Ana Fuchs

JKG AND ROI HELP CONTINUE PIONEERING WORK IN JEWISH EDUCATION

BY ABIGAIL PICKUS

SPECIAL FOR THE AJT 

After a global search, an Atlanta native recently became one of only seven young professionals from around the world to receive the prestigious Natan Grants for ROI Entrepreneurs.

Ana Fuchs, founding Executive Director of Jewish Kids Group (JKG), a new independent Hebrew school that offers “summer-camp style, content-rich, meaningful Jewish supplemental education for children from unaffiliated or interfaith families,” was named a recipient of the grant funded by the Natan Fund, a giving circle for young professionals, to support ROI Community members’ innovative ideas for diversifying Jewish life in communities around the world.

The $40,000 in grants will be allocated to seven ROI Community members from the United States, Mexico, India and Israel.

The partnership between Natan and ROI Community, a program of the Schusterman Family Foundation was created to bring together Natan Fund’s young philanthropists with ROI members’ cutting-edge projects for global Jewish engagement, thereby facilitating a deeper impact on the Jewish world.

“Through these grants we are able to support entrepreneurs working on truly grassroots initiatives, while connecting our members to the breadth of innovative ideas shaping Jewish life around the world,” said Jackie Fishman, Assistant Director of the Natan Fund.

According to No’a Gorlin, Associate Executive Director of ROI Community, “We see this partnership as an opportunity to continue investing in involved, enthusiastic young Jews who can invigorate their peers and themselves, as they help to shape a thriving Jewish future.”

As for the 31-year-old Fuchs, who grew up in Virginia Highland, receiving the Natan Grant is a “double simcha.”

“We are honored to receive this grant because the financial support is much needed, but it also represents all of the intellectual and developmental support we have received as a result of being a part of the ROI cohort, which is all about building relationships,” she said.

Established in 2011, the Jewish Kids Group (JKG) offers six days a week of programming in the form of an afterschool program (a combination of a Hebrew school and an afterschool program that is offered up to five days a week) and a Sunday morning program.

JKG currently serves 130 students, ages preschool through fifth grade. Twenty percent of the children attend the afterschool all five days, according to Fuchs.

This independent Hebrew school, whose motto is, “A reimagined, reinvented, and  ridiculously cool Hebrew School,” promises experiential Jewish learning in a camp-like setting.

“We provide stellar Jewish education to more and more Jewish families irrespective of whether or not they have chosen to belong to a synagogue,” said Fuchs.

“What we do is something very different,” she continued. “We pick up the kids from school and first give them a hug hello. We’re actually based in a house. We have all of these amazing counselors and directors. It is Jewish summer camp. It’s the most delicious program you can imagine.”

But the fun atmosphere is grounded in a cutting-edge curriculum and a focus on building meaningful Jewish friendships and community, akin to those forged at Jewish summer camps, which studies have shown contribute to higher rates of positive Jewish identity, according to Fuchs.

Fuchs background is in scholarly research. In fact, it was while working at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University that the seeds for JKG were planted.

Two local families – one affiliated and the other unaffiliated – had found each other and contacted Fuchs. “They wanted something cool and Jewish for their kids,” recalled Fuchs.

At first Fuchs was hesitant. She already had a job. So she quoted them what she admitted was a ridiculously high price, assuming it would scare them off. It didn’t.

“That was my first indication that there was an unbelievable need for this,” she said. What began as Fuchs teaching six kids in garage for an after school program quickly multiplied to 65 kids.

After that, Fuchs started running focus groups, “What we found was that even families affiliated with a synagogue wanted more and better Jewish education,” she said.

The challenge was especially great for two working parent families who, on the one hand, have an increased need for childcare, but on the other hand, didn’t want to drag their children to after school or Sunday school kicking and screaming, according to Fuchs.

“Why do they love summer camp and they hate this?” Fuchs wondered. “Why can’t we combine this? The answer was obvious: a Jewish afterschool.”

In 2010, there was only one program like this in the entire country, located in Boston.

Today, JKG is one of a growing number of afterschool-Jewish schools around the country. Fuchs helped establish a cohort for executive directors of these new models for Jewish education to share and learn from each other. The cohort received a grant from the Covenant Foundation.

The way Fuchs sees it, these alternative models of Jewish education are filling a need for many Jewish families in North America.

“There are challenges with the traditional supplemental Hebrew school model and until now, nothing has been done to dramatically and sustainably change the model nationwide. Right now we have got to try new options for Hebrew school because there is a reverse trend of Jewish discontinuity,” she said.

In Atlanta alone, 84 percent of Jewish children receive no Jewish education, according to Fuchs.

But she is quick to point that just because JKS is an independent school that is not affiliated with a synagogue does not mean that she is anti the organized or traditional Jewish world.

“I think synagogue membership is important. I personally belong to two synagogues,” Fuchs said. “But many of these families aren’t going to synagogue anyway,” she added. “What we’re giving them is what they want: a relevant, dynamic, high quality Jewish education that teaches why it’s a privilege to be Jewish with a curriculum that is fun, serious, and joyful.”