Learning and Community Unite in Jewish Explorers
When Ruth Weinberg and her husband Josh wanted religious education for their children Lila and Michael, what they found at JEWISHcolorado’s Jewish Explorers exceeded their expectations.
Yes, they found the education they sought, given a stamp of approval from Ruth’s father, who was a founder of Congregation Har Shalom in Fort Collins.
“During our first year at Jewish Explorers, my father went along for one class, and he was impressed,” Weinberg says. “He said to me, ‘Wow, that seems like it is a great program!’”
“Growing up in Ft. Collins, I did not have many Jews around me,” says Weinberg. “I wanted a place where I felt I belonged, where other people were kindred spirits, where we could share in a meaningful way the celebratory parts of Judaism.”
Finally, the Weinbergs discovered a community that felt inclusive. Their daughter Lila, who started at Jewish Explorers when she was in first grade and now is in fifth grade, has dietary restrictions and a health condition that requires constant monitoring. At Jewish Explorers, this was not an issue, thanks in large part to the efforts of Cindy Coons, Director of Family Engagement and Jewish Explorers.
“You don’t want your child to feel excluded, and Cindy has been amazing at handling that,” Weinberg says. “She goes above and beyond, baking gluten-free challah and matzah for Lila. Everyone has made an effort to welcome and include us. That was so important because it helped us feel safe and special.”
Keep reading for testimonials from other families participating in Jewish Explorers, and you will realize that the Weinbergs’ experience is not the exception—it’s the rule.
“The success of our program comes from building meaningful relationships,” says Coons. “We work to create a warm, welcoming, and inclusive community where all families feel celebrated and at home.”
‘A safe space’
Jewish Explorers is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, ten years with this vision: “To engage, educate, and empower families to find meaningful and relevant ways to practice Judaism in their homes and out in the community.”
A decade ago, Coons was hired by the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education to do a survey of the changing needs of families in the community. She learned that people were looking for easily accessible Jewish community events and programs close to their homes. Based on those findings, Coons created Jewish Explorers.
“To some degree, it was about reaching all families, Jewish and multi-faith, who want to explore Judaism together in creative ways, but it was also about creating a safe space for families with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, family structures, LGBTQ+ families, families of color,” says Coons. “We want people to feel welcomed and celebrated for their diversity and see themselves reflected in the community as they explore Judaism, no matter where they are on their journey.”
Last year, more than 300 individuals participated repeatedly in Jewish Explorers initiatives, including classroom programs and Shabbat and holiday celebrations. Of the people involved, 40 percent were Jewish and 60 percent were multi-faith families. The program has two locations:
- Jewish Explorers-East currently meets at the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center (JCC Denver), with a once-monthly intergenerational family program for preschoolers ages 2-5 and their family members and a weekly after-school drop-off program for students in Kindergarten through Fifth Grade.
- Jewish Explorers-West meets at Regis University, with both the family program and the elementary-age program scheduled once a month on the same day, at the same time.
The two programs at different locations with differing schedules offer flexibility to busy families. The Weinbergs started at Jewish Explorers East, but when after-school ballet classes for Lila created a conflict, they seamlessly transitioned to Jewish Explorers West.
‘Teachers are also learners’
The programming for Jewish Explorers is fun and meaningful, created in a way that allows for engagement both during classes and in the home so that learning goes beyond the walls of a classroom.
“I have a team of educators who are passionate about Judaism, community, and teaching,” says Coons. “We tell our families that teachers are also learners, and the learners are also teachers. Every person in the classroom has an opportunity to teach.”
Jewish Explorers finds ways to make a text from the Torah relevant to the Jewish values of anyone from a two-year-old to a Fifth Grader, from a parent to a grandparent.
“Our hope is that families see the connections we are making to their everyday lives,” Coons says. “When we learn about Sukkot, we look for how that is meaningful and relevant to our Jewish identity, who we are as members of a caring community, while celebrating the joy and beauty of Judaism.”
In addition to classroom experiences, Jewish Explorer families have opportunities for shared Shabbat, holiday celebrations, and community partnered events collaborating with multiple organizations.
Recently, with the support of Rose Community Foundation, Jewish Explorers has developed a mental health and wellness framework that overlays the entire program—for staff, students, and families.
“We have always addressed this issue, but we are doing it very intentionally now,” Coons says. “The pandemic has magnified the need for social and emotional learning, and we are looking for ways to best support these needs, constantly evaluating and reevaluating, changing as needed.”
‘History, heritage, and culture’
Ruth Weinberg’s son Michael started in the Jewish Explorers Family Program as a Pre-Kindergartner. He was not instantly sold on the idea of this extra classroom work and pronounced it “boring.” Coons, who has professional experience in Early Childhood Education and Occupational Therapy found ways to re-engage the skeptical Michael, starting with a move up to the next level where he could be with older children.
“With both our children, Jewish Explorers has been such a positive experience,” Weinberg says. “This has become their window into their history, heritage, and culture. We are so grateful for Cindy because her attitude has always been, ‘How do we meet you where you are at and help you find a path to success.’”
The Weinbergs’ experience is echoed by other families who send feedback to Coons about their experience with Jewish Explorers.
“My family has found so many meaningful ways to practice Judaism that we would not have found if it weren’t for Jewish Explorers. The program has shown us the beauty of our Jewish heritage.”
“Thank you for creating a warm and welcoming space where we feel cared for and celebrated, especially being an interfaith family.”
“Cindy, thank you so much for showing us how we can incorporate this learning into our everyday lives. We will be loyal to your program for life.”
For her part, Coons is also grateful for the opportunity she has had to create, build, and grow this innovative program and help foster this vibrant and supportive community.
“When I hear families say that it has been transformative to feel they have permission to find ways to practice Judaism in a way that feels authentic to them, I know we have succeeded,” she says. “Just to see our families experience the beauty of Judaism and make connections to each other, to their Jewish identity, and to their community—that is my reward.”