Good Things Come in Small Packages: What Day Schools Can Learn from Supplementary Programs

by | Feb 14, 2023 | Building The Jewish Experience | 0 comments

While day schools bear much of the burden of formal Jewish education, supplementary programs offer unique opportunities to build the Jewish experience. There are many varieties of supplementary programs, including afternoon Hebrew schools, Sunday schools, extracurricular courses, and clubs. Some of these programs are the primary sources of their students’ Jewish experience; others are part of a larger network of opportunities. While each program has its own set of circumstances, there are several challenges with which supplementary programs, by design, must grapple. These obstacles propel supplementary programs to think differently about Jewish education than their full-day counterparts. This paper will briefly explore some of the challenges supplemental program face while extrapolating strategies and practices that can also be useful in day school environments.

Attracting and Retaining Students

One obstacle that supplementary programs face is attracting students. Timeslots outside of the regular school day are highly competitive, with a variety of extracurricular activities vying for the limited time of potential participants. Furthermore, after a full day of learning, additional schooling is a hard sell for both parents and students. Once students are enrolled in a program, keeping them engaged becomes a primary focus. Programs have to find ways to convince students who would rather be playing sports, doing homework, or hanging out with friends that their time will be filled with worthwhile and enjoyable experiences. In order to be successful, therefore, supplementary programs start with experiences at the center of their curricular design.

Limited Frequency

Supplementary programs meet for relatively short amounts of time, often weekly or biweekly. Curricular units that drag on for too long run a risk of feeling fragmented, thereby lessening their educational impact. The limited frequency of the sessions challenges administrators to create a highly focused and refined mission to define the program.

While all worthwhile educational programs state their values and goals, supplementary schools need to contend with additional considerations, including:

  • The role this program will have among the broader scope of institutions that may be formative in the development of the student’s Jewish identity
  • The types of experiences students and families can expect to encounter in this program
  • How this program will compete for the interest of its participants amongst other types of extracurricular programs

The necessity of grappling with these issues in order to attract students pushes supplementary schools to define themselves in a purposeful and goal-oriented way.


Students and parents need to feel that the benefits of their participation transcend the physical limitations of the program. Just as participation in a soccer league translates into improved physical fitness and sportsmanship, participation in a supplementary program must have farther-reaching outcomes than those achieved within the structure of the program itself. This can be achieved by engaging nuclear families in the educational process and by involving students and their families in community-wide initiatives that give them a sense that they are part of something bigger. Students who learn in the classrooms of a synagogue or community center can feel a sense of propriety over their surroundings. This perception can transfer into greater involvement in all facets of Jewish life.

Teaching Towards Affect

One result of contending with these challenges is the development of a comprehensive curricular model that is built around essential questions and carefully curated experiences. On the one hand, supplemental programs must “do it all”—provide an engaging and relevant atmosphere in which students will learn the building blocks of Jewish knowledge. On the other hand, this broad goal necessitates clarity of purpose as well as a targeted path to implementation. An examination of the strategies and practices involved in developing such a model can be beneficial to day school educators and administrators as well.

The structure and needs of supplementary programs allow them to place affective outcomes at the forefront, using content and skills as tools to reach these goals. In contrast, traditional educational models tend to focus on reaching benchmarks in content acquisition and skill development, while affective goals relating to personal connection, attitude, and reflection are often secondary. A scope and sequence that is built upon experiences has many educational advantages:

  • Multiple modalities – Building a curricular unit around a central experience allows students to explore a given topic from different angles. These angles may include looking at pictures or slideshows, listening to music or stories, working with manipulatives, playing movement-based games, writing activities, and more.
  • Variety of interests – Students can explore different aspects surrounding a single experience, either by surveying a variety of options or by choosing a particular aspect to pursue in depth.
  • Differentiation – Experience-based curricula allow for differentiation among skill levels, with opportunities for instructors to bridge gaps and provide enrichment as needed. This is especially relevant in areas where students may come from a variety of institutions and backgrounds.

These educational strategies incorporate the development of necessary skills and content into a process that naturally leads toward positive engagement and motivated learners.

To illustrate, I will explore two examples of curricular units designed around experiences. Each of these units can be adapted for different grade levels and can be part of a scaffolding process in which skills are developed over different units and across age groups. For brevity, these examples are presented as isolated units; however, they are intended to be a part of a cohesive whole, based upon articulated values and understandings.

