When Adam Resnick moved to Pittsburgh about nine and a half years ago, the public policy researcher for the RAND Corp. quickly enrolled his infant son, Asher, in Congregation Beth Shalom’s Early Learning Center.
The decision to send Asher — and eventually his brother Judah, now 7 — to J-JEP, the Joint Jewish Education Program, came just as naturally.
“It’s a terrific program,” Resnick told the Chronicle. “The proof is in the pudding. When we pick up the kids, they run down the hallways — and they enjoy the projects they’re working on.”
Asher and Judah better watch out; J-JEP has big plans for 2023.
Rabbi Larry Freedman heads J-JEP, a collaborative, pluralistic religious school by Rodef Shalom Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom that is open to all K-12 students in greater Pittsburgh. The mission of the program, according to its promotional materials, is to provide “innovative, experiential learning that will inspire and prepare students to engage meaningfully in Jewish life.”
Freedman hasn’t always worked in an educational space — a New York state native, he was an associate rabbi/educator at Pittsburgh’s Temple Sinai for 10 years, starting around 1996, and also worked in a pastoral capacity for a small congregation of 150 households in Newburg, New York, about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
Then, he heard about J-JEP, which now has an enrollment of about 130 children.
“This opportunity came up, the job presented itself — and I love doing education,” Freedman said. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get back to that.’”
2023 presents a lot of opportunities for J-JEP. Armed with 30 newly enrolled students — the largest class of new students in recent memory — the program is looking to build on its bedrock of Jewish education.
“We talk a lot about ‘Why?” and how [Jewish learning] can be personally useful,” Freedman said.
But J-JEP is about more than learning Hebrew or lessons on the state of Israel, however successful those are. Other electives focus on subjects like cooking and the arts, both with Jewish angles and influences, and Freedman said those are areas where he hopes to focus in the coming year.
“We are working on doing what we do better and gaining the trust of the kids and the parents,” he said. “Too many parents had pretty — let’s face it — lousy religious school experiences when they were growing up. The goal of this program is to do it right and make it personal … we want the students to understand they’re studying themselves.”
Resnick, now a board member at Congregation Beth Shalom, sees what Freedman and others are doing through J-JEP.
“The kids are having a positive experience,” Resnick said. “I, as a parent and as a board member, support that — it’s a real Jewish experience.
“The real credit is they’re so talented at recruiting and retaining great teachers,” he added.
Those teachers frequently teach Hebrew and Judaica at area shuls, or teach by day at schools like Community Day School.
“The level of professionalism is exceptionally high,” Resnick said. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.