“I can honestly tell you that my Hebrew school experience back in the 70s…was a complete disaster. It is so nice to see and hear our children thinking, discussing and concluding on what THEY think and how they feel regarding the stories that are told. What a wonderful challenge and engagement you have created for them! …I think the new Mayim slogan should be, ‘This isn’t your father’s Hebrew school.’”
Charles W, parent of 2nd and 3rd graders, Temple Beth Shalom, Needham

In the spring of 2012, Temple Beth Shalom shuttered the religious school which we had deemed beyond repair. In its place, we launched a new model for Jewish learning based on two core principles: depth of relationships and depth of learning.

Our new program, Mayim (the Hebrew word for “water” (learn more about why we chose that title), emerged from a broad-based, three-year process of reflection, visioning, best practices research, and dreaming what could be. Mayim seeks to create an inclusive, accepting environment in which children learn and build relationships while enjoying a rich experience of Judaism that will serve as a foundation for Jewish living now and for years to come.

Children attending Mayim learn in mixed-grade chavurot (friendship groups) once a week for 2.5 hours. Each week, Jewish Learning Guides (what in traditional schools might be called “teachers”) orchestrate four types of experiences with the children: Mifgashim (encounters), Explorations (our project-based learning curriculum), Hebrew learning, and T’filah (worship). In addition, monthly Jewish Connection Experiences provide opportunities for the children (and often their whole families) to engage in authentic Jewish living together with the larger Beth Shalom community (e.g. Shabbat and holiday celebrations).

students doing small group work to learn the meaning of the prayers in the siddur

Depth of Relationships

“…[My daughter] made a new friend in her Mayim class, and she has been coming home saying how much she likes her and how much fun she has in class. [The Jewish Learning Guide] encouraged me to call the friend’s mom and said that she could see the girls forming a long-term friendship. Needless to say, I called the next night, and our girls have a plan coming up soon. I feel so lucky to have had [this JLG] teach…my children for two years. …Her dedication as an educator extends beyond her amazing Mayim classroom.”
—Jill L., parent of 5th and 7th graders

Our focus on deep and enduring relationships led us to create the position of Jewish Learning Guide (JLG) in place of the traditional teacher and to establish the position of “Greeter,” someone who knows all the children by name and welcomes them at the door each week. Mayim’s design intentionally places two grade cohorts together both to foster new relationships outside of a child’s immediate friendship circle and to enable children to learn with the same Jewish Learning Guide for two years.

Each day of Mayim begins with a mifgash (encounter) based on Responsive Classroom’s morning meeting. The Jewish Learning Guide leads a structured greeting with the group and then the children share something about their day or week. This enables the children to get to know one another on a social level. Before Mayim, we heard all too often that while the children learned something about Judaism, they did not know the names of the other children in their class.

Jewish Learning Guides have additional time built into their contracts to devote to building relationships with families (not just the children) and for educational planning and professional development. JLGs connect with parents when they join their children for t’filah (prayer service) at the end of the Mayim day, at monthly Jewish Connection Experiences, through email and telephone conversations.

student showing her paintings in the final siddur to her mother

Depth of Learning

“I am proud of what I contributed to the new Mayim siddur, because it will be used for years in the future.”
—Andrew B, 5th grader


“I liked how we got to create the siddur with a group. I am proud of the beautiful paintings that we made. I learned that if you work hard on something, it will look beautiful.”
—Julia S, 4th grader

Our main curricular framework is Project Based Learning (PBL). PBL experiences enable us to achieve depth of Jewish learning while simultaneously building relationships. Children engage in two PBL explorations each year thus giving them the time to delve deeply into a topic from multiple perspectives and enabling them to plumb the topic for rich and relevant meaning.

A recent example is the new siddur (prayer book) created by our 4th and 5th graders that will be used for years to come by children in grades K-5 during our weekly Mayim t’filah (prayer service). In considering this project, a second-generation siddur that would replace the one created by 4th graders four years ago, our challenge was to design a meaningful experience for 125 children across six different weekly sessions. We wanted all of the children to explore all of the prayers in the weekday service and not just focus on one or two. But we also wanted them to offer their own interpretations and make the siddur their own by delving deeply into one or two specific prayers.

Following a series of learning experiences focused on the overall worship service and its constituent prayers, the children were divided into small teams where they engaged in intensive study and interpretation of an individual prayer culminating in the creation of an accompanying piece of art that would be incorporated into the final siddur. They were then required to bring all of the prayers and their interpretive art together in a coherent final siddur that would enhance a real life prayer experience for their fellow students in other grades.  

final product – rainbow of siddurim

The large size of the group and the need to make this work for six unique groups of children resulted in the creation of six versions of the siddur. However, by paginating each siddur with the same prayers on a given page, all of the versions are now used together at one service and the children are able to interact throughout the year with different prayer interpretations depending on the siddur they picked up that day. The children named their new siddur, T’filoteinu (“Our Prayers”) and express a profound sense of pride each week as they see their younger and older peers praying and engaging with something they created.

Powerful relationships, deep and meaningful learning and authentic projects are at the heart of Mayim which is, in turn, at the heart of our congregation. Learning at Temple Beth Shalom has moved beyond the walls of the synagogue and into the hearts and lives of our children, families and congregants of all ages.

Rachel Happel is the Director of K-12 Learning at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA.

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts from Jewish Learning Connections. Read the introductory post here; explore innovative learning in three other congregations here, here and here.

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