Beyond the Hebrew School Lament

Even though everyone says the Hebrew School model is broken, several congregations are succeeding by trying something new.

by Michael Schulson

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This Is Hebrew School? Flexible, experiential learning is the focus of the Jewish Journey Project, a collaboration between the JCC in Manhattan and local synagogues, including the Conservative Congregation HaBonim.

This Is Hebrew School? Flexible, experiential learning is the focus of the Jewish Journey Project, a collaboration between the JCC in Manhattan and local synagogues, including the
Conservative Congregation HaBonim.

When Rabbi Kelley Gludt set out to teach the Jewish lifecycle to her students at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland, she didn’t rely on coloring books. She didn’t give long lectures. In fact, Gludt didn’t even take her students into a classroom. Instead, she divided them into four groups, and she bought each group a teddy bear. Over the course of 10 weeks, the bears were born, named and became bar and bat mitzvah. When it came time for the bears to marry, the children wrote up a ketubah and made a chuppah. And, yes, the bears died. The students by this point, were so invested in their bears that it was necessary to have conversations with parents before the final class. For a few students, Gludt recalls, the bear funerals offered a chance to open up and speak with their parents about losses in the family that, previously, they had been unwilling to discuss.

For many Jews, the life cycle lesson at Beth Am will sound like everything their own Hebrew school educations were not: flexible, enjoyable, interactive, and decidedly unlike ordinary school. Beth Am is not alone, though, in seeking new ways to revitalize its Hebrew school. From Arizona to Manhattan, Conservative synagogues are turning to experiential learning, novel collaborations and new technologies to strengthen their educational programming. The methods may vary, but their goals are the same: to make Hebrew school (or Sunday school, or religious school, or supplementary education – choose your term) a place that students want to be, and a place in which they love to learn.

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On the whole, Hebrew school has a poor reputation. “The overwhelming experience is shockingly mediocre at best,” Rabbi Joy Levitt wrote in the Forward in 2011. Levitt is the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan and the founder of the new Jewish Journey Project (JJP), a collaboration between the JCC in Manhattan and six area synagogues. Her observation might not be surprising, but it should be concerning. While Jewish day schools and summer camps reach thousands of students, the majority of young American Jews still get their religious educations through supplementary classes, usually meeting two or three times per week.

Education is never easy, but these schools face a particularly daunting set of obstacles. They meet early on Sunday mornings or late in the afternoon, times when students are not at their most energetic. They have to compete with an avalanche of extracurricular activities. Finding skilled teachers can be difficult. And often, Hebrew schools are tasked with very narrow goals. “The particular skills that make a bar or bat mitzvah possible might not be skills that students are eager to acquire. It’s a challenge when the focus really is on specific Hebrew knowledge or learning the Torah trope,” says Rabbi Josh Foster, the education director at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, Ohio. But stray from the specifics, and you can come up against unrealistic goals. Students aren’t going to receive a comprehensive education or become fluent speakers of Hebrew in just a few hours per week.

For Rabbi Gludt at Beth Am, the problems of religious education required a new approach – and a new name. “We’re not using Hebrew school, religious school, or Sunday school because there’s such a weighted connotation to them,” she explains. Instead, students attend the Jewish Discovery Lab, a name intended to encourage self-direction and exploration. Gludt’s goals are open-ended. She wants to produce “learners of all ages who realize that Judaism is a part of their lives.” And her curriculum is flexible. There are no classrooms. To learn Hebrew, students are divided by skill level and learning style, not by age. Lessons draw on student interests and congregational strengths. To study biblical history, students made a blueprint of the First Temple with the help of a congregant who is a contractor; to learn the Friday evening service liturgy, a group of kids set the prayers to the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop hit “Call Me Maybe.” That might seem like a gimmicky way to learn prayers, but according to Gludt, it’s effective. “These kids know it now,” she says.

The majority of young American Jews still get their religious educations through supplementary classes, usually meeting two or three times per week.

The majority of young American Jews still get their religious
educations through supplementary classes, usually meeting two or three times per week.

That same kind of flexible, experiential learning is the focus of the Jewish Journey Project. At the JJP, students have the freedom to choose courses from an extensive catalog. They can take a krav maga class that doubles as a Hebrew lesson, join a weekly Jewish book club for fourth and fifth graders, or create their own digital siddurim in a class that melds design with liturgy. The result feels like a cross between a children’s museum and a liberal arts college. “We certainly don’t call it a Hebrew school,” says Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, the project’s director.

