Independent Sunday school serves growing demographic

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How can a Jewish Sunday school operate continuously for 50 years without the support of a synagogue? Ask Cathy Taylor, director of the Palo Alto School for Jewish Education (PASJE), an independent K-8 Sunday school that caters to mostly unaffiliated families in the South Bay and on the Peninsula.

“We’ve always been welcoming to families who come from different cultural backgrounds, or interfaith, who maybe didn’t fit the mold of a typical Ashkenazi synagogue,” Taylor said. She explains that the school began in the 1960s in the homes of seven families affiliated with Stanford University who wanted their kids to have a Jewish identity and to know about Jewish culture and history, but who “were not interested in halachah [Jewish law],” she said.

Kids work on an art project at the Palo Alto School for Jewish Education.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the school became a stable nonprofit institution and hired a director. The school currently enrolls about 75 children from 50 families, and rents space from the nursery school at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Classes are held on Sunday mornings during the school year.

Taylor estimates that more than half of the families have one parent from a non-Jewish background, many of them Asian. The school also draws many Israeli families.

Taylor herself is married to a non-Jewish African American man, and their daughter Nia attended PASJE in the early 2000s.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, the rabbi-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon, an S.F.-based nonprofit advocacy group for racial inclusiveness in the Jewish community, said that as the number of interfaith and multiracial families increases in the Bay Area, PASJE fills a niche often overlooked in the Jewish community. “Multiracial families may feel outside the box of the Jewish community, but they still want Jewish content, and they want to do it in a way that feels authentic to their families and inclusive of their other traditions,” she said.

PASJE’s curriculum emphasizes Jewish history, culture and stories from the Talmud and Torah, and offers an optional hour of Hebrew language instruction each Sunday. Even though the curriculum emphasizes Jewish identity, rather than belief, the children still learn traditional prayer services, special prayers for holidays, and they are taught how to behave appropriately in a variety of Jewish ritual settings.

“They can be invited to a wedding, a bar mitzvah or a bris, and they feel totally comfortable at their friend’s Shabbat service,” said Taylor. “They might not do it every week, but they feel like: ‘I’m Jewish and I belong here as much as any other Jewish person.’ ”

Kristina Bass, whose Greek husband grew up in the Greek Orthodox tradition, sends her daughters Sofia, 13, and Melina, 11, to PASJE because she wanted them to learn about their Jewish heritage. The girls also take Greek lessons twice a week, reaching a balance between their two cultures that Bass says is easier to maintain amidst other multicultural families.

Bass said that along with the school’s secular point of view, she is particularly pleased with the academic-focused curriculum at PASJE.

“When they study American history in the fifth grade in public school, they are learning about the history of American Jews in Sunday school, so it reinforces their knowledge,” Bass said. She was also impressed that the eighth-grade curriculum, created by veteran teacher Terry Fayer, focuses on the Holocaust and includes “Maus,” the acclaimed graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. “It’s something I read as an adult that has such sophisticated themes, and the teacher used it to help the kids understand the complexities of the Shoah,” Bass said.

Besides emphasizing Jewish history, the school also teaches an awareness of community, especially during the bar and bat mitzvah preparation year. Students must choose mitzvah projects that contribute to causes in their local communities, and their b’nai mitzvah ceremony is done as a group at the end of the year, instead of around each individual’s birthday. This year a total of six students celebrated their b’nai mitzvah at two Shabbat services.

Taylor believes that one of PASJE’s most notable outcomes is that a majority of families go on to join synagogues after their children graduate.  “I consider it a success when they become synagogue members,” she said. “They end up feeling very comfortable in the Jewish community.”

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