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Why Are These Secular Kids Learning Yiddish?

If you visit Brooklyn’s Middle School 88 late on a Wednesday afternoon, you’ll witness something pretty unusual. The building sits on the southern edge of Park Slope, down the block from Green-Wood Cemetery and next to the noisy Prospect Expressway. Huddling around a table in a science classroom a handful of kids are studying Yiddish. This class is something of an anomaly: a place where secular Jewish children study Yiddish, Jewish history and culture every week. It’s an afterschool program called Kindershule.

This past school year there were about twenty students enrolled. And they range in age from six to thirteen years old. The Kindershule curriculum traces the modern Jewish journey, starting with shtetl life, through immigration, to the forming of labor unions and the civil rights movement. And the students learn Yiddish songs and stories that connect to these historical moments.

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So is this just another version of Hebrew School? Its co-founder, Alice Schecter says no, “What we do is really different and really unique and it’s not fake synagogue.” In 1981 Schecter co-founded the Kindershule with Judee Rosenbaum. “We wanted to have a progressive secular Jewish school for our kids and so we created it,” says Rosenbaum.

Kindershule parent Matthew Goodman is excited to give his children a taste of the secular Yiddish culture that used to thrive in New York. And it’s why Goodman is at Kindershule every week volunteering as a Yiddish teacher. “To me there’s something really glorious in the idea that there were these generations upon generations who came before our kids who lived and worked and died and were peasants, laborers, mothers, fathers, teachers, political activists and poets — all in the language of Yiddish,” says Goodman, “Yiddish was the ocean that they lived and died in and I just think it’s really important to know that our kids are still connected to that.” And for thirty-five years, that’s what Judee Rosenbaum and Alice Schecter have been doing with Kindershule.

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