Rethinking Hebrew School [part 2]: Synagogues Devise New Curricula to Make Jewish Learning More Fun

On any given school day at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, students are scattered all over the building.

They are in the stairway, painting Expressionist-influenced murals on biblical themes. They are in the classroom, building temples out of blocks, reading along with Hebrew books on tape or listening to the teacher tell a story. They are in the library, reading Hebrew to each other or confidently rifling through reference books.

And they are having fun. Parents at this 85-family Reconstructionist and Conservative congregation say it can take up to half an hour to round up kids for their car pools at the end of the school day because the children don’t want to leave.

One mother, Peggy Dugan, reports that her 8-year-old daughter, Erin, spent the whole summer asking when she could go back to Hebrew school.

Long derided as uninspired places that do little to interest children in Judaism, Hebrew schools around the country — which are attended by the majority of American children who receive a Jewish education — are struggling to re-envision themselves.

Influenced by the success of Jewish camps, many Hebrew schools are exploring how to be more fun and more hands-on. Some are revamping their entire structures, while others are enriching the curriculum with activities like retreats, problem-solving exercises and computer games.

“We’re doing more hands-on things like building a sukkah rather than learning about a sukkah,” said Rabbi Joel Hoffman, who directs a community-wide Hebrew school in St. Louis.

The new approach was one of the recommendations to come out of a major outside evaluation of the school.

“The children may learn fewer things, but they really learn it because they’re more involved,” said Hoffman.

That view was echoed by Rabbi Michele Sullum, education director of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.

“The only way you can learn something is by doing it,” she said, explaining why — frustrated that no one could read Hebrew — her school switched from a traditional classroom approach two years ago to an “experiential” model.

Now students learn prayer by praying each school day rather than memorizing a text. And they learn Hebrew by reading “Hebrish,” an innovative approach in which students read English stories transliterated into Hebrew letters. The technique, which gradually introduces Hebrew vocabulary, makes children interested in deciphering Hebrew letters even before they have mastered the vocabulary, said Sullum.

In revamping the curriculum, Sullum was influenced by the Montessori approach to general education as well as her own fond memories of having been a “staff brat” at the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah. By adapting the camp’s songs, activities and highly social emphasis, the synagogue tries to infuse some of its spirit into Hebrew school.

Temple Emanu-El, a large Reform congregation in San Francisco, also is modeled after camp.

Each grade is named after one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and keeps its tribe name year after year. Children learn in small groups within their tribe and also get together for a variety of retreats and field trips.

“No lectures are allowed,” said Emanu-El’s rabbi-educator, Peretz Wolf-Prusan.

“It looks a lot like camp,” he added. “When people come here to observe the school, there are circles of kids all over the place.”

Other schools are keeping children in classrooms, but trying to make the learning more engaging.

For suburban Detroit Hebrew schools, that means bringing in technology. The community’s federation is spending over $700,000 to install computers in all of its congregational schools, train teachers how to use them and create a Web site designed to help children learn about Jewish life-cycle events.

Computers “can make synagogue learning a lot more fun and a lot more interesting,” Robert Aronson, the federation’s executive vice president said in March, when the project was announced.

Rachel Erlich, the media center director of Temple Israel, a Detroit-area school already using computers extensively, said, “Kids like the computer because it puts them in the driver seat, it’s interactive and it’s different.”

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in suburban Cleveland, is engaging students in a more old-fashioned way: through problem-solving projects.

The problems are designed to make Jewish concepts relevant to children’s lives and interests. Teachers are trained not to give children answers, but instead suggest where they might look — reference books, traditional texts, the Internet and even phone calls are all encouraged.

In one problem, seventh graders must advise a fictional rock star what to do when she learns that the toys she endorses are made from sweatshop labor. To find the answer, they must research what traditional Jewish texts have to say about labor, slaves and proper business practices.

In fourth grade, students have to help a child decide whether to attend her grandmother’s 80th birthday party or a friend’s party. Another problem, now- fifth-grader Jack Goldberg’s favorite, involves viewing several Passover videos and then deciding together which would be the most appropriate for Christian students learning about Jewish traditions.

Goldberg, who often brings home the problems to discuss with his family, said problem solving is his favorite part of Hebrew school because “it’s fun to discuss and talk about.”

His mother, Meryl, agreed, noting that the problem solving has been a “springboard for family discussions.”

“The kids enjoy the give and take as opposed to sitting and listening all day,” she said.

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