The Shabbat Experience

This unit centers around the idea of Shabbat as a point of connection. Students engage with the questions: How do the rituals of Shabbat help us to connect with our families and our community? How do the prayers of Shabbat connect us to our community and to God?

In order to explore these questions, students prepare to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service. The unit takes place over a limited number of sessions, so that the anticipation of the final product, the service itself, stays at the forefront. Hebrew literacy skills and knowledge of both the content and meaning of the service are intentional byproducts of a unit that is designed to forge positive associations with the experience of Shabbat.

In preparing for the service, students learn the text of selected elements of the service, navigate a siddur, become familiar with the tunes that will be sung, recognize the different elements of the sanctuary, and meet with the different leadership personalities who will be present during the service. Students become invested in their various roles in the service and develop personal connections. Musically inclined students will find their place alongside students with a passion for history and those who enjoy poetry. Opportunities to enlist multiple modalities of learning increase engagement in and ownership of the learning.

The experience of leading the Kabbalat Shabbat service transcends the scope of the supplemental program itself. Students who may not attend services, or attend different institutions, will feel a sense of pride and ownership over their role in leading this particular service. Furthermore, hosting Shabbat services in the same building in which a Hebrew school is housed, for example, instills pride and ownership in the students, and reinforces the idea that Jewish identity and experiences are not relegated to certain times, but are all-encompassing.

In addition to providing a broader context for students to experience Jewish life, the Kabbalat Shabbat service also brings like-minded families together. Families who experience the service together can contend with the guiding questions of the unit alongside their children.

Synagogue Tour Guides

This unit centers around the idea of the synagogue as a central focus of Jewish life. Students engage with the questions: How do the different parts of the synagogue contribute towards its purpose? Does God need a house or a home?

The unit is geared around the experience of leading a tour of the synagogue. Students prepare for this experience by viewing pictures of famous synagogues throughout the world, observing the different functions of the various rooms and spaces in the synagogue, meeting the personnel who work there, and learning about the earliest forms of synagogues—the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Batei HaMikdash (Temples). Students participate in virtual tours, a scavenger hunt, building and map activities, and a meet and greet with relevant people. At the end of the unit, students lead their parents on an official guided tour of the facility.

The experience of learning the ins and outs of a physical institution builds a sense of pride, appreciation, and responsibility in the participants vis a vis their surroundings. These goals are complemented by the knowledge that they gain regarding the form and function of synagogues old and new, as well as the philosophical and religious underpinnings of the institution. In addition, students are given the tools to succeed at oral presentations. Parents, in turn, experience their child’s sense of ownership and excitement over their surroundings and witness the transferability of their skills across disciplines.

Most importantly, the experience of touring a synagogue together gives the parents and children a basis from which to explore the essential questions of the unit and to initiate further discussion about the role of their own homes in their Jewish journey.

Extrapolating Outward

These sample units demonstrate how supplemental programs put experiences at the forefront of their educational repertoire, using content and skills as a means to achieve affective goals.

While the physical limitations of supplemental programs are both the root of their challenges and the impetus for their strategic planning, the process of dealing with these challenges yields several outtakes that are worthy of consideration by day school leaders and educators as they consider their role in building the Jewish experience:

  • Carefully defining and communicating the goals and direction of Judaic studies curricula allow for clarity of purpose.
  • Exploration of this stated purpose through meaningful experiences instills positive values and a love of learning.
  • Incorporating skills and content as tools to build experiences keeps learning-centered and balanced.
  • Designing units with essential questions in mind keeps the focus on the meaning behind the experiences so that the learning is seen in its broader context.
  • Tapping into students’ interests and talents as part of the curricular design encourages buy-in and creates meaning on an individual level.

As the balance of Jewish education shifts further away from the home and into the hands of educators, building the Jewish experience becomes the purview of all varieties of educational institutions. Learning and adapting from each other will result in the best possible outcomes for all students.

Sarah Golubtchik is an educational consultant who specializes in designing materials to support teachers and students around the globe. Following years of classroom experience in the US and Israel, Sarah recently developed a unique supplementary program in Israel. Sarah holds a MS in Jewish Education from Yeshiva University, and is certified as a Morah L’Halakha.

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