Beyond the classroom: Home-grown Sunday school educates kids and parents

The parents sit in a circle in the family room, cross-legged or upright in dining room chairs and leather couches. Their children sit snugly on their laps. It is 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

Soon, the first- and second-graders clamber upstairs and find a seat in one of eight tiny chrome folding chairs positioned around a pintsize red table. Their teacher reads them a story. They listen and ask questions and get distracted and ask to play with the toys around the perimeter of the room, and listen again.

Meanwhile, their parents are learning in the room below. Diffuse sunlight illuminates their classroom; the dull murmur of sneakered feet patter overhead.

Welcome to a new kind of Sunday school.

This Jewish religious school educates children and their parents, yet it happens once a month in a San Francisco home, outside the boundaries of a synagogue.

Debbie Findling started the Sunday school last fall because “there’s not a [synagogue] school I feel comfortable sending my daughter to,” she said.

She could complain about that, she figured. Or she could act.

“This is not a criticism of synagogues as much as me asking: What else could be?” she said.

Findling, deputy director at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund in San Francisco and a former Jewish educator in the Bay Area, wanted desperately to provide Jewish learning for her daughter, Sara.

Jewish day school was not an option, since Findling and her husband, Steven Moss, said they were committed to exposing their child to the diversity of a public school education.

In that case, why not just send their daughter to a Saturday or Sunday school? Findling considered that. But, she said, “the weekends are sacred,” a time when Mom and Dad can be with their daughter without the fatigue or stress of the weekday. She didn’t want to drop off 7-year-old Sara after breakfast and pick her up at noon.

She and her husband both work full time. So shuttling Sara to Hebrew school at 4 p.m. on Mondays was out. Plus, Sara wants to play soccer and practice karate after school — more than she wants to sit in another classroom learning the alef-bet.

The model most synagogue schools follow — meeting once or twice weekly on weekends or after school — “is a flawed structure in many ways,” Findling said. It was designed in the early part of the 20th century, long before mom and dad were trying to balance full-time work schedules with those of their overscheduled children, she added.

“It was a different era,” she said. “Jewish families were Jewishly knowledgeable and living Jewish lives, and supplementary school was designed specifically to do that — supplement Jewish life at home. It was intended as extra Jewish education for this rich Jewish life.”

But today’s reality is different, she added.

Many Jewish parents — disappointed by their own congregational education — are not knowledgeable enough to teach their children deep Jewish ideas, rituals and stories. And so what was intended as a supplemental tool has in many cases become the primary source of Jewish education: once- or twice-weekly two-hour classes imparting concepts that often are not reinforced at home.

“From my perspective,” Findling said, “the system as a whole needs to be rethought from the very foundation from which it was built.”

Findling left that grand endeavor for others, instead starting small, with her own family and within her community of friends.

She asked six families a year ago if they would like to participate in a learning experiment.

Though the participating families all knew Findling, they didn’t know each other. The diverse crew includes parents who are both Jewish, interfaith, gay and straight. All have young children in first or second grade.

“What connects us all is that we’re committed to raising our children Jewish, and on our own, to learning about Judaism,” Findling said.

The educational blueprint looks like this: The families gather once a month. The eight children learn from a graduate student, Rebecca Rudolph, whose salary is paid for by the parents’ collective contributions, which also cover a babysitter for toddler or infant siblings.

Simultaneously, the parents learn from a rotating cast of rabbis and educators who talk with them about Torah, Midrash, Jewish ritual and prayer.

Homework is loosely defined. If the families learn about Shabbat or tzedakah during class, then their assignment for the coming month is to incorporate Shabbat ritual into life at home, or volunteer as a family. The parents discuss those things the following month.

“Sara gets that I’m in class, that the parents’ class is serious, too, and that sets an example — unlike when our parents dropped us off on Saturday or Sunday mornings,” said Moss, Findling’s husband.

The adults begin class with a check-in: How did what you learned last month influence your home life? Your parenting? Your practice of Judaism?

Everyone gets together for a wrap-up to discuss what they learned. After, the children usually run around and play while parents shmooze over a potluck brunch that often includes bagels and shmears.

“It’s not just about learning,” said Dan Lanir, a member of the Sunday school with his wife, Heather World, and children, Benjamin, 7, and Cecilia, 3.

“It’s about community.”

