For Hebrew Learning, The Skype’s The Limit


Walk around Temple Micah when religious school is in session, and you will see children praying, having discussions and working on art projects.

What you won’t find are alef-bet drill sessions, or language instruction of any kind.

While Hebrew is on the curriculum at this 485-family Reform congregation in Washington, D.C., students now do all their Hebrew learning from home, through private tutoring sessions conducted via the Internet videoconferencing service Skype.

Skype-based tutoring — piloted last year and formalized this year at Micah — is not only a convenient, inexpensive way to give kids personal attention in Hebrew, but it frees up time at the once-a-week school for other lessons, explains Deborah Ayala Srabstein, the temple’s education director.

Micah is one of a growing number of congregations using technology to address two of the most vexing challenges facing supplemental, or Hebrew schools: how to teach Hebrew effectively and how to best make use of increasingly limited classroom hours.

Whereas a generation ago it was not uncommon for children to report to Hebrew school three afternoons a week, today’s programs —which tend to serve overscheduled families and compete with an array of other extracurricular activities — often meet as little as two hours per week.

According to a 2006-07 census conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation, roughly half of Reform, Reconstructionist, Chabad and Modern Orthodox supplemental schools meet, like Temple Micah, only once a week. (Conservative schools, according to the census, mostly meet twice a week, with some requiring three sessions a week; in addition, some once-a-week programs require a second day each week in the year or two preceding bar/bat mitzvah.)

Hebrew-language instruction, often considered a weak link even in day schools and yeshivas, which have far more hours at their disposal, is especially challenging within the constraints of supplemental schools. Many educators find that Hebrew can be learned far more efficiently and effectively with a tutor.

“A serious piano school wouldn’t put 12 kids and one piano together, or even four kids and one piano,” Srabstein said. “To teach Hebrew skills in a focused way we wanted kids to learn one-on-one.”

The technology-facilitated individualized attention has not only freed up classroom hours for other subjects, but has made it easier to serve students with a wide range of abilities and minimize discipline problems. Students who pick up Hebrew easily “are no longer acting out in class because they’re bored,” Srabstein said, while children who are struggling no longer “experience the synagogue as a place of embarrassment or failure.”

While Skype-based tutoring programs like Micah’s are rare, a growing number of congregational schools are having children use Hebrew software at home to supplement, reinforce — and monitor — what they have learned in class. And unlike worksheets and other homework, which often go undone, computer games, most teachers report, are a relatively easy sell to today’s tech-hungry kids.

“Go play the computer games sounds more fun than go do your workbook page,” says Judy Golub, the religious school director at Temple Emanuel in upstate Kingston. Since 2007, her school has been using Hebrew software programs put out by Behrman House. Founded in 1921, the New Jersey-based company has long been the largest publisher of Hebrew-school textbooks in the United States and it is increasingly becoming a leader in the field of Jewish educational software.

More than 400 religious schools purchase its “Alef-Bet Quest” and “Kol Yisrael” Hebrew series, which come with complementary interactive software; company officials estimate that “tens of thousands” of children use the software each year.

Behrman House launched its first software for religious schools relatively recently, in 2002. But technology is quickly becoming a greater focal point for the publisher, which recently signed agreements to make its materials available through Amazon’s Kindle, the Sony e-reader. And discussions are underway with Apple about distribution on the iPad.

This spring, Behrman House released iMahNishtanah, an iPhone application that teaches The Four Questions, and iShma Lite, an app teaching Hebrew prayers.

“Eighteen months ago we had one digital person on staff,” says David Behrman, the company’s president and publisher (and the grandson of its founder). “Today we have three.”

In January, the company acquired BabagaNewz, an educational website for Jewish middle school students. An elaborate Jewish educational game is under development, although the company is releasing few details about it at this time.

Even textbooks that don’t come with CDs offer supplementary materials online. A new book on the biblical prophets has a website in which each prophet has his own Facebook-like profile.

“We won’t do a textbook ever again that doesn’t have an associated website,” Behrman said.

Behrman House is hardly the only resource for high-tech Jewish educational materials. JLand, an online virtual reality game for elementary school-aged children, was launched last summer; G-dcast offers an online library of short animated “Schoolhouse Rock”-like interpretations of Torah portions; and various sites help students practice their bar/bat mitzvah parsha.

However, because its materials come with textbooks and are set up so that teachers can go online to see whether students are using the materials and which topics they are having trouble with, the Behrman House products are well suited for congregational schools.

“The software and books are designed to work together like interlocking pieces of a puzzle,” Behrman said, noting that computer activities correspond to chapters in the book.

For the most part, educators whose students use the software, say they are noticing a marked improvement in their students’ Hebrew performance.

“Our kids are really learning,” said Temple Emanuel’s Golub. “Considering that ours is a one-day-a-week program, you should see them read and chant now!”

Mara Braunfeld, director of education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Westchester County, said the software “has really extended the time the kids are spending on their Hebrew learning, and it’s done in a way that makes kids excited to spend more time learning Hebrew.”

The Reform congregation began using the software three years ago, and Braunfeld said she can “really see a difference between the kids who are using the CD at home and those who are not. It in some cases doubles the amount of Hebrew instruction they’re getting.”

While Braunfeld expected the software to be popular with the kids, she was pleasantly surprised by how much parents liked it.

“Before we had this program, one of the biggest frustrations I’d hear from parents was that they knew their kids were coming home with Hebrew homework, but they didn’t remember or know Hebrew,” she said.

Because the computer pronounces Hebrew letters and words out loud and provides instant feedback when users select the right or wrong answer, children can practice even if no adult in the house reads Hebrew — and interested parents can learn by watching over their children’s shoulders.

“This has helped parents feel more connected to the learning happening in classrooms,” Braunfeld said. “That’s tremendous, because ultimately we’re not just educating kids but families.”

Michael Lederman, the director of the educational resource center at San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education and a longtime congregational-school teacher, noted that not only does the Hebrew software “extend classroom time beyond the formal hours of instruction,” but it also makes children’s occasional absences less disruptive.

“With the hectic life of the average fourth, fifth and sixth graders, absenteeism is sometimes an issue,” he said. “But with the software programs, they’re able to get caught up with the lesson, whether or not they attended the class session.”

Temple Micah, the congregation with Skype tutoring, also uses the Behrman materials, although director Srabstein said kids are given the choice between using the Behrman workbooks or software.

“Some of the kids don’t like [the software] and think it’s babyish, but others play a lot of games at home and take to this naturally,” she said. “The rule of thumb is they need to practice their Hebrew five minutes every day. If they do it using the book, fine. If they’re using the games, that’s fine too.”

E-mail: Next in the series: Rethinking the bar mitzvah.

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