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History of Shabbat School at Havurah Shalom

Over the past 40 years, probably around 400 children have participated in Shabbat School and almost as many parents have been teachers. But how did it all begin? What changes have taken place over the years? We recently asked these questions to those who were involved in the beginning; and so, the story of Havurah’s Shabbat School is told.

Before there were Saturday morning services at Havurah, families would use this time to gather for Torah study. Soon, there was an idea that it was important to have Jewish education for the children, but it was a matter of deciding on the best day and time. Saturday mornings were filled with Torah study and kids’ soccer games, and Sunday was a day that everyone agreed should be a family day.

And who would teach this religious school? Many parents remembered their own religious school experience as children, being dropped off at the synagogue with no parent involvement. These Havurah parents wanted something different for their children. They wanted something that would provide both Jewish learning and community, where parents were involved with their children. They wanted the time that they met to feel Jewish. Thus, Shabbat School was born — September 15, 1979. It was to be on Saturdays at 3:00 pm and end with Havdalah, much like it does today.

Margie Rosenthal and Mari Livingston were the initial leaders, with Mimi Epstein and Sydney Gold taking over after them. Margie and Marie traveled to California to meet with Jewish educators and brought back curriculum material and books for each grade. Shabbat School started with approximately 30-40 families who met in the classrooms at the West Hills Unitarian Fellowship. Parents were the teachers but not all parents taught their own children’s group at that time.

In 1982, Shabbat School classes moved to the Jewish Community Center, where they continued until our community found and rehabbed the current Havurah Shalom building in Northwest Portland in 1998. During one of the first years, the families hired teachers who were working in other synagogue education programs. But they decided that having those “professionals” teach didn’t actually work as well as being the teachers themselves, and they quickly realized how important it was to them to have the parents do the teaching. The benefit of the children seeing that their parents care about what they are doing, in addition to the parents truly getting to know the kids of their community, is what helped shape Havurah’s family cooperative education model that we know today.

As time went on and the groups of children grew, parents came to teach their own children. In 1998, there was an internal assessment of the Shabbat School model, which led to the addition of more structure. Curriculum was divided into 4 quarters. Parents started working in teams, with each team responsible for one quarter of teaching. Many dedicated parents strove to create a sequence of learning and themes. Amongst them were Susan Lazareck, Marydee Sklar, Karen St. Clair, Janet Byrd, Cindy Brodner, and Fran Berg.

Rabbi Joey Wolf, and the other rabbis before him, were involved in some ways but Shabbat School was fundamentally a parent-led vision and program. Then, when there were 80 families in Shabbat School, Havurah hired its second professional Jewish leader: Deborah Eisenbach-Budner, who has been our first, and only, Education Director since 2001.

Around that time, the Notebooks emerged, collating ideas and write-ups of activities specific to that quarter’s theme along with general educational resources. Deborah began to meet with each of the 28 teaching teams (7 grades, 4 quarters per grade – a team for each one) and helped parents consider their teaching philosophically, pedagogically, and pragmatically. As support for teaching grew, the curriculum resources grew, and the Notebooks began to burst. Parents were able to take workshops that provided some training in teaching, Jewish learning, and integrating Jewish wisdom into parenting.

We came to the point that just managing the hundreds of curriculum resources became all-consuming — not to mention scheduling all the team meetings and tracking the myriad of details from a family cooperative with over one-hundred children and 85 very part-time teachers. Plus, our Education Director was also planning holiday celebrations, doing adult education, as well as serving many other roles in Havurah. In 2006, a group of Shabbat School Chairs proposed to Steering that we invest in 150 hours a year for a Shabbat School Assistant role, which later became the Assistant Coordinator of Education. This role would help Deborah collect and organize the existing Shabbat School grades’ materials (K-6), develop and integrate new materials and curriculum ideas, and make the whole curriculum accessible electronically for Shabbat School teaching teams — each quarter having designated pedagogical goals, objectives, activities, and material resources. Debbi Nadell established this role and then her fantastic work was built upon by Laura Ehrlich, Stacy Hankin, and now, Carrie Kirschner.

The quality of education that we can give our children has strengthened throughout the years. Through it all, we keep the community-building and family involvement core to our mission and our experience. What began as an experiment has grown up into an innovative and engaging model of Jewish learning and living that we can all be proud of.


Shabbat School Video

Click here or on the graphic above to watch our video celebrating 40 years of Shabbat School at Havurah Shalom.


Shabbat School Memories & Testimonies


Robbin Deweese

We started doing Shabbat School for Ariel in I think, 1994. Jan and I enjoyed learning as we prepared to teach the kids, though I must admit to feeling a little daunted adding teaching religious school as well as public school at the same time. Jan's music always made the curriculum more fun.

Clara's group started in pre-kindergarten, probably 1998, which Karen Westerman and Barbara Diamond got rolling. How do families with more than 2 children in Shabbat School manage?

My fondest memories of Shabbat School are reinforced by the friendships we created for ourselves and our children. A high point of our experience with Ariel's group was the Jewish wedding we spent weeks creating with committees for the bride, groom, rabbi, chuppah, ketubah. When we finally had the ceremony, it felt like the whole class was married in friendship.

The Shabbat School experience, and Havurah Middle School connections helped us feel ready for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, especially since we were terrified preparing for Ariel's Bar Mitzvah which was the first one in several generations of my family.

While we felt relief when the kids moved into Havurah High and we no longer needed to teach classes, a sweet and precious moment had passed.


