By Marcy J. Levinson
Some of the best rock bands began in garages. Apple was founded in a Silicon Valley garage by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
Similarly, Atlanta’s booming Jewish Kids Groups began with six kids in a garage in 2011. Now the independent “re-imagined, re-invented and ridiculously cool Hebrew school” is more than 200 families strong and is adding a middle school component to its offerings.
Executive Director Ana Robbins, who founded JKG, said the need for the middle school program was identified in 2013 when Erin Chernow joined the nonprofit’s educational team as the director of a middle school program that was in its beta-testing phase, then known as JKG Journey.
The students with whom Chernow had been working came from a more traditional synagogue model, while JKG generally drew families who were not affiliated with a synagogue. (JKG began partnering with Congregation Or VeShalom in 2014.)
“While JKG Journey was of exceptional quality and innovative in many ways, it was based on a synagogue-centric model of being Jewish,” Robbins said.
Instead of tossing the idea for the middle school program, JKG invested time and research to learn the needs of the community, families and students.
Chernow and a team of researchers “conducted surveys, focus groups, an environmental scan and a research review which informed a 60-page research paper,” Robbins said. “Based on this deep dive, the research team made several general and specific recommendations.”
The result is not what people might think of as regular Hebrew school. Instead, it’s a two-year middle school program that culminates in a group b’nai mitzvah celebration, not a solo Torah reading in a synagogue.
The experiential curriculum covers Hebrew, Jewish values and ethics, holidays, core blessings, and community service projects. It is personalized, including a personal interest project that connects with a Jewish theme.
It all takes place in a once-a-week, 2½-hour-per-session format running for 26 Sundays from August to May to give families plenty of flexibility with the rest of their time.
Registration is open now at the JKG website. Tuition for the program is $1,300 a year, with no additional fees for special b’nai mitzvah tutoring. Some need-based financial aid is available.
Barrie and Rich Herman of Decatur have an 11-year-old son in JKG. Barrie Herman said the educational model is accessible for her interfaith family, whom she would like to attend son Xander’s bar mitzvah.
Robbins said JKG is “experiential, action-packed, content-rich and friendship-focused” and features a seasoned leadership team and engaging educators.
JKG teaches subject matter not for “the sake of mastery of facts or progression from one grade to the next,” Robbins said, but to develop identity, “seeking to instill in our kids a sense of commitment to and excitement about Jewish life and peoplehood.”
She said the energetic teachers and the joyful curriculum get kids excited about learning.
From its inception, JKG was designed to meet the needs of families not affiliated with a synagogue. Herman said there are several reasons a synagogue does not appeal to her family, including finances and geography. But JKG’s teaching style persuaded the family to sign on for the middle school program.
“Kids can choose their own path. It’s very different than what Xander has experienced at his cousins’ bar and bat mitzvahs,” she said. “If he wants to study his ancestry, he can. If he wants to learn more Hebrew and read a Torah portion, he can. He is excited about that.”
Any family is welcome to join the Hermans in the program.
“JKG is designed to serve families who do not belong to a synagogue. Beginning in second grade we help families think through what experience they want,” Robbins said. “For families who want a more traditional synagogue experience or a Torah reading service, we work closely with them and synagogues to liaison them into a shul.”
Robbins and her staff try to keep their fingers on the pulse of the community and respond to the needs and desires of the students.
If the kids want to get dirty, JKG will help them find meaningful projects to dig into. If the desire is to delve into family history, that will become the focus of the program. If a student wants a project involving deep analysis of a Torah portion, the studies will head in that direction.
Personalization of the program is a crucial part of the JKG experience and contributes to one of JKG’s key metrics: fun.
“We measure fun based on parent, student and teacher feedback,” Robbins said. “But don’t take our word for it. Come visit JKG and you’ll see what everyone is so excited about.”