A Visit to a Chabad School:

Shaloh House, Stoughton

By Susie Davidson

Advocate Correspondent

STOUGHTON - A vibrant and inclusive teaching modality can be seen in the educational system of the Chabad branch of the Lubavitcher movement. Unlike some groups within the Orthodox rank, this international affiliation accepts any and all Jews. Beginning with classes for the very young (18 months) and continuing through college-mixer type events and adult programs, the witty, entertaining and in many instances ultimately transforming Chabad network greatly impacts many otherwise peripherally or even unaffiliated Jews.

Let's look at a typical Chabad Hebrew School class at the Shaloh House in Stoughton, MA. Shaloh House's 20 years running preschool offers programs for children 18 months old through kindergarten. Stories, songs and fingerplays, Hebrew vocabulary, holidays, customs, and ceremonies, as well as a Friday Shabbat celebration fill the curriculum; their Hebrew School for older children continues this comprehensive format.

On a recent Sunday morning, a Ms. Scharf was teaching the Kitah Bet (2nd Grade) class of 13 children. A typically unruly and rambunctious class of 9 and 10 year olds ran in from other classes as the Kitah Bet kids swung beads, moved chairs around and peppered the teacher's lesson with humorous comments drawn from their own lives. "Ruth's my great grandma!" one child exclaimed during a talk on Ruth. "I'm going on strike!" exclaimed a boy. "Call 'the law offices of'....''; another deemed the teacher's query "the $1000 question on 'Who Wants to Be A Millionaire!' " Valiantly, Ms. Scharf often paused until order was restored, and she patiently led the children through a lesson on the upcoming holiday of Shavuos.

Kids will be kids; here, their unruly energy was channeled into something rich and joyous.

"Don't we have Jeopardy today?" asked one child. "Yeah!" the others yelled. Ms. Scharf then led the students into a round of choosing the Jeopardy Team Captain by winning a Hebrew word bee.

"Jewish Jeopardy" then commenced in a nearby, larger room, where all of the classes sat in teams and Rabbi Menachem Gurkow, the spiritual leader of Shaloh House, began the contest. Making Alex Trebek seem positively languid and dull by comparison, he excitedly went over the standings of each team, while praising the children for their role in Judaic culture ("You are the guarantors of the Torah!") and inviting them to an ice cream party on Friday, the first day of Shavuos. Indeed, Shaloh also has many fun-sounding ongoing and holiday programs. Their brochure cites the Shofar Factory, Chanukah Rally, Purim Carnival, Passover Matzah Baking, Model Seder, Kosher label contest, Brachot Bee, Friday night children's services and more. Every month, a Jewish theme is focused upon and celebrated with special study, contests and games.

Back to Jeopardy. "History for 300!" "On what day of Creation was the sun created?" (the 4th day) "Holidays for 100!" "How many times do we pray on a Jewish holiday?" (4) "Personalities for 300!" "What was Moses' wife's name?" (Zipporah)

The 5th grade, Kitah Hey, won with 3,000 points. Yet all players left cheery and exuberant.

"The basis for teenage involvement needs to be laid prior to Bar/Bat Mitzvah," state Leonard Saxe et al. in a 2000 Brandeis study on Jewish adolescents. "[P]erhaps the bar mitzvah ceremony is the best example - the child receives extraordinary attention, praise, and even pecuniary reward....possibly, the community needs to think of how to expand rewards for acquisition of Jewish knowledge." It seems that Rabbi Gurkow's school is on the right track.

"We believe," he emphasizes, "that it is important that every child has a strong foundation in Jewish knowledge; that he/she has a sense of love and pride for Judaism, and that he/she is able to strongly identify him/herself with Judaism.

"At Shaloh House," he continues, "we put strong emphasis on hands-on experience, while also combining it with fun and competition. [W]e strive to give individual attention to each child, to allow each child to advance and follow the class at his or her own pace.

"Our goal is that each child should go through his/her Bar/Bat-Mitzvah and beyond, knowing who he/she is, what he/she represents, and realizing that there is always more to learn and achieve."