Yulia and Igor Tsvetkov are not particularly religious, but it is important to them that their children, 7 and 9, learn about Jewish culture and practice.
That’s why every Thursday at 2 p.m. their children leave the Pittsburgh Colfax Elementary School before the final period of the day and walk with a representative of Chabad of Pittsburgh to the nearby Congregation Poale Zedeck for a religious instruction program dubbed the Jewish Discovery Hour.
The hour-long program is led by Chani Altein, who instructs five children in grades K through 4 in subjects such as the weekly Torah portion, Jewish holidays and mitzvot.
“They love it,” said Yulia Tsvetkov. “Chani is a great teacher. We’re very happy about it.”
The program was launched last year in accordance with a state law known as “released-time” that permits children to leave public school for one hour each week for religious instruction. Act 175 and Section 1546 of the Public School Code make it mandatory for public schools to honor the request of a parent or guardian for a child to attend religion classes during the school day, up to a maximum of 36 hours per year.
Several other states, including New York, California and Utah, have similar laws.
“Most of these kids are not going to any other Jewish educational programs,” said Rabbi Yisroel Altein, co-director of Chabad of Pittsburgh who started the program at Colfax along with his wife, Chani, after they learned of the law.
“We knew a number of families at Colfax that were interested,” he said, adding that Colfax seemed like a good choice for a pilot program because of its proximity to Poale Zedeck, which had offered the use of a classroom.
For Mirit Eyal-Cohen, whose 8-year-old son attended the program last year before the family moved to Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Jewish Discovery Hour provided “excellent cultural enrichment.”
“For us, it was perfect,” Eyal-Cohen said, noting that because she and her husband are both Israelis, her son already had a strong grasp of Hebrew but wanted to learn about Jewish culture and practice.
“He loved going to those sessions,” Eyal-Cohen continued. “He came back knowing a lot about the holidays and the mitzvahs.”
Eyal-Cohen, who helped launch the program in Pittsburgh last year, is hoping to spearhead a similar program in Tuscaloosa. Judaic instruction during the school day, she said, offers advantages over an after-school program.
After-school activities and sports, combined with homework, can present challenges and conflicts, she said, and she sees Judaic instruction during the school day as part of her son’s educational development.
“He felt like he was learning something about himself,” she said.
Michelle Zeff, whose 7-year-old son attends the program, agreed.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the kids in public school to learn in such an easy, comfortable and loving environment,” said Zeff.
Colfax administrators, he added, have been “very accommodating, and very happy to work with us to make this happen.”
Having Judaic instruction as part of the school day reinforces the importance of Jewish education for a child, according to Altein. And from a practical perspective, he added, it allows for a child who is not ready to commit to devoting time after school for Jewish learning to nonetheless receive instruction.
“The kids have a good time,” he said, “and they are happy to come.”
While the program currently serves five children, Altein said he hopes it will grow by word of mouth. He eventually hopes to offer the program through additional public schools.
“The Jewish Discovery Hour is a wonderful opportunity to engage Jewish children in an exploration of our heritage and traditions in a fun and meaningful way,” Chani Altein said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.