ST. PETERSBURG — Temple Beth-El is almost 100 years old, but the Reform Jewish congregation strives to be relevant in a changing world.
Members march in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade each year. They participate in FAST, an interfaith coalition that advocates for social justice in Pinellas County. And after the slayings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it was at Temple Beth-El that more than 1,000 people from throughout the community gathered for a vigil organized by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Michael Torop.
The congregation is also known for its innovative approach to remaining relevant in current times, creating contemporary worship weekly and for the High Holy Days, which begin today at sundown with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
Now the congregation has reinvented its Sunday school, aiming to teach Jewish values in a new way, through what is described as the lenses of story, tradition, land, people, spirituality, responsibility and language.
Torop’s sermon on Monday morning, the first day of Rosh Hashana, will address antiSemitism, and with it, the temple’s hopes for its new program for children from kindergarten to 12th grade. He shared a snippet of what he’ll say: “Our best response (to antiSemitism) is not to make ourselves invisible, but to celebrate a life grounded by Jewish values and teachings, creating impactful Jewish experiences.”
Those Jewish values and teachings are embedded in the newly designed curriculum, which is being taught in spaces renovated to resemble rooms in a home, emphasizing, Torop said, "the joys and celebrations of Jewish living.” Students are now called “seekers” and there’s a renewed emphasis on Hebrew. Sunday mornings begin with an hour of Hebrew and include learning letters, sound and fundamentals of reading using prayer-based materials. A bit of modern Hebrew is also offered, with children learning such basics as colors, directions and dialogues using simple Hebrew words.
Also new is a program focused on character development and personal growth through the framework of Jewish values, but with less focus on theistic elements. Torop said it "meets the needs of families who feel deeply connected to Judaism, but struggle with belief in God, including some who identify as Humanistic Jews, some who are multi-faith families, and some of our families who were looking for a really different approach to Sunday School as well.”
For older students, there are collaborative, community-based youth events with Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater.
Sarah Grace Nadler, director of innovative programming, worked with Torop and Sunday school teachers to design the new curriculum. “My position came out of a listening process,” said Nadler, a psychotherapist with a practice in downtown St. Petersburg.
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The revamped program is the result of an extensive effort dating back to 2015 and has included a task force and a consultant. Parents, staff and board members were surveyed about what they wanted in the new program. "They wanted a program that was more adventure-based and more relevant to the 21st century,” Nadler said.
Joshua Bean, who said he and his wife, Ali, wanted “more hands-on learning and more interactive learning,” described Nadler’s leadership and vision for the new program as “transformative.”
Daughter Maya, 8, looks forward to Sunday school, he said. “There is more engagement, more excitement from my own daughter and other students and families that I’ve spoken with."
The sense of adventure parents sought is being delivered to grades 7 through 12 by Bridget Siegel-Fultz, director of youth engagement. A week ago, she took students to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. How did that fit in with Judaism?
“It was about taking risks in the New Year,” she said of the pre-Rosh Hashana visit that included a boat ride to a small island. “I asked everybody to at least go into the water. And to try dunking all the way under. ... We talked about what risk taking is, and how risk taking is Jewish.”
She gave the example of Moses parting the sea. “That’s the biggest risk that Moses took,” she said.