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Jewish Public School Children Thrive at Florida Afterschool Program

By , Highland Lakes, FL

( With pastels, paints and drawing tools at her fingertips, six-year-old Veronica Benarroch is absorbed in finishing her new ceramic while the children around her mold their pieces with similar concentration. Soon she’ll have a snack, read some books or watch a Jewish themed video at the Dovid Brin Library located just across the road.

Veronica is one of 175 children who spend almost five hours a day, every school day, at Chabad Hebrew afterschool in Highland Lakes. For these preschoolers, the 1:30 end-of-school bell signals the beginning of afterschool and Story Hour. For the older ones and up until 6th grade, afterschool starts at 3:00.

Their days are filled with a colorful variety of activities including Hebrew School art, tae kwon do, and music. During the last period of the day, from 4:30 to 6:00, some of the children continue at an after-care program at the Chabad Houses across the road where they get help with their homework in the Dovid Brin Library. When they’re done, they enjoy browsing the library’s 6,000 titles.

Rabbi Moishe Kievman, Chabad representative in Highland Lakes who co-directs the program together with his wife, Layah, says the school has grown by word-of-mouth. Children and their parents seem to love it.

“The kids come home and tell their friends about how much fun they are having, which has other kids asking their parents why they, too, can’t go to afterschool. The kids complain when there’s no afterschool.”

Although Jewish Day School enrollment has grown significantly—a 2008-09 Jewish census study found 288,174 students in Jewish elementary and secondary schools, up by  more than 43,000 or nearly 25% since 1998-99—the economy has thrown a wrench into that growth pace leaving too many Jewish children at the door with Jewish educators scratching their heads for creative alternatives.

Rabbi Kievman established the tuition-free Chabad Hebrew afterschool three years ago. In the first year, 27 public schoolers were enrolled. Last year, the numbers grew to 76. This year, Kievman began with 175 students and expects to see that number grow to 250 by year’s end.

“We apply for government grants and fundraise locally. If we figure out how to get more funding, we might have as many as 1,000 kids enrolled in five years from now,” projects Kievman.

Evi Plotnik, a working, single mother says the Chabad Hebrew afterschool is a perfect fit. Both her daughters, Libby and Taliah, are there every school day through 6:00.

“I am a working mom, and there is nothing better for me than to have a safe place for my kids to be while I’m at work. It’s important for my daughters to know about their tradition and family values, so that they will have this knowledge when they start their own families,” she says.

Recent research by the Afterschool Alliance shows that 15 million children–more than a quarter of the children in the US–are alone and unsupervised after school. In the 1990s, crime reportedly tripled after 3:00 pm. An additional 18.5 million children would participate if a quality program were available in their community, says the study.

Housed at the Aventura Waterways K-8 Center, the afterschool provides children from seven neighboring public schools a safe environment at no charge. All fun and games for the kids, Kievman points out that the program actually packs real Jewish learning into the downtime hours of these children who otherwise have no formal Jewish education.

“Through art the kids learn about Judaism, about Jewish festivals and traditions,” says Fela Fintz, art teacher at the Chabad Hebrew After-School whose award winning art is on display at the Florida Jewish Museum.

“The kids make Shofars, Chanuka Menorahs, and honey jars for Rosh Hashanah. They respond so well, it’s a great way teach them about Judaism,” she says proudly.

Dr. Lilian Benarroch enrolled Veronica at the Chabad Hebrew School for her second year. The passion of the teachers, she says, is what makes the transmission of Jewish values a stimulating and fun experience for her daughter.

“I love Hebrew School, I loved making a Shofar and I am really happy go to this school,” Veronica beams.


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