Every year, nursery school students at the Hebrew Academy of Morris County, a community day school in Randolph, N.J., put down their pencils and crayons and spend a few hours learning about Judaism in a more unusual way. Sometimes, they dive into bowls of flour and water and make homemade matzo, and other times they dip wicks into multicolored wax to make Havdalah candles.
These workshops are part of Living Legacy, an interactive Jewish learning program run by Chabad-Lubavitch. The program visits Hebrew schools, day schools and nursery schools around the country. “The children are always very excited about the program, because it’s so fun and hands on,” Ricki Rubin, director of the Hebrew Academy’s Early Childhood Center, told the Forward.
All this hands-on fun isn’t just for kids anymore. After more than a decade of growth in schools, Living Legacy is currently preparing programs aimed at adults.
Living Legacy is the brainchild of three rabbis: Shmaya Shmotkin, and brothers Zalman and Motty Grossbaum. The three created Living Legacy in 1995 by consolidating some of the popular interactive programs already offered by Chabad, including the traveling matzo bakery for Passover and the shofar factory for the High Holy Days, and by working with Jewish educators to develop a new range of programs and curricula.
According to Motty Grossbaum, who now runs to the Minnesota branch of the program, his father, Rabbi Gershom Grossbaum, developed the theory behind Living Legacy. “My father was the one who came up with the matzo bakery idea back in ’73,” he told the Forward. “It was the first hands-on Jewish educational program.”
Today, Living Legacy programs are offered in more than 50 cities around the world. Eleven distinct workshops have been developed to educate children about Jewish holidays and rituals.
The interactive approach is what drives Living Legacy, says Zalman Grossbaum, who now runs one of the largest such programs out of Livingston, N.J. “When we make a matzo bakery, we’re not there to make matzos for the kids; we’re there to give them a Passover experience,” he told the Forward. “When we do it hands on and let the children get involved, it becomes something they internalize on a completely different level.”
Living Legacy educators pride themselves on bringing their programs to any school that deals with Jewish education. Motty Grossbaum claims that Living Legacy has sponsored events in every Hebrew or day school in the Twin Cities. Recently, programs have also been developed for larger groups. For example, the Exodus Experience, an interactive show designed to teach children about Passover, played last year in Whippany, N.J. The production, which featured a live-action re-enactment of the story of the Exodus, attracted more than 10,000 visitors.
The organizers of Living Legacy work hard to accommodate every Jewish denomination. The New Jersey program has been active in many schools: 11 Orthodox, 27 Conservative, 16 Reform, one Reconstructionist and seven unaffiliated. “We work very closely with educators to cater the program to make sure they’re very comfortable. For all strains of Judaism, we have 98% common practice, and that’s what we focus on,” Zalman Grossbaum said. “From time to time, we’ll get a comment from a principal and we’ll adapt our program to fit their needs.”
“Even as a Reform synagogue, I think they are absolutely respectful of our home; there’s never an issue when they teach our students,” said Abra Lee, religious school principal of B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., of Living Legacy. “And their programs are really wonderful; the Exodus Experience was truly the highlight of our year.”
Living Legacy is currently arranging pilot workshops catering to adults, and a full range of adult programs could be offered within a year. “Many times we have parents who sit down in one of the programs, and what we’ve found over the years is that actually the parents walk out feeling like they’ve gained so much more than even their kids have gained,” Zalman Grossbaum explained.
The pilot programs will be offered all over the country. Living Legacy plans to arrange them through synagogues, men’s clubs and sisterhoods, but also will allow individual people to sponsor workshops at their homes. The adult workshops will include the familiar Living Legacy hands-on learning philosophy, but will feature more advanced lectures and curricula.
Will adults appreciate the programs as much as the children? Zalman Grossbaum concluded, “An interactive experience is just something that works for everyone.”