Post-confirmation students make their own curriculum

On the first day of religious school at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, the teachers didn’t teach.

Instead, they asked students what they wanted to learn. And they taught those things throughout the school year.

The student-generated curriculum drives Chofshiyim, a post-confirmation education program at Beth El. It means “those who are free” in Hebrew, and is open to 11th- and 12th-graders.

“No teacher has ever asked me what I want to learn,” said Kevin Wick, 17, of San Mateo.

He originally agreed to spend his Wednesday nights at the synagogue because he knew he’d never see his friends otherwise. But after a year in Chofshiyim, he’s driven by more than just the social aspects, and he is certain he’ll enroll in the program next year, too.

“We talk about meaningful subjects that I don’t get to talk about anywhere else,” he said. “This class makes me think differently. I like that.”

Rabbi Michael Lezak, now at Congregation Rodef Shalom in San Rafael, started the class about five years ago.

“The idea was to encourage teens to continue after confirmation by letting them choose what they want to study, request different teachers and speakers, and continue to bond with temple friends,” said Rabbi Karen Citrin, who’s since taken over the program.

In congregations across the Bay and the United States, a huge number of kids never make it to confirmation, usually dropping out of Hebrew school after their bar or bat mitzvahs. Chofshiyim has become a reward of sorts for those students who make it to confirmation and then take the next step.

“We’re the people who really want to be here,” said Alana Lucas, 17, of Foster City.

“If it was just another boring class, I probably wouldn’t be here,” added Lauren Herman, 17, of Foster City.

The program has grown over the years, though it’s still quite small, lending an intimacy to classes that both teacher and student enjoy.

Fifteen teens are currently enrolled. At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, they stroll in, plop down onto one of several couches and catch up on their weeks before delving into contemporary Jewish ideas.

The rabbi begins class by asking, “Does anyone want to share anything good or challenging from their lives right now?” She hopes it creates a circle of trust between her and the students, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten. The teens talk and laugh about prom, movies and homework.

They then delve into a long talk about maintaining a Jewish identity after high school. Ben Washofsky, Citrin’s co-teacher, explains to the students that classes, local congregations, Jewish sororities and fraternities, studying abroad in Israel, Chabad and Hillel are great outlets into Jewish life and community.

“Some Hillels have more than one Shabbat service on Friday nights, and you can walk in and hear all kinds of prayers and songs at the same time, and it’s incredible,” he said.

“Go to Shabbos dinner,” he continues. “There’s something about it that calms you.”

Citrin tries to build the class around topics that are relevant to the teens. So far this year, the students have studied topics they hadn’t yet studied in religious school, such as Jewish movies, current events, modern and ancient miracles and Jewish views on relationships and sexuality.

“It’s been inspiring,” Lucas said. “It’s changed my ability to study Jewish things.”

Citrin is optimistic that if they’re engaged post-confirmation, they’re more likely to stay involved in college and beyond.

“I hope that they will understand that being Jewish is a life-long journey,” she said. “There is always something new to learn, a deeper meaning to discover, another idea to struggle with. In my experience, teens often have a very spiritual side. I want them to feel that there is a context in which to ask some of life’s most challenging questions about meaning and belief.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.