By Alisa Roberts
Last Sunday was a bright and warm December day, and Pan Pacific Park was full of children. But one group of kids stood out – partly because of the laughter, partly because of the kippot and tzitzis. This was Play Hooky Day, one of the many activities put on by Kol Yakov Yehuda.
Kol Yakov Yehuda is a unique program. The simplest description of the program would be a children’s shul. But it is much more than that. Started 12 years ago, Kol Yakov Yehuda is best described by its motto: “A shul for the kids, by the kids.” The members of this unique congregation – all under bar mitzvah – have their own elections and help make decisions about their community, including the programming. They are also in charge of the shul itself. The kids run the davening and there is a Junior Rabbi and Rebetzin. The Junior Rabbi even makes a speech. “The idea is to empower kids with leadership skills,” says Rabbi Mendel Duchman, founder and director. “It’s run like a Chabad house so that they know how to run their own.”
There are currently 135 members, all 13 and under. Those over bar mitzvah are no longer members, but many graduating kids keep coming back. Which is not terribly hard to understand, after speaking to a couple of them. “It’s not just play time,” says Yosef Greenbaum, 13, who is currently in the Ezras Anashim, the oldest division. “This is how we learned how to pray. Coming here was the first time we went to shul and had a good time instead of being bored.” Yossi Lasker, also 13 and a member of the Ezras Anashim, agrees. “Instead of going with your father and making a disturbance because you’re bored, you’re with Rabbi Duchman, who knows how to handle kids,” says Yossi. “He teaches you what to do when you go out and make your own shul.”
The program focuses on davening, and reaching kids at their level. It begins with the Mini Minyan, a program for children 3 years old through pre-1A, as well as 1st and 2nd grade girls. It’s an interactive experience, with snacks, games, stories, and Parsha review. The next level is the Bainany, which includes Pre-1A, 1st, and 2nd grade boys. Next is the Big Minyan, which includes the 3rd to 8th graders and it split between the Ezras Anashim and the Ezras Nashim. The 8th graders officially graduate, but 9th and 10th grade boys come back to make up the minyan. Lastly, there is the Gesher program. This program, coordinated by Mrs. Doonie Mishulovin, is for kids with special needs. Kids in this group have their own activities, and each child has a one-on-one volunteer. But they are also integrated into the shul setting, sitting with the rest of the kids for highlights of davening and kiddush.
As Mrs. Srula Chaiton says, “It’s a family run business.” Rabbi Duchman is the founder and director, and he has tapped the talent in his family. Mrs. Chaiton, his daughter, runs the Mini Minyan and the Ezras Nashim. Her husband, Rabbi Dovber Chaiton, is the Program Director and runs the Ezras Anoshim. Another son-in-law, Rabbi Yitzchok Tenenbaum, runs the Bainany program.
Srula Chaiton with her father – founder of KYY Rabbi Mendel Duchman
While the main programming is the weekly davening, there are other activities throughout the year, including this week’s Play Hooky Day, which had a boot camp theme. Next up is the Unzere Kinder of Southern California, a Shabbaton that Kol Yakov Yehuda will be hosting in Hancock Park for the children in the Ezras Anashim and Ezras Nashim. There is usually one Shabbaton and about 10 other activities a year, including such highlights as visiting the governor of California and the mayor of Los Angeles. There is also an after-school girls’ program called Laugh and Learn, which includes learning and activity. Between 5 and 20 girls voluntarily come to this program each week after school. They even kept it going last year online when their leader, Mrs. Chaiton, was overseas.
But the hilghlight of the years’ programming is a very special trip. Throughout the year the kids can earn points based on their behavior. There are rewards based on the status achieved. The grand prize is a trip for one or two children with Rabbi Duchman to a place in the world with a Jewish historical connection. So far, there have been trips to destinations including Russia, Lubavitch, the birthplace of Rashi in France, Chevron, Yerushalayim, and, this past year, Berlin.
As exciting as these programs are, the truest measure of Kol Yakov Yehuda’s success comes down to each normal week. As Yosef says, “It’s a special program, it gets us involved.” Yossi agrees. “He does so much and it’s so fun.”
To donate to Kol Yakov Yehuda or to get involved, visit KolYakovYehuda.com.