Cindy Brodner

It sounds like Shabbat School has come a long way. In looking over your document, my memory was jogged that during the transition from the teaching envelopes to the binders, we hired Debby Barany as a consultant to help us re-vision the curriculum and provide more support to the parent teachers. It was a very exciting time, really digging in to elucidate our philosophy of education and translate that into something practical for folks with little training in teaching methods and larger class sizes. I look back with fondness on this time in my life.


Steve Goldberg

In the mid-90s, Havurah had discussion/writing groups around interfaith marriages which Linda and I attended, and which Linda really enjoyed. Linda, who died last year, wrote a piece which she called “Steps along the path.” She never converted to Judaism — it was important for her to not reject her Christianity. Below is what she wrote. The last paragraph on page 1 and the first two paragraphs on page 2 reflect the importance of the Shabbat School experience to Linda, which I suppose is the point of having the parents so involved.

Second is my favorite memory. In one of the classes preparing for Passover, we acted out the ten plagues with each child being one of the plagues. Our daughter Emily — still young — chose to be lice, likely because we had experienced our own lice plague. I can’t believe I don’t have a picture but I’ve not been able to find one. She still cringes every year at the seder when we recite the plagues, and we come to lice, and she remembers Shabbat School.


Kate Davidson

Jossi and I taught Shabbat School many years ago when our now 40+ year olds were in grade school. Jossi always had a Jewish woodworking project and I concocted an art project.

  1. semester I talked Layton Borkin into doing a Jewish cooking class with me. We baked challah, cooked borscht, and made rugelach. On the last day of our previously very successful cooking class, we decided to make teiglach. While the honey syrup was cooking and thickening, and we were all carefully rolling out the balls of dough, the honey syrup suddenly just exploded ALL OVER Layton’s kitchen.

The sticky mess covered the stove, and was dripping everywhere—it erupted like a volcano into her overhead cabinets and coated all her glassware. It dripped down the front of the base cabinets and ran all over the floor. It was the biggest, stickiest, gooiest mess I ever imagined could have erupted in a kitchen.

My only memory after the explosion was my shaking my head and thinking how glad I was that no one got burned, that it was our last cooking class, and that it was Layton’s kitchen and not mine.


Sandy Ramirez

My memory goes back almost 40 years. Since I personally had no Jewish education, I was unable to be a "parent/teacher" but I was great with kids, so I provided childcare for the littlest Havurah darlings while their parents taught the older kids. I especially remember Rachel and Debra Rosenthal and Autumn and Noah Davidson. I can picture us sitting on the floor in a classroom at the JCC singing songs and telling stories. 


Sarah Rosenberg

Back when we were still at the JCC, we had a storage shed in the back behind the building, where we kept the boxes of supplies. We also had bolts of fabric that someone had donated when they sold their fabric store, and gave us for costumes, or whatever we wanted. And I organized a book sale one year that we put on in the lobby at PJA during Shabbat School.

This must have been in the early 1990s and my memory is that we had about 100 children enrolled. In each of my son's classes, they had 26 or 27 students, they were two big groups. The class in between them had only about 12 students.

Parents were assigned weeks for which they were responsible. I think sometimes two families worked together, but usually it was just one family per week. I think with the big classes we were in groups and one family brought the snack, and another did the teaching.

I remember one father who taught the kindergarten one week who read a book to the kids for a really long time! I finally asked him why he thought that was a good idea, and he said he wanted to see how long it would take before they got restless.

And parents definitely taught their own children. I remember especially in Adam's class there were a lot of boys, and some of them were not that happy about being in Shabbat School. Mike Klain was often our enforcer since he was a teacher in his real life. Because those of us who were not teachers had no idea what to do when kids weren't paying attention or participating appropriately.

I had 4th graders to my house one session to paint tallitot. One year we painted seder plates and took them to the "glaze your own" place in HIllsdale where they were fired. And I think I remember something involving beads that Judy Heumann said was a good project – also something with pieces of tiles to make trivets.

But someone before me had made up the envelopes with the curriculum and sometimes there were picture books in the envelopes to read to young ones. Otherwise, we all pretty much just made it up.


Susan Lazareck

I wrote the first curriculum in 1991, when our oldest child was starting Kindergarten. We were asked to focus on holidays for K-5, in a developmental sequence.  The kindergarten parents decided to work in partners, but not necessarily in any kind of organized quarterly sequence. Marlene Findling decided to tie her wagon to Jack and myself and we worked together right up until middle school.

Later, I reworked the curriculum with an educator and curriculum person from, I think, Shari Torah. That is when to curriculum was tightened up, organized into quarterly units and parents formed teams of 4 or 5 parents to do one quarter of the year. I think this was in 1997, when our second child was finishing Kindergarten. She was part of the "new curriculum cohort" in 1998.

Parents liked the more structured lessons, but still incorporated the crafts and stories from the original lesson plans. A favorite lesson plan involved building a personal "torah" with spindles, taping together parchment paper and rolling it on the spindles, and using goose feathers, writing the Shema.They finished the project by making a cover and making a yad.

Hurrah for Havurah Shabbat School and hurrah for your wonderful guidance!

Linda Boise

Click here for Linda's memories.


For full interviews about Shabbat School's history see these videos:

Iris & David Ellenberg

Margie Rosenthal & Rachel Devlin

Stacy Hankin

Mimi Epstein

Debbi Nadell & Shelley Sobel


Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784