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A Different Type of Hebrew School

By Sarah Lauing, Director of Learning and Educational Innovation

What comes to mind when you hear the words “Hebrew School?” For many of us, the associations are not exactly positive.  I’ve often heard parents say, “I suffered through this; now you will too.” As your educator, I have to ask — why exactly should Jewish education induce suffering?

Beth Am has consistently been at the forefront of innovative Jewish education. Our former family education program, Shabbaton, was a pioneer of establishing Family Schools throughout the country, and I know of no other congregation that runs a theatre-based Jewish education program like our Hagigah. When I returned to Beth Am as Director of Learning and Educational Innovation, I was excited to be re-joining this community, which is unyielding in our pursuit of excellence in education.

In the case of Hebrew, this pursuit of excellence requires more than programmatic change. Educators around the country are creating a movement to challenge the basic assumptions of Hebrew language learning. It’s been called “Disrupting Hebrew School” and “Hebrew Learning for the 21st Century.” Based on extensive research in the field of linguistics, the new approach lifts up the question of why we are teaching Hebrew in synagogue schools in the first place.

In 2019, I partnered with a Hebrew Task Force of committed parents and teachers to find answers to this question for the Beth Am community. In thinking about our vision for Youth Education, it became clear that our primary goal is to give our young people the Hebrew tools they will need in their lives as Jewish adults. We imagine them saying “Shanah Tovah” to friends at High Holy Day services and “mazal tov” during life cycle events, putting mezuzot on their doors and setting their Passover tables with a seder plate, and feeling confident picking up a siddur and joining t’filah in a synagogue anywhere in the world when they are traveling or studying abroad.  Our hope is that our students become a part of what Sociolinguist Dr. Netta Avineri calls a “Hebrew-oriented metalinguistic community,” a community that uses Hebrew words interspersed with English, engaging with the language without necessarily being fluent in it.

In the words of Dr. Sarah Benor, “A successful graduate of a program that adopts such goals would be able to comprehend and produce sentences in English laced with Hebrew words and would feel a strong personal connection to the Hebrew language and, through it, to Jews around the world.” Our new approach to Hebrew learning does not attempt to teach fluency, but rather values Hebrew as an integral part of Jewish identity formation.

The task force was compelled by this approach and we articulated the following set of goals, building on past goals, our new learning, and our vision for education:

Hebrew is the language of our sacred texts, prayers and rituals, the state of Israel, and the shared vehicle for communication among all Jews.  The study of Hebrew engenders connections with Judaism and the Jewish community everywhere.  Through learning Hebrew at Congregation Beth Am, students develop a Jewish cultural literacy which deepens their Jewish identity and helps contextualize Jewish values, history, and ritual.  Hebrew learning prepares our young people for active participation in Jewish life, from home holiday observances to milestones like b’nei mitzvah to prayer spaces they will encounter throughout their adult lives.  

With these as our newly focused goals for Hebrew learning, we were able to let go of a traditional Hebrew School model.  Beginning in the fall of 2021, we made the following changes to our Hebrew Program:

  1. Hebrew is no longer a separate “program.” Students are immersed in Hebrew-rich Youth Education programs, learning what we call Jewish Life Vocabulary (words for ritual, greeting, and values) within and connected to their Youth Education Program curriculum.
  2. Hebrew learning follows a “sound-to-print” methodology, introducing the sounds of Hebrew as early as PreK through joyful song, movement, and t’fillah, and waiting to teach reading and writing until after students have developed an aural and oral foundation for the language. This methodology, developed by Dr. Lifsa Schachter, allows students to learn Hebrew as babies learn their first language, beginning with comprehension before asking them to decode print words.
  3. When students are ready to learn to read, not until 5th grade for most, Hebrew reading skills are taught small groups to facilitate individual attention and an accelerated pace.
  4. Two options for Hebrew learning are offered based on families’ goals.  Only families who wish their children to learn the fundamentals of Modern Hebrew speaking and comprehension choose to add a separate Hebrew learning course beginning in 3rd grade. All other students will wait to begin their formal decoding (reading) instruction until 5th grade.

We are excited to have launched this new approach to teaching Hebrew, most importantly because it stems from clear and realistic goals for Hebrew learning that are aligned with our educational vision.  It is our hope that through the study of the language of our sacred texts, our young people will feel more connected to Judaism and the greater Jewish community. Ken yehi ratzon — May it be so!

Tue, April 16 2024 8 Nisan 5784