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From Old Bethpage To Jericho

After a decade of service as director of education at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, Deborah Tract is taking her more than 28 years of Jewish education knowledge to a cutting-edge program in Jericho.

Tucked away off Jericho Turnpike on Tobie Lane, the Reform Jewish congregation Temple Or Elohim has come a long way since its beginnings in 1957, when Friday evening services were held in members’ homes and the first High Holiday services took place in an unoccupied store in the Birchwood Shopping Center.

Nearly 60 years later, Temple Or Elohim is known among locals as the North Shore’s best-kept secret, with innovative programs making it the chosen after-school destination for kids of all ages. This Jericho Temple has united the community—now more so than ever since bringing in its new director of education.  

“I was able to create a whole new curriculum and program within the school and so far it’s being received pretty nicely by the families,” says Tract, who joined Temple Or Elohim in July 2013. “I have the biggest support from the rabbi, cantor, board and the parents. It is an amazing, amazing community here.”  

While Temple Or Elohim still offers the traditional twice-per-week religious school, Tracht introduced a one-day-per-week alternative called Fast Forward.

“I have multiple grades in one classroom,” says Tract. “It’s kind of like the old school house but all the curriculum is being taught and they are not missing a thing.”

Students in the school get face-to-face private tutorial time with a teacher via Skype as well as in-person lessons at the synagogue once per week.

“What I’m seeing is that the kids in this program are exceling at a very quick pace,” says Tract. “We have a full curriculum, I am not jeopardizing the integrity of our synagogue or our religious school.”

And students with special needs are never left out. Because so many children are being diagnosed with learning disabilities, Tract implemented a Special Ed program called Ani V’ Ata, or You and Me, where a child with disability who has a specialized plan or Individual Education Program (IEP) in a public school can also get an IEP at the religious school with the help of the temple’s special education teacher.

“That helps the child learn at his or her own pace,” says Tract. “It’s a stress-free environment and they get one-on-one attention.”

Temple Or Elohim also offers more informal educational programs for teens.

“What I found is the teenagers of Jericho have a lot of stress in the sense they’re in one of the top school districts around,” says Tract. “Their learning performance is really looked at on a day-to-day basis, it’s very rigorous and there’s a lot of stress, so I created a program called It’s All About Me.”

Through on-site events, It’s All About Me creates an environment where teens can talk about anything that’s on their mind.

“They have fears about leaving Long Island and going into the world,” says Tract. “Will they be accepted? It’s no longer Jericho where everything is kind of tucked into its own little shell. I have teenagers and I know what my own children deal with and I created the program to be a safe place for them to come. They can vent. I’m never going to break their confidence.”

Tract also brought in Krav Maga, an Israeli South defense group.

“But they’re more than that,” says Tract. “They teach about self-confidence, self-esteem what to do in a situation. And my goal with these teenagers is for them to feel good about themselves, their self-image and body image.”

The temple also offers a teacher assistant program called Madrachim.

“I have 11 teenagers now who come in to volunteer every single week in a lower grade classroom,” says Tract. “They’re learning to be a teacher assistant and they’re also phenomenal mentors and role models for the younger kids.”

And there are so many programs available to choose and pick from that the temple is always busy.

“You know what the teenagers really want to be here, that’s what it’s saying to me, they want to be here,” adds Tract.

“They’re part of the temple in a different kind of way than the older members. So whether they are in the teen program or they’re a teacher assistant, it’s working. And it’s amazing.”