As the school year is drawing to a close, many parents whose children are enrolled in The Jewish Youth Encounter Program (JYEP) are reflecting on their children’s experiences. JYEP is an independent outreach Hebrew school in Bergen County serving Jewish children in third through seventh grades. Many JYEP parents say that their children are enjoying the Hebrew-school experience and they credit this to JYEP’s warm atmosphere and the one-on-one learning opportunities made possible by its Big Brother/Big Sister Program.
“My kids love going to Hebrew school and I grew up loathing going to Hebrew school,” said Eileen Hod of Tenafly, whose two daughters, Libby and Orly, are enrolled in JYEP. “They love it because they have a big buddy. You can’t get that kind of relationship through a regular morah-on-student relationship.”
The JYEP meets every Sunday morning and teaches children Bible, holidays, and Jewish ethics in a regular classroom environment. However, the children also have a session with a Big Brother or Big Sister, a high school student volunteer who tutors him or her in Hebrew reading and language.
The “Bigs” are in regular contact with their “Littles” through emails and phone calls. In addition, JYEP hosts two semi-annual Shabbatonim—special Shabbat retreats wherein the children come together with their big sibling to spend Shabbat with the entire school.
Hod appreciates the fact that “Debby [Rapps, director of JYEP] takes the time to get to know you and your family and picked out big sisters based on our daughters’ personalities and needs. Our children both think their big sisters are perfect for them.”
She also appreciates that the big siblings focus on tutoring each child on his or her level and even focus on a particular topic if requested by the family; in her family’s case, this is davening.
According to Hod, JYEP is one of the few Hebrew-school programs available for children who attend public school whose families are not affiliated with a Conservative or Reform synagogue. Hod and her family are modern Orthodox and attend an Orthodox shul; however, her children do attend public school. She adds that other families involved in the program range from a Conservative or Reform affiliation to none at all.
Stacie Atiya, whose daughter Lilach attends JYEP, considers herself an Orthodox “wannabe.” She says that she doesn’t observe the Shabbat, but she keeps kosher and attends services at Chabad of Fair Lawn. Atiya said that her daughter has special needs and, therefore, she appreciates the one-on-one learning with the big siblings. “She can go at her own pace and that really works for her,” said Atiyah.
However, not all parents who send their children to JYEP are modern Orthodox or Orthodox “wannabes.” Sari Shlufman, has a daughter Dina who attends the program; her family is affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, Temple Emanu-el of Closter. She learned about JYEP from Hod.
“I like the warmth of the program,” said Shlufman. “It’s a very warm, nurturing environment.”
Nancy Meyler and her family don’t really have any synagogue affiliation at the moment, but they have been involved with JYEP for eight years. It started with her oldest daughter, who is now in 11th grade. Her son is finishing seventh grade and is sad to see that his time with JYEP is coming to an end. Meyler’s daughter enjoyed the program so much that even in eighth and ninth grade she continued attending the Shabbatonim.
The thing that drew the Meyler family to JYEP is the family-friendly atmosphere. “We really feel very welcome there,” she said. “The whole big brother, big sister thing and the Shabbatonim really speaks to inclusion. I can’t say enough good stuff about it. It’s really been a great experience for my kids and for my family.”
Maia Walzer began attending JYEP this year. Her mother Esther thinks “she likes going…because she likes being with her big sister, Adina Knapp (a Bruriah High School senior).” The Knapp family had invited the Walzer family over for a Shabbat, so JYEP has become much more than a Hebrew-school experience to their family. “It is more of a communal experience,” she said.
As much as Walzer likes being with her big sister, Knapp also enjoys being a big sister to Maia. “I feel like I gained a lot because my Little asks me questions and makes me think of Judaism in a different light and I really appreciate that,” she said.
Knapp’s sentiments are echoed by many other JYEP big brothers and big sisters, especially those who are also high school seniors, because their time volunteering with JYEP is coming to an end.
“I feel like I have gained a greater appreciation for the religious aspects of my life that I often take for granted,” said Tzvi Rotblat, a senior at TABC.
Meira Motechin, a senior at Bruriah, noted, “what brings me the most joy as a JYEP Big is when my Little remembers something that she had learned either with me or in one of her JYEP classes, months, or even years, before. As I learn each week with my Little, I can only hope that it is meaningful to her, but I know that it is meaningful to me and to my Jewish identity.”
For David Berger, a Senior at TABC, and Elisheva Rothberg, a senior at Bruriah, some of their most memorable experiences were during the JYEP Shabbatonim.
“I particularly enjoyed spending Shabbat with my Littles (on the bi-annual Shabbatonim),” said Berger, “and was amazed to see how willing they were to put away everything they were used to doing on Saturday to try to observe Shabbos in the way that JYEP prescribed.”
The thing Rothberg enjoyed about the Shabbatonim was that “I was able to share my love for Shabbat with Sabrina and Emilia [her Littles] by them experiencing it first-hand. I was able to show them all the different customs that we talked about in JYEP.”
“JYEP has been an incredible experience,” added Rothberg. “I may have taught Sabrina and Emilia Hebrew and about Judaism, but they taught me many things, if not more. They gave me a different perspective on life and on Judaism; they made me realize many different things about myself that I didn’t know before.”
Although the current JYEP school year is coming to a close, registration for the 2015–2016 school year is now open. An open house for prospective parents will take place on Sunday, May 10. For more information, contact Debby Rapps at [email protected] or call her at 201-833-JYEP. You can also visit their website at www.JYEP.org.
By Tova Domnitch