As part of the National Curriculum, primary schools (as well as secondary schools, but this does not impact us in the same way), are required to visit places of worship. We have for some years been a popular destination for local schools and we actively promote the fact that we welcome school visits on our website.
Over the past few years and especially over the past year, we have seen a sharp increase in schools requesting to visit Radlett and we now welcome local schools as well as from the wider Hertfordshire area and this year from Essex and South Bedfordshire. In 2013-14 we had over 1000 children visit us and for 2014-15 there is already an increase as this half term alone we are seeing two schools per week with 30-90 children per visit. We are getting bookings for the summer term.
Rabbi Paul Freedman comments: “We are delighted to reach such a large number of pupils through our schools outreach programme. It has a vitally important role to play in fostering a positive understanding of the Jewish faith in the wider community, showing not just how we differ but also what we have in common. Children and their teachers particularly appreciate seeing that Judaism is a living religion rather than a textbook curiosity.”
In addition to faith schools and secular schools visiting us, particularly the 8-11 year olds, we host beavers, cubs and scouts in the evenings, teachers from local primary schools, clergy groups, and we have ties with a local special needs school for autistic children. We visit schools for assemblies, either themed for a particular festival or a general topic and also have taught year groups in the classroom.
The visits to the synagogue by children as well as adults, usually follow a two hour interactive programme. We look at the synagogue as a building as well as the contents and compare this to what the visitors would expect to see in a church. Given that our building used to be a church, we encourage the children to look at what the church members would have taken away with them and what we had to do both to change the building and to add to the contents of the sanctuary to make it appropriate for Jewish worship. Each item added is a point of discussion. There is an emphasis of the need to remember the past in order to bring beliefs, rituals and memories of those no longer with us to the present and in order to carry on to the future. The tree of life is used to illustrate this and we do a word play on tree of life, circle of life, family tree, memory tree etc.
Our visitors get the opportunity to discuss and try on ritual wear and photography is encouraged for projects etc.
The programme includes a section on Hebrew and visitors end up having a go at writing their names phonetically in Hebrew letters. This is an important exercise before we start to look at the Torah scrolls as there is a much greater appreciation of the work that has gone into writing the scrolls and the added interest that the participants can identify various letters in the scroll. It brings it all to life.
We use one of the Czech memorial scrolls for visits and all visitors are clearly moved by the history behind it, even young children who are simply told that the synagogue building was destroyed rather than the congregation lost in World War II. This whole section is linked to the importance of remembering and honouring the past. The children love to spot where our soferet may have had to make repairs to the scroll damaged by age and in storage etc.
Schools need to be able to tie RE with other disciplines and we include ideas for extension into maths, English, and history. At their request, we might spend more time on a particular festival that has just been studied in class.
No visit is complete without a snack which includes challah, a firm favourite with the children. Virtually all thank you notes from the children mention how delicious the bread is!