“The pillars of the JJP are that it needs to be flexible, collaborative and innovative,” Forman-Jacobi explains. Central to this model is the idea of student choice. Students, she said, “know that they’re making a choice and taking responsibility for what they want to learn. Then, when they come to class, they know what they’re going to. It’s not this openended canvas.”

Each synagogue in JJP sets its own requirements for participation. Congregation Habonim, a Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is one of the program’s founding collaborators. Last year, sixth and seventh grade students at Habonim were required to take one JJP course as part of their religious education. Next year, that number will double, and JJP courses will be required for students in grades four through seven. As is the case with all of the participating congregations, Habonim students also attend weekly meet-ups at the synagogue in order to maintain a connection to their home community. Rabbi Laurie Phillips, Habonim’s education director, says she “couldn’t be more thrilled” with the program. “I think that when people have a greater say in their education, they’re more inclined to sustain a connection for a longer period of time,” she explains. “If we say there are multiple ways to connect to Judaism, we need to be offering those ways.”

One thing making it possible to challenge the old Hebrew school model is technology. For the Jewish Journey Project, that means a digital portal through which students manage their courses, and Hebrew tutoring through an online platform. For other synagogues, it means smartboards in the classrooms, laptops on which to pursue independent projects, and classes that stream live on the Internet for students who would otherwise struggle to attend.

At Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, technology offers simple benefits – daily emails to parents, for example, to improve communication between teachers and families. But it’s also part of a more ambitious plan.

Starting this fall, Temple Emanuel intends to give each fourth grader a Google tablet loaded with applications and links related to Jewish education. The tablets are relatively cheap. They’re also locked down: students can only access applications and websites selected by their teachers.

Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, the director of congregational education at Emanuel, hopes that students will take the tablets with them through their entire religious school experience. Much of the content has been developed in partnership with the synagogue. Of the software development process, Kniaz says, “I sit with the software developers to tell them our curriculum. They take out worksheets and they make them interactive.” A worksheet on kashrut, for example, goes from a simple matching exercise to a game in which students drag animals into kosher and trayf boxes. The digital lesson self-checks. Try to drag a lobster into the kosher box, and it will bounce right back.

Kniaz sees the tablets as a chance to make more of her lessons hands-on, and a chance to cater to different learning speeds and styles. “We have kids of all different abilities,” says Kniaz, “and this fits very well because it can be so individualized.” The tablets, fully loaded with apps, won’t just allow students to access the synagogue’s educational programming. They can also give educators easy, class-wide access to the wide world of Jewish programming available online.

Kniaz emphasizes that personnel are the most important part of a successful religious school program. After all, even the best technologies won’t work if teachers don’t know how to deploy them in the classroom.

It’s worth noting, too, that congregations such as Beth Am, in Baltimore, are revamping their education programs without relying on new technology. Without question, though, computers are a reality that all educators have to consider. “I do think that schools are going to find the wherewithal to use more technology,” predicts Susan Wyner, who as an education consultant for United Synagogue works with synagogues across North America. She hopes the transition will help “to make Jewish education more and more interactive.” But regardless of their approach to technology, says Wyner, it’s no longer an option for congregations to ignore the problems that have plagued Hebrew schools in the past. “Everybody’s trying to figure it out,” she says.

Nearly every Jewish educator interviewed said some version of the following: Hebrew school needs to be fun and engaging; in order to be fun and engaging, lessons need to be experiential and interactive, whether through games, technologies or teddy bear weddings; and educators must remember that the ultimate goal of Jewish education is more than the acquisition of a little bar mitzvah Hebrew. “More than any specific content,” says Kniaz, “my goal is that students continue to connect with Judaism through college and beyond.”

In some ways, the very things that make Hebrew school so challenging also offer great opportunities. Because Hebrew schools aren’t schools in the traditional sense they have an enormous amount of flexibility – the kind of flexibility that secular educators can only dream of. Hebrew schools can explore offbeat activities, allow students to chase particular passions, and often, move their learning outside of the classroom.

The Hebrew school of the future will probably be wired. More importantly, perhaps, it will be free from the old model of teachers standing in front of a board, lecturing at students. The subject matter may be ancient, but the educational possibilities are more varied than any previous generation could ever have imagined.

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina.