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Spotlight on Bryan, Texas: Community in the Chug
By Jen Rosenberg
My co-director Jen Meer and I are new to leading religious school. We are part of Congregation Beth Shalom, a small congregation in Bryan, Texas. Our religious school had been dwindling over recent years, with even “active” students showing up over half an hour late or not at all. This year, we knew we needed to make some big changes.
It quickly became apparent to us that the first half hour of religious school needed to be fun. No one likes to get up early on a Sunday morning, and so we needed something so exciting that the kids would beg their parents to take them to religious school. Yes, we had high hopes. But what could be that incredible?
That’s when we heard about matzah-ball tossing. I was at the ISJL conference this past June when a co-attendee mentioned matzah-ball tossing as an idea for a fun Pesach activity, and I thought, “We must do this!” Matzah-ball tossing was not only an incredible idea; it was one of those kinds of events that would be memorable for a lifetime. Matzah-ball tossing would be awesome, but could we do something that fun every week?
Well, no, we couldn’t. No matter how exciting my co-director and I can be, it gets boring listening to just two people all of the time. We needed new experiences, new voices, new knowledge being brought in. That’s when my co-director had the idea to invite members of the congregation to help us.
We might be a small congregation, but we have architects, nuclear scientists, teachers, writers, and more. Plus, many of those people have secret passions, like cooking, traveling, sewing, gardening, etc.
With this in mind, we dedicated the first half hour of our religious school (out of two-and-a-half hours) to a Chug (Hebrew for “circle of people”). For this half hour, we have a fun, all-school activity, which is taught by various people.
Some of these, we teach – like the time we made our own ink and quill and learned how to make a Torah. Or the time the kids acted out the story of Jonah with the drama game “typewriter.”
Other times, we’ve had a community member teach. For instance, when a community member who happens to be a nuclear engineering student taught the kids to make kugel. Or an older community member who has a passion for Sukkot taught the kids to make banners to hang in our community Sukkah. And then there was the time when the local Hillel rabbi, who has a hidden but lifelong passion for Legos, taught the kids the rules of building a Sukkah while making mini-Sukkot out of Legos.
In the Spring, we hope to have a member teach us a song in sign language (she is fluent), a gardening specialist teach us about the plants in the Torah (maybe we’ll make our own garden?), a crafter instruct us in tie dye, and we’ll continue with more cooking. If we can swing it, we’ll even have a lesson on how to lasso (with a bit of Jewish cowboy history thrown in). Oh, and of course, matzah-ball tossing (with community members helping to make the matzah balls).
Ultimately, our Chug has been extremely popular this year. Kids might not quite beg their parents to come, but we have a full house every Sunday morning. And while we don’t have community members leading every Chug, the variety of personalities and topics that they bring in has made our religious school seem much more fun and more vibrant.