2014-04-16 / Local News

Rabbi Weiner energizes Beth Tikvah’s young

By SALLY FRIEDMAN For the Voice


Rabbi Nathan Weiner teaching in the school’s new Stimulation Center, featuring funky lighting and chalkboard walls. Rabbi Nathan Weiner teaching in the school’s new Stimulation Center, featuring funky lighting and chalkboard walls. It was the Sunday morning following the shift to spring Daylight Saving Time. That precious hour of sleep had been lost, but things were still bustling at Congregation Beth Tikvah Sunday School. Right in the middle of the happy fray was a slender young man moving with speed, but never missing a chance to greet a Sunday schooler.

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College student Nathan Weiner, who serves as Director of Education for the Marlton synagogue’s education program, seems to know each child and teen by name – and by personality.

“This is what I love best!” said Weiner, who has redesigned the synagogue’s school program into a concept he aptly calls “TLC: Tikvah Learning Community.” But he never forgets the familiar meaning of those letters to designate “Tender Loving Care.”

Weiner has a theory about Hebrew education that has attracted some attention. He earnestly believes that the synagogue should be a comfortable home – and yes, a homeland, too – for Jewish youngsters. He wants them to be eager to come, to stay around to become part of the synagogue community as they advance through their school years, and to delight in programming that is similar to that found in the best Jewish summer camps.

This native of Brockton, Massachusetts and honors graduate of George Washington University formerly served as teen director of a Washington, DC synagogue, but had always loved the Jewish camp experience himself. It was during a summer stint at Camp Harlam in the Poconos that Weiner actually shifted gears and decided that the rabbinate was his true calling.

But it was the Jewish camp experience that truly ignited his passion.

“When I met Rabbi Gary Gans of Congregation Beth Tikvah unexpectedly while he and his wife were visiting their son at a camp in Wisconsin where I was working, there was an immediate chemistry,” he said, noting that he became a Rabbinic Intern for the synagogue in 2011. “My interest in education was nourished, and this year, I’m able to implement some of the ideas that I believe keep kids engaged.”

And no wonder.

Nathan Weiner spotted a basement room at the synagogue last summer that was used for storage and little else. But in that room he saw the potential for much more. “Once I got the goahead, the room was completely designed as a ‘Simulation Station,’ the kind of place that would definitely appeal to kids,” he said.

Consider entering a space with controlled lighting that can turn excitingly dark – but with the kind of dramatic electronic lighting that youngsters love. The walls were anointed with “chalkboard” paint, allowing for a massive space for writing, drawing, and later erasing and starting all over again.

Music is piped in, a fog machine can be activated and Rabbi Nathan doesn’t hesitate to use dramatic devices like replicating

Jonah inside the whale, complete with foam rubber plastic tubing to represent the whale’s rib cage.

His classes and projects invite everything from thinking individually and as a group, to analyzing ideas on that blackboard, to singing and movement that make the Stimulation Station high on the fun/learning list of the congregation’s K through tenth grade students.

“They love it all – the laser light shows, the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ music, the black walls,” says Weiner.

Even classrooms are deliberately informal in style and design. The room for the older teens is equipped with lava lamps and beanbag chairs, a nod to a bygone - and fun - era.

The 31-year -old Jewish educator’s theory is that engagement in multi-media for today’s kids is basic, and that capturing their attention can be the route to their commitment.

“I always remember that camp is a place where learning is fun - it’s not a chore. To utilize that in a school setting, I knew that I wanted the kids to celebrate holidays, not just learn about them,” explains “Rabbi Nathan,” as he likes to be called.

Five instructors work with Rabbi Nathan in the TLC program, and only two are actually paid staff. The others volunteer.

Biblical characters turn up in classes - they happen to be costumed congregants, or Weiner himself, and best of all, Nathan Weiner believes, they, too, benefit from the unique casting and learn along the way.

This year, the TLC program has attracted a record number of students, which is indeed gratifying. But this rabbinic intern happens to believe that in some cases, small is beautiful. “One of the qualities this synagogue offers is a sense of community on a small scale. We definitely prize commitment over size.”

It’s working quite well for Shari Goldberg, 15, who has been at Beth Tikvah for her entire Jewish education. She celebrated her Bat Mitzvah there and truly looks forward to attending Sunday School classes at the synagogue.

“I really love the mix of older kids and younger kids working together,” says Shari, who feels “totally comfortable” with the school’s approach to learning - and with Rabbi Nathan.

“Coming here,” suggests Shari, whose twin sister, Samantha, also is in the synagogue’s TLC learning program, “is like coming home. It’s a way of really feeling connected to a community. And I love our ethics discussions because I’ve learned to share my point of view without any embarrassment.”

The younger students admittedly can’t wait to get to their beloved Simulation Station, and when they line up to go down the steps to this learning center like no other, there are preliminary cheers.

Nathan Weiner recognizes that there’s a challenge in delivering Hebrew education, and that volunteer support and a congregation that embraces the notion of unique learning approaches, is vital to success.

Teaching the students that part of being Jewish is to care about each other, and about the world beyond, is a major goal. It surely fits under the TLC umbrella.

On a recent Sunday morning, students from kindergarten level up were making Purim gifts for hospice patterns. “There’s a different level of understanding in each age group, but the joy of their working together is always beautiful to see,” says Rabbi Nathan.

Nathan Weiner will be spending this summer at the JCC Camps in Medford directing the CIT’s. “I can’t wait!” he says with a grin.

But there’s a serious side to his dedication. There’s a phrase that this energetic and imaginative rabbi intern uses that means a great deal to him about life, learning and being a Jew:

Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek:

Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another,” he said. .

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