Several inches of snow and bitter cold weather did not deter 140 Cleveland-area sixth-graders from gathering for the “Count Me In” retreat at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike on February 11 from 4 to 9 p.m. Inside the synagogue, the atmosphere was warm and inviting as students learned about the greater meaning of names.
Having discussed the names they were given by their parents at religious school, the students were ready to learn about the names they could earn through their actions.
From experiencing the importance of teamwork and problem-solving in building a shoe tower, to observing the compassion shown in the movie “The Blind Side,” students learned about the positive qualities they wanted to be identified with in the years ahead. They discussed the importance of being a true friend, generous and helpful, kind and courageous, open-minded and nonjudgmental. Unlike the names they were given by their parents, these qualities are the names they earn through their behavior.
The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland developed the curriculum based on the Midrash discussion that all people have three names: the ones their parents give them, the ones other people call them and the ones they earn themselves. “Count Me In” resulted from the several-month collaboration of JECC’s curriculum department, retreat institute and teacher center with religious school directors from 10 congregations.
While students congregated for the retreat, their parents assembled at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage for discussion.
Religious schools had focused on the first part of the Midrash text in their January curriculum to help prepare about 250 sixth-graders for the retreat. Each religious school committed to presenting three sessions on the topic.
“Everyone was creative in how they integrated the prior lessons,” said JECC senior director and curriculum director Nachama Moskowitz, who helped spearhead the program. Fairmount Temple, for example, had a Shabbaton overnight program February 10, where curriculum and activities served as a prelude to the “Count Me In” retreat.
“The energy was amazing at the retreat, as well as at the parents’ program,” which had about 50 participants, Moskowitz said. “One of the high points of this program was that Jewish sixth-graders and their parents from across the community got to connect with each other. Children who see only their synagogue friends at Jewish programs got to be with other Jewish friends from school who belong to other congregations. Children who live in different communities saw friends from camp or sports teams.”
“’Count Me In’ grew out of our desire to help increase retention of students beyond bar/bat mitzvah, with a new strategy that emerged of our community-wide Bridges to the Future teen survey,” Moskowitz said. Instead of focusing only on our high school programs, we decided to also look seriously at upper elementary and middle school.”
Powerful social experiences and experiential programs for pre-b’nai mitzvah students could increase retention post b’nai mitzvah, said education director Kate Milgrom at Temple Emanu El. “The program was the result of a great deal of collaboration. The end result was a powerful communal learning experience not only for sixth-graders, but also for their teachers.”
“The program kept them extremely active,” said JECC retreat institute director Judy Schiller. They learned through activities how a person earns a name. “I think we were able to get the concept across to the kids: It’s all about what I do. ‘Count Me In’ means I’m present, part of the Jewish people and can be counted on. I’m willing to take responsibility.”
This retreat, funded by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Fund for the Jewish Future, was the largest one the institute has planned, Schiller said. The 20-year-old retreat institute plans and coordinates approximately 30 to 40 retreats each year, with about 60% for youth and 40% for families.
“I liked getting to hang out with other Jewish kids from other temples, sixth-grader Adam Turk at Temple Emanu El said. “I met so many more interesting Jewish kids and it was a good Jewish experience.”
“It was awesome, lots of fun,” said Kayla Zlotnik, a sixth-grader at Orchard Middle School in Solon and The Temple-Tifereth Israel. Her favorite activity, she said, “was when we sang a bunch of songs and we had dinner.” Kayla said she saw friends not just from Orchard, but also from preschool and camp.
Kayla’s mother Amy said she enjoyed the parents’ program. “A highlight was being able to meet parents from all over the city with sixth-graders who are all in the same boat, about to embark on their bar or bat mitzvah.” She also enjoyed “the fun, structured mixer” and discussion led by Park Synagogue parent Edie Ungar-Shafron, a psychologist at Orange High School. “I hope the program will continue next year, with greater parent turnout.”
‘Count Me In’
The following congregations participated in the “Count Me In” Cleveland-area retreat:
Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple
Beth Israel–West Temple
B’nai Jeshurun Congregation
Congregation Kol Chadash
Suburban Temple-Kol Ami
Temple Beth Shalom
Temple Emanu El
Temple Israel-Ner Tamid
The Temple-Tifereth Israel