4,000 will be implemented in this fall in area K-8 religious schools.

"The idea is to get [the students] out of the structured classroom environment while maintaining academic integrity," said Debbi Findling, past director of school services for the Bureau. "We want to integrate religious school with [fun]."

One such program, Tikkun Olam Through Reclaiming the Land, will debut at Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. The program, which received $3,000 by the BJE, combines lessons on biblical passages, Jewish history and geography, with an emphasis on nature and land.

Students of all grades will harvest fruits and vegetables found in contemporary Israel as well as those mentioned in the Bible. They will study the plants, conservation, recycling, Jewish harvesting laws and Torah passages, and they will participate in all aspects of the harvest from planting to composting.

The lessons will be applied differently to each grade, but the outcome — "a simulated biblical garden" — will be the same.

"They will learn the origin of various plants and how they relate to the Jewish people," said the program's educator, Erez Saldinger of Kol Emeth. "They'll see that the land is really a wonderful place to dig their hands."

Gardening may not sound like a typical religious school activity, but Saldinger believes it should be. He said Jews are "the guardians of the land" and as such must continue to impart these "patterns of behavior on a new generation."

"We, as Jews, received the land after Creation as a place to keep," he said. "The only way we have the obligation to keep it is by reclaiming it. When we study the possession of the land we are creating a new society to come that will hopefully be able to cherish and maintain the land as we were commanded."

The students will then take the lesson a step further by participating in tzedakah: They will donate their ongoing yield to food banks.

In another innovative program, seventh-graders at Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael will tour Jewish historical sites around the Bay Area and perform mitzvot in the surrounding communities. The14-week course, "49ers to 49ers: the Bay Area Jewish History Project" was funded with the help of a $4,000 BJE allocation.

"They may go to Gold Rush country and learn about Jews in the Gold Rush or to Jewish museums, cemeteries or even Sinai Memorial Chapel," said Findling. "It's an out-of-the-classroom history lesson."

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Conservative-Reform Congregation Beth Israel-Judea will team up with Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom to offer experiential community-based programs for seventh- and eighth-graders. The students will also participate in a workshop dealing with AIDS and hear speakers on the Holocaust. Beth Israel-Judea received $2,400 and Beth Sholom received $3,000, which includes funding for other programs.

"What's particularly interesting is the way the two are coming together to collaborate on their educational programs," said Findling. "It connects them to a Jewish world beyond their synagogue at a critical junction in their lives — following their bar/bat mitzvah — when they typically leave religious school."

She said she hopes this connection will lead to an ongoing commitment to religious school.

Other school improvement project grant recipients, such as Reform Congregation Beth Am's program, Toledot: Parallel Parent Learning, will encourage parents to get involved in Jewish education. The Los Altos Hills synagogue's project was allocated $3,000.

Another program, Halutzim: Congregant Teacher Program, is designed to attract new religious school teachers from among the membership at San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El. At the end of the two-month intensive Hebrew-Jewish studies curriculum, which was granted $3,500, the participants will be eligible for a teaching position at the synagogue.

"There's a shortage of Hebrew school teachers," said Findling. "This really gets to the heart of the problem by recruiting the temple's own congregants."

Additional recipients of School Improvement Project Grants include: Conservative Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa; Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in San Francisco; Independent-liberal Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto; Reconstructionist Congregation Gesher Calmenson in Cotati; Jewish Renewal Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco; the Palo Alto School for Jewish Education; the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley; Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco; Reform Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma; and Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa.

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