The I. L. Peretz Community Jewish School is a nonprofit, educational institution for children ages 5-13 that meets Sunday mornings at Rutgers Preparatory School on Easton Avenue in Somerset, New Jersey, from September through May. We are not affiliated with a synagogue. The school is run by a governing board composed of school parents and a principal; classes are taught by a professional staff of teachers. We are the proud descendant of a secular Jewish school founded over 90 years ago by the Workmen’s Circle (Der Arbeter Ring in Yiddish). Peretz is more than just a school: we are a welcoming, inclusive and diverse community committed to cultivating Jewish identity and culture and standing up for social justice.
- 1. What is a Secular Jewish School?
As a secular school, our curriculum emphasizes historical and cultural approaches to the study of Judaism. An examination of religious perspectives is included, but we do not prescribe religious interpretations or practices for our children and prayers are not taught. The weekly program includes the study of our traditions, history, literature (including bible stories) with a focus on struggles for civil rights and social justice as well as music, folk dancing, drama, art and Hebrew. Students develop a strong Jewish identity, learn the meaning, spirit and joy of the Jewish holidays and explore what it means to live a moral and ethical life—to be a mensch. We have a strong emphasis on Tikkun Olam, Hebrew for “repairing the world.”
- 2. Are there Shabbat and Holiday Services? Is there a Rabbi?
There are no Friday-night or Saturday-morning Shabbat services and no Rabbi. Holiday ceremonies are led by our President and school Principal. The unique ceremonies are not prayer-based; they are in English and focus on connecting the traditional holiday with current social issues. They often include lively group discussions, singing songs in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino, Israeli folk dancing, skits—and of course food, when appropriate. We begin each year with humanistic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ceremonies in a beautiful outdoor setting, followed by sukkah building for Sukkot. Chanukah is celebrated with latke-making and a party and Purim, with a carnival. Yom HaShoah is commemorated, and Tu B’Shevat and Passover are observed by feasting at community Seders.
- 3. Do children have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs?
The student’s education culminates with a graduation ceremony requiring students to research and present a topic on a Jewish theme. Parents may choose to perform a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony outside of the school. In our community, Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies are as unique and individual as the students themselves and reflect their own families and individual Jewish heritages. Some include Torah readings, some have creative and meaningful rituals written for the occasion, and many include thoughts and wishes from key members of the child's community. Because there is no set formula to follow, creating the ceremony becomes part of each family's ongoing process of exploring how to make their Jewishness relevant and rich. Community members and leaders are available to guide families through this special time.
- 4. Are there Educational Programs for Adults?
While the children are in class, parents and other community members can attend Sunday-morning discussions over bagels and fruit, juice and coffee, on Jewish-themed topics, current events, and social justice. A Yiddish Class is also offered on Sunday mornings as well as periodic Israeli folk dance workshops. Peretz also offers monthly Friday-evening cultural, educational and social programs.
- 5. Are there opportunities for Community Service and Social Action?
There is a strong emphasis on mitzvah activities for the children and families. Sing-alongs at a senior center, cooking meals for families at Ronald McDonald House, volunteer work with our county Parks Department, decorating a spring banner with children at a family shelter, tzedakah collection for Unicef, food and coat drives, jeans drives for the homeless, pet supply drives and a tour of an animal shelter—are just a few of our community-service activities. Speakers are also brought in to discuss environmental and social justice issues, such as clean water and the European emigration crisis, and our role in addressing these issues. The graduating class is required to perform a mitzvah/community service project over the course of the year.
- 6. What does it cost?
This year, due to the pandemic, we have abbreviated our calendar to focus on holiday celebrations and social action. School membership, which also includes community membership benefits, is $425 (early bird) and $525 after September 1st. A family membership for those with no children in the school is $175. Community membership for a single individual is $95. Please see Membership for more information.
- 7. What is expected of parents to help run the school?
The minimal expectation for parents is to provide refreshments for two Sunday-morning programs, to help clean up the classrooms on those days, and to serve on one holiday committee (generally setting up and cleaning up food). Heading up a committee or serving as an officer for at least two years is encouraged, as we are a community-run organization: everything we are, and our continuing operation, is a result of the efforts of past and present Peretz members.
- 8. Can you still be part of Peretz if you don’t have children in the school?
Peretz has an active “non-school” community for teens, young adults and older adults. Members attend the holiday celebrations and Sunday-morning Yiddish language and Adult Education Programs at the school, run a monthly Friday-night education series, and enjoy Book Discussion Groups. There is an adult-only Chanukah party, and school and community families come together for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, sukkah building, the Purim carnival, the Passover Seder, our Annual Retreat, and our summer picnic. Our Teen Group enables teens to meet and plan their own educational, cultural and social activities under the guidance of a dynamic teen advisor, and Young Adults can come together for age-appropriate educational, cultural and social activities as well.
- 9. Who was I.L. Peretz?
Our school was named after the great Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz. He was born in 1852 in Zamosc, Poland. Though raised in the orthodox tradition, he also absorbed worldly knowledge. He is one of the most influential figures of modern Jewish culture. Dedicated to Yiddish culture, he recognized that Jews needed to adapt to their times while preserving their cultural heritage, and his captivating and beautiful writings explore the complexities inherent in the struggle between tradition and the desire for progress.