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“ ‘I’ll just have to see for myself’ was Marlene Myerson’s response when I told her that parents did not just drop their children off for Sunday religious school classes; but instead they stayed in the building and often attended family worship with their students,” explained Marcia Rittmaster, religious school and youth groups director at Congregation Beth Torah.

Rittmaster was referring to the September 2013 site visit by the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) Accreditation Team led by Myerson. But when Myerson arrived her doubts were put aside. Unlike many Reform congregations across the country where religious schools are “drop off” centers for parents, Myerson walked into the building to find nearly 100 adults hanging out for Sunday Schmooze and News while their students attended Sunday classes.

Commendations in the NATE accreditation report highlight the “sense of a warm and welcoming community that exists among the staff, the leadership and the congregants.” The nearly three-year process included interviews of the congregational staff and lay leadership, teaching staff, students and parents; detailed documentation of the policies and procedures of the Weiner Religious school (including the parent handbook), marketing materials, progress reports, lesson plans and even a map of the facility; budget information; evaluation of the congregation and the school vision; review of the curriculum and teaching materials; a staff visit by NATE; and much more.

A summary of the findings stated: “Your program is an excellent one, led by dedicated and committed staff who care about their students and each other, and who work in tandem in order to offer congregants an outstanding Jewish education.”

In addition to evaluating the nuts and bolts of a Jewish education program, the accreditation process is designed to help congregations reflect upon their mission.

Rabbi Mark Levin said that since the inception of the congregation, education served as a focal point of all other programs.

“The school has served as the core for developing a sense of community in Congregation Beth Torah from the beginning,” he said.

Led by Rabbi Educator Rebecca Reice and Rittmaster, Sunday morning classes for pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade students include classroom study, family school once a year and weekly family worship. Midweek Hebrew begins in fourth grade as students and families begin to think about Bar and Bat Mitzvah. The Keshet program is for fourth- through sixth-graders; the TAG program is for seventh- through 10th-graders. Post-confirmation students stay involved by serving as madrichim.

With lifelong learning programs a requirement for accreditation, the NATE team looked closely at the opportunities for adult education at Beth Torah. Impressed with the variety of programs the report stated: “The congregation offers a variety of programs that address the needs of learners of all ages.”

Lifelong learning was described as innovative, including speakers, discussion groups and current event forums as well as opportunities for travel to Israel.

Rabbi Reice stated that “the core of her pride in Beth Torah educational programs could be explained by the support shown from an Adult B’nai Mitzvah class.” When one of the older students in the class died suddenly, the class organized food and provided a caring community to help support the family in the face of this tragedy. “We always say ‘we are the community we need.’ Learning together helps us build that community.”

Although the process is complete and the accreditation awarded, the impact will continue as Congregation Beth Torah continues to reflect the spirit of Reform Judaism by placing learning as the central goal of its community. Currently the board of directors is reviewing the recommendations and engaging in plans to incorporate technology into the learning programs without sacrificing personal relationships and community building.

Of the more than 900-member congregations of the Union for Reform Judaism, Beth Torah joins an elite group of only 20 other congregations with accredited religious schools. That represents 2 percent of reform congregations in the United States and Canada, and is the only accredited school in Kansas or Missouri.

Members of the congregation’s NATE Accreditation Team, responsible for completing the application process from beginning to end, were: Shari Blank, Debbie Chase, Sheila Ginsberg, Henri Goettel, chairperson Robin Hendrikse, Diana Hurst, Elizabeth Lenz, Sanam Millerlile, Aaron Nielsenshultz, Rabbi Reice, Aaron Rittmaster, School Director Marcia Rittmaster and Elaine Tobias.

 
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