Kesher Pittsburgh’s new part-time educational program for children is not a traditional Hebrew school —which is precisely the point.
“It’s a different model of education,” explained Hebrew Priestess Keshira HaLev Fife, founder of Kesher, “a non-institutional, post-denominational” Jewish community. “That is to say, if your primary value is for your child to be able to fluently read from the Haggadah on Pesach, this is probably not the program for them.”
On the other hand, she said, “if you want your child to be able to speak from an authentic and personal place about what Mitzrayim they are coming through this Pesach, that’s the kind of question we will be focusing on — what does it mean to live our Jewish values, what does it mean to have Jewish rhythms imbedded in our being?”
Jewish Pittsburgh’s most recent community study, conducted in 2017 by researchers at Brandeis University, revealed that just 45% of Jewish children in Pittsburgh are enrolled in Jewish part-time school, day school or a Jewish tutoring program. For some parents, the decision of whether to send their child to a Judaics program is influenced by their level of satisfaction with the traditional model.
That was the case for Becca Tobe, who has two children now attending Kesher’s program, which launched this fall. Although Tobe believes that the traditional model of the congregational after-school Judaics program works well for many families, it was not right for her own.
“The programs here were similar models to the religious school I had gone to as a kid in New Jersey, which didn’t resonate with me,” Tobe said. In fact, the program she attended as a child “was something I didn’t like about my Judaism.”
Tobe wanted a different paradigm for her own children, who are regulars at Kesher’s Shabbat and holiday services, and who “love Judaism so much — I just wanted to give them a program to foster that,” she said.
Tobe hopes to have found a means to grow her children’s connection to Judaism through Kesher Kids (a “working title,” according to Fife), which meets for a two-hour session three times a month. Kesher Kids is comprised of two classes, one on Thursdays for children in fourth to sixth grades, and a Sunday class for kindergarten through third grade.
The Thursday class has “a project-based learning curriculum,” explained Fife. “It’s loosely tied to the holiday cycle and Jewish life cycle, and within the projects, the kids are learning some history, some stories, some Biblical and Jewish figures. They are learning a bracha every week, and they are learning about Jewish values each week.”
Members of the Thursday class, which is taught primarily by Community Day School teacher Chaim Steinberg, will also have a Hebrew language lesson one hour every second week, and will come to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kesher once a month.
The two-hour Sunday morning class is for kindergarten through third graders, and its structure varies depending on the week.
One Sunday each month, the younger group engages in a project-based curriculum similar to that of the older group. Family education is offered on another Sunday. The third Sunday of a given month is dedicated to doing a mitzvah project for which Kesher will partner with various organizations around the community. Fife will teach some of the lessons to the younger group, and parents will help with the mitzvah projects.
“We really want it to be hands-on and experiential for the kids so it is enjoyable, engaging, and so that the learning is embedded in the doing,” said Fife.
For Tobe, the mitzvah component of the program is significant. For young children, “Judaism is hard to grasp,” she said. “But doing good things for others is something they can understand.”
The fourth weekend of each month will find the children participating in Kabbalat Shabbat “so the kids can learn prayers and songs and the rhythm of the service by actually participating in one,” Fife said.
The classes are held in private homes in Pittsburgh’s East End and in Fox Chapel.
So far, there are about eight children registered for each class, coming from various schools around the city including the Environmental Charter School, Winchester Thurston, Shady Side Academy and Community Day School.
“It’s nice that these Jewish kids are getting to make community together and coming to know each other — and each other’s families — from a young age,” said Fife. “The program is, of course, an opportunity for learning and it’s also a tool for community building, exploring spirituality, forming strong Jewish identity and blossoming into ‘mensch-hood.’ We believe that developing an understanding of our shared values and practices, we bring strength to the foundations of our community.”
While there is a cost to the program, “no one is turned away for financial reasons,” Fife said. “Access is really important for our community, so anyone that wants to participate, we would come up with some arrangement that works for the families.”
While Rebecca Hurowitz’s three children all attended a congregation-based religious school in previous years, the two younger ones are now participating in Kesher Kids instead.
“For our family, Keshira has been a very strong influence and we consider her to be our Jewish spiritual leader,” said Hurowitz, noting that Fife officiated at her oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah service and that her family also has been attending High Holiday and Shabbat services with Kesher.
When Fife decided to offer a Judaics program for children, it was a natural fit for Hurowitz’s family.
“Religious supplemental school is challenging in this day and age,” Hurowitz said. “My kids don’t go to day school. They go to a public school, so fostering their Jewish identity and knowledge is a very high priority for me. I wanted to make sure through their supplemental school that they are not only learning, but that they are developing a Jewish cohort and a strong Jewish identity. The way Kesher is set up fosters a love of Judaism and a strong Jewish identity in a way that appeals to my family.”
Because there is not a strong Hebrew component to the program, Hurowitz said she would consider hiring a Hebrew tutor for her children in addition to having them participate in Kesher Kids.
“One of the advantages to Pittsburgh is we have so many options and people can figure out what the best fit is for their family, or even for each individual child,” Hurowitz said, adding that her children also had a positive experience in their prior program at a congregation. “This is just something that came at a time we were looking for something a little bit different. It’s something that connects for us.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at