That was precisely Findling’s goal in creating the school. Certainly, she wanted her daughter and her daughter’s peers to engage in Jewish learning. But she also wanted to build community among a group of primarily unaffiliated families.

Even though the families had “very different relationships to Judaism … we established an incredible level of trust right away,” said Lucy Bernholz, who joined with her wife, Paula Fleisher, and their son, Harry Bernholz.

Bernholz and Fleisher are members of San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, where Fleisher served on the board last year and their son attends Saturday school. The couple never felt pressure to choose between the traditional and the alternative.

“We’re of the opinion more is better,” Bernholz said.

Lanir and World belong to Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco. The Modern Orthodox synagogue provides balance and diversity in their family’s Jewish observance and learning.

In contrast, Joanne Cohen and Michael Shapero (who met at Camp Swig) don’t belong to a synagogue. They have yet to find one where they feel comfortable and that also meets their needs.

For some time, Cohen and Shapero worried about how they would provide their children, Talia and Avi, with a strong Jewish identity and education without a synagogue.

Findling’s Sunday school was the answer they were looking for.

Janet Harris, director of the early childhood education initiative at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, taught a class on Shabbat last October. She praised Findling’s approach to parent and child education.

“The fact that kids know their parents are engaged in Jewish study is the greatest lesson ever,” Harris said. “It has a tremendous impact. I think if the kids did nothing it would still be amazing.”

All seven families have signed up for a second year. They also agreed to increase their initial $500 contributions (up to $1,000) to pay for an early childhood educator instead of a babysitter, so the youngest of the bunch are learning, too.

Even those who do not have a tot agreed to put more money into the pot. “To me, this is an impressive statement about their commitment to the program and to the community we’ve created,” Findling said.

The adult educators — dubbed “scholar of the month” — volunteer their time.

The parents’ teachers range in expertise, observance and denomination. All are well known in the Bay Area Jewish community.

Instructors during the school’s first year included: Daniel Sokatch, San Francisco’s new Jewish Community Federation director and former director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance; Rachel Brodie of Jewish Milestones; Marc Dollinger, Jewish studies professor at San Francisco State University; and Rabbis Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar and Camille Angel of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.

Findling also recruited three people from Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco: Emily Shapiro Katz, director of the Tauber Jewish Studies Program; Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe and musician Marsha Attie.

Each instructor spoke on a different theme, which also provided a framework for the children’s lessons. Some classes focused on Jewish concepts such as bal tashchit (taking care of the Earth) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), while others focused on more general topics such as God, prayer and blessings.

Findling said she’s received e-mails and phone calls from several educators who heard about her Sunday school and volunteered to teach during the upcoming school year.

Since all parents — including founders Findling and Moss — were learning as the year unfolded, they set aside a Sunday morning in May to collectively decide what worked, what didn’t and how they could make improvements for the following year.

All agreed they wanted to add to the communal good will created in their first year. Each family in the coming school year will host or choose one “extracurricular activity” each month, such as a home-cooked Shabbat dinner or a community event.

Tara and Mark Weissman, along with their children Maya and Samara, will kick off the school year in August with a pool party at their Redwood City home.

Parents also agreed they wanted more in-depth lessons, and have asked instructors to teach a series of classes, rather than just one.

And they will add a Hebrew language component to the children’s curriculum.

While nearly everyone Findling has asked to teach has supported her efforts, she did face some resistance.

For instance, she said when she asked Rabbi Derby to teach, he initially told her no, citing her preschool as a threat to what he believed in and worked toward.

But she didn’t take no for an answer. She convinced him to have lunch and hear more about her vision. She explained she was inspired to start a Sunday school because of something he once told her: The rabbi shouldn’t be and isn’t the only teacher.

Derby agreed to teach, and has signed on to return this next school year.

So has Harris. “People will go to institutions on their own when they’re ready,” she said. “I don’t think this is a last step, but a first step. A starting point of a journey.”

Findling understands people might criticize her once-a-month approach — Oy vey, how will they learn enough Hebrew to prepare for a bar mitzvah? — and is prepared to adapt the school to fit children’s needs as they age.

At this point, she has no specific long-term plans. She likes the idea of “evolving as we continue.”

One idea for the future is having the children meet twice a month (while the parents would meet once). Another is hiring a bar and bat mitzvah tutor to work with several students at a time once they hit middle school.

“I don’t know where we’re going,” Findling said, “but I’m really enjoying the ride.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.