Ana Robbins thinks she’s found a new model for after school Jewish education which is independent of any synagogue or branch of organized Judaism.
The 35-year-old founder of Jewish Kids Groups in Atlanta credits the experience of the Jewish camping movement for her growing network of programs for unaffiliated and interfaith parents and their children.
“We’ve worked really hard to take lessons from the American Camp Association and Camp Ramah and other places and recognize what opportunity we have is to build the camp within the camp. Meaning that we’re creating positive experiences that are stretching our students Jewishly.”
In the nearly seven years of its existence, Robbins’ organization, Jewish Kids Groups, has organized innovative educational experiences in Sunday school and after school programs from preschool through seventh grade. It has been consistently listed in the national Slingshot Guide among the most innovative Jewish educational programs in the nation. She’s also been one of the AJT’s choices for its “40 Under 40” groups of emerging community leaders.
Robbins, who has an advanced degree in instructional design and technology, describes her work as creating not just an important educational environment, but having a significant impact on the students’ primary social environment.
In her Jewish Kids Groups they play together, learn Hebrew, Jewish values and tradition, create art, receive homework help, and develop friendships with other participants over a four-day weekly program.
Robbins grew up in Atlanta, went to public schools here, attended Camp Barney Medintz through the Marcus JCC and was actively involved in community and synagogue life. She had what she describes as a rich and nurturing Jewish family environment. That’s not always the case for those she sees as her target audience.
“We have to expose our kids to the delicious-ness that is Judaism,” she emphasizes. “This is it. We live in a customer-driven economy and we have got to figure out ways to serve our potential customers that are not currently engaged in Jewish life.”
The programs in Morningside, Dunwoody, Intown, Old Fourth Ward, and most recently in Brookhaven, have received important financial support. Last year the organization was given a $250,000 development grant and has plans to partner with another innovative Atlanta Jewish youth program, JumpSpark, to extend its program to young teens.
It’s yet another attempt to revitalize those Jewish educational programs that serve the 80 to 90 percent of the community that has neither the financial resources or the long-term commitment to a Jewish day school education.
“This new model of Jewish education can serve a whole new market,” she believes, “and alleviate the bleeding, if you will, that’s happening right now in the world of Jewish education. We know, nationally, Sunday school enrollment is down 3 percent a year every year over the last 10 years. That’s the challenges that we are facing, and I think it’s critical that we don’t lose those families.”
Jewish Kids Groups is a part of the national Nitzan Network, which was founded with a generous grant from The Covenant Foundation. Its goal is to renew Jewish learning after school and in the past several years has linked together innovative programs in Toronto, Berkeley, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston, as well as the program in Atlanta.
Although the organization is independent of any synagogue, Robbins sees her program as an adjunct to the center of Jewish life, not as an alternative.
“Nothing can replace synagogues for Jewish kids. This is definitely not a replacement for synagogues,” she stresses. “Professionally though, I see that many of my peers are not buying into the synagogue model and we cannot just turn our backs on them. We cannot say if you don’t believe in synagogue membership, we as the Jewish community don’t want to engage you. Well that’s not how economies work anymore. We have got to meet our prospective customers where they are.”
Although she is enthusiastic about the acceptance of the program and its rapid growth, she has no illusions about what it will take to expand what she has begun.
“We’re grossly underfunded. We are working against the established infrastructure that is invested in keeping things the same. It’s going to take big resources. We’re talking about putting in place a whole new model of Jewish education.”
Robbins is half of one of the community’s most active couples. Her husband, Eric, is the executive director of Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, which makes her commitment to the future of Jewish learning a 24/7 life experience.
“The work that we do is so closely aligned with our personal values and priorities,” she maintains, with great enthusiasm. “And I feel so fortunate. I just do what I love all day long and then go home and make dinner. I don’t know how I got this great deal where I get to do what I think is the most important thing in the world. And then, so does my husband. So I think that’s pretty rare and pretty special.”
For more information about programs, enrollment and locations of Jewish Kids Groups, visit www.jewishkidsgroups.com.