For years, non-Orthodox Jewish supplemental schools – think Hebrew and synagogue schools – have been declining. Enrollment is down by over 40% in North America since 2006, according to a recent study by the Jewish Education Project.
But that same period has seen steady growth in a different approach: Jewish after school programs, where kids can do their homework, socialize, and learn about Judaism while their parents work through the afternoon with peace of mind.
Now, Jewish Kids Groups, an after school provider in Atlanta, is expanding the model nationally through a Jewish After School Accelerator that offers coaching and up to $100,000 in a matching three-year seed grant.
Among the four organizations in their inaugural cohort is the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Amberley – which now has an after school program called Home Base up and running.
“We’re providing a service that families need and probably have needed for a while, which is after school child care,” said Rabbi Anna Meyers Burke, director of young family involvement at Wise Temple and the director of Home Base.
“I personally think that in the 21st century, if we’re going to keep engaging families, and Jewish people in general, we have to be meeting them where they re – which means serving their needs.”
The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati is supporting the program with an $130,000 grant to Wise Temple over the first three years of Home Base, serving as the local match to JKG’s seed money.
“We’re excited to help bring the Jewish Kids Group model to Cincinnati families so they can build meaningful community in ways, and at times, that work for them,” said Kim Newstadt, director of research & learning at the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, in a statement.
“Home Base reflects the needs of today’s working parents, and the evolution of Jewish learning,” she said. “We’re thrilled about the partnership with JKG and Wise Temple – it’s a wonderful addition for Cincinnati that welcomes more people into our community.”
Home Base is serving families with kids that are in K-6th grades, with pricing from $485 a month for two days a week to $735 for five days. For now, the after school program only runs up to four days a week, with all five days available starting in January. Transportation is being provided from schools to the synagogue.
Despite the affiliation with Wise, the program is available to any Jewish family in Cincinnati and does not require any membership or other relationship to the synagogue.
Some parents “may be people who would never set foot in a synagogue or a Jewish institution,” Burke said. “This just so happens to fill a need, and it’s an added bonus that they’re forming some sort of Jewish community.”
That kind of openness is both a requirement of the Jewish Kids Groups accelerator, and a bet on engaging families who might be wary of institutional Jewish life. In many ways, Home Base is an experiment, putting Wise Temple on the leading edge of a national trend trying to reinvigorate Jewish childhood education.
From local to national model
Since its start in 2012, Jewish Kids Groups in Atlanta has grown to four locations and serves over 200 kids in K-5th grade every week.
Out of that success, and with support from The Marcus Foundation, JKG decided to expand the after school model. But instead of opening new chapters or franchises, JKG is helping other communities start their own after school programs through the accelerator.
“There are so many resources already existing in cities, there is underutilized Jewish space…there’s already people employed in these cities that are passionate about Jewish education,” said Rachel Dobbs Schwartz, the chief innovation officer at JKG.
“Us bringing something brand new might feel competitive or problematic, and that was exactly the opposite of what we wanted to do.”
The accelerator has a sense of urgency that stems from the childcare crisis faced by families. The average cost of childcare in the U.S. is over $10,000 a year, and the lack of affordable childcare is costing the U.S. economy $122 billion a year in 2023 – more than double 2018’s financial toll.
That’s where Jewish after school programs really prove their worth, all while building Jewish community and teaching about Judaism, Dobbs Schwartz said.
“A Jewish organization can be providing relief to a family…we can give them something that they really need, and they can be getting the education at the same time,” Dobbs Schwartz said.
The after school accelerator is designed to scale programs over three years and not need extra philanthropic investment, with sustainability estimated at the tuition revenue of 45 kids coming an average of three days a week.
After that, programs can lower costs further with grants and donations, or operate like many Jewish summer camps, with the full tuition cost paid by some families covering others who need assistance. But those are add-ons, rather than core necessities to keep the after school programs going, Dobbs Schwartz said.
JKG also developed its own curriculum that it is sharing with the accelerator cohort. Lessons are based around middot, or character traits, that have been all the rage among summer camp educators.
Kids learn about Jewish holidays and traditions through the lens of a specific character trait, like ometz lev (courage of the heart), with a six-year cycle switching out the character trait each year. That way, though kids are learning about the same topics – say, Shabbat or Yom Kippur – they have different lessons each year that keep the topics fresh.
“What we realized is that, by separating by value, as opposed to by grade, or by level of understanding, we’re able to provide more holistic education,” Dobbs Schwartz said.
This also means that kids in different grades are able to learn together, building a stronger community.
“My second grader could learn alongside with my fifth grader, come home, and have a conversation about those very same things together,” Dobbs Schwartz said. “They will never have an opportunity to be in school together. This is their only opportunity to learn together.”
A new frontier
For Burke, at Wise Temple, she’s keeping a scrappy startup kind of mindset as she works on Home Base. The after school program was put together only this summer, a whirlwind ride that still leaves a lot to be done.
“That’s also part of the idea of having this three-year institutional support, is that it’ll take a few years to get this to be the exact program we want it to be,” Burke said. “We’re really just grateful to have families who are willing to invest in us and utilize what we have to offer. And we’re all going to roll with the punches a little bit…as we get this off the ground.”
As an educator, Burke is excited to see how Jewish identity develops among kids in Home Base. There’s little long-term data on the effectiveness of after school programs, given how new the model is to the Jewish world. But it might offer more consistency and time for Jewish education than traditional religious schools, she said.
“What does it mean to have Jewish learning every day of the week after school?” Burke said. “Over the course of time…how deep can we get when we’re teaching Jewish holidays and values and culture?”
The other wildcard is how well a Jewish after school program affiliated with a synagogue will do – most providers so far have been independent of other Jewish institutions. Not that there’s any need to expect failure, said Rabbi Dena Klein, senior managing director of innovation and national strategy at the Jewish Education Project.
“We already know that families are happy to put their children in preschool in a synagogue setting, they’re happy to take advantage of daycare in a synagogue setting,” she said.
But at the end of the day, Klein emphasized that these efforts aren’t about any particular synagogue or institution – they’re about truly supporting Jewish families.
“We have an opportunity to really let…families know that we care about their needs, and that we’re not only interested in questions of continuity or institutions’ survival, or protecting the jobs of the folks who work in the Jewish community,” Klein said.
“But [that] we really care about the families themselves, and their needs and their challenges.”
This story was updated on 9/29 with information about the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati’s support of Home Base.