Congregation Or Chadash Religious School earns national accreditation

Or Chadash religious school students and teacher’s aide Seth Brown spell “Or Chadash” in Hebrew with their bodies during a Jewish yoga elective.

After an intensive process that began more than two years ago, the Congregation Or Chadash Religious School has won accreditation from the Association of Reform Jewish Educators. It is the only school in Arizona, and one of the smallest congregations nationwide, to currently hold that distinction.

Rina Liebeskind, director of education at Or Chadash, says she knew things were going well during a site visit last month when one of the visiting team members, who mostly played their cards close to the vest, remarked that in “a gazillion years” of such visits, she’d never seen a staff that was so warm, open and engaged in the process, in a situation where people usually seem wary and intimidated.

While Liebeskind is proud the school has this seal of approval from the Union for Reform Judaism’s educational branch, she sought accreditation as much for the process as the result, she says.

“This is something that really lets you look at yourself and evaluate what you’re doing right, validating what you’re doing right, and letting you look at what you can improve on,” she explains. “It makes you dig deeper.”

She’d participated in a similar process at the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s preschool, where she worked for 20 years before coming to Or Chadash as education director in 2008. The Tucson J’s school is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

One improvement Or Chadash made early on in its accreditation process was to bump up the use of technology, says Liebeskind, who took several classes and then led a workshop for her staff on tech tools. Recently, she used a platform called Kahoot! to create an online game after students went on a field trip to the Interfaith Community Services food bank. Students used their smart phones or tablets to buzz in, game-show style, to answer questions. Such games make learning more engaging, Liebeskind says, and it’s a positive way for the kids to use their smart phones in the classroom.

As part of the accreditation process, Liebeskind and a committee of volunteers created an application portfolio that included videos as well as written reports.

For one video, they interviewed 10 families on why their home is like a synagogue and vice versa, a question set by the ARJE. Dana Narter, co-chair of the accreditation committee with Beverly Sandock, says making that video allowed her to get to know fellow congregants she hadn’t met before. “That was really neat for me,” she says.

Narter, a developmental psychologist who teaches at the University of Arizona, joined the education committee at Or Chadash soon after moving to Tucson 10 years ago. Having seen her two children go through the religious school from kindergarten through eighth grade, she was confident Or Chadash’s program was strong. Parents can trust their intuition when choosing a school, she says, but accreditation is “icing on the cake.”