At the start of this year’s intergenerational educational program, the mission of Kehilat Sukkat Shalom became clear with a simple answer to a question. As children and adults alike gathered together, each member was asked their favorite thing about being Jewish.
Among the common Jewish foods and hobbies listed, two children admitted their favorite part was that “it was the thing that made them different”.
The basic exercise illustrated how children can remind adults to appreciate their Jewish roots and find joy in uncommon things, and how much there is to learn from each generation.
Rabbi Jessica K. Shimberg, Sukkat Shalom’s spiritual leader, has been striving to create an atmosphere outside the box of traditional Jewish learning since the congregation’s creation in 2006. As a former member of a large congregation, Shimberg said she became frustrated with traditional practices such as dropping off her two young boys at religious school while she spent the time running errands instead of participating in similar learning experiences.
She said she saw a need for a program where members of all ages were integrated and could grow and share in their Jewish journeys. The congregation’s Shabbat Afternoon Learning program focuses on this genre of intergenerational education and is slowly becoming a staple of the kehilat’s environment.
“It takes a long time to plant the seed of something and get to a place where it is a shared value,” Shimberg said.
The two-and-a-half hour Shabbat sessions utilize music as a tool to bring all ages together before splitting into more personalized adult and child-based programs. Joanie Calem, educational coordinator and leader of the intergenerational choir, uses her musical background and expertise to “create a level playing ground of learning”.
“Music is a median that makes people feel good and sticks in people’s minds more than a PowerPoint or a worksheet would,” Calem said.
As one of the congregation’s educators and a mother, Jodi Kushins has experienced the learning style’s effect firsthand from her 9-year-old daughter.
“We’ve sang a lot of Joanie’s original music and it’s exciting to be in a space with her and her observations about Jewish principles and holidays,” Kushins said. “I’ve noticed my daughter will sing the songs at home on her own, joyfully embodying the music and ideas.”
The education program also aims to incorporate lessons about connection with nature through hands-on activities. This year, these activities include the design of sukkahs using only recycled, repurposed and sustainable materials, which plugs into Sukkat Shalom’s communal value of earth consciousness. Teachings revolving around the environment are complemented by the study of Judaism as an always-evolving way of life, Shimberg said.
“Judaism from the past is like freeze-dried food, but we add the moisture to it,” said Shimberg, referring to the manner in which the congregation addresses Jewish ideals and teaches them in a way that is innovative and evolved into present time.
So far, this year’s programming includes seven participating families and is stocked with new activities and additional education. These incorporate parallel meditation for adults during the choir sessions, structured lessons on topics from nutrition to Jewish identity through the ages, and sections taught by parents and volunteers.
No matter the content of the programs, Shimberg said the beginning and end are most influential.
“We start with music and at the end of two hours we come back for a short ritual and appreciation of us all being together,” Shimberg said. “Having those bookends is so important.”
Megan Hageman is a freelance writer from Columbus.