Building a Better Hebrew School

Twenty-five years ago Hebrew education was turned on its head, because in 1988 the Board of Jewish Education of New York released the astonishing results of its city-wide survey of Hebrew education.

Researchers had scrutinized synagogue-based programs of every variety. Most were Reform and Conservative, while others fell into different categories of practice. Most met a few hours a week over 1-2 days, others more or less frequently. They used a wide range of textbooks.

But they all had something shocking in common: All of the students in the varied programs knew exactly the same amount of Hebrew! Or, as the report put it, there was “no correlation between correct pupil responses [and the] number of instructional hours per week.” Students who attended eight hours of Hebrew education per week didn’t know more Hebrew than those who attended just one.

This finding was so counter-intuitive, and so critical of the Hebrew programs that were in place, that many people at first simply refused to believe it.

In this regard I’m fortunate, because my position on the faculty of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion gave me the opportunity to observe dozens of Hebrew schools first hand, not just in New York but across North America (and even a few in Europe).

Not surprisingly, I saw exactly what the report described: Hebrew programs were failing.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one to notice. As I started running national seminars on Hebrew education, I learned that most Hebrew-school principals were equally aware of the ineffectiveness of their programs. And this is for sure: the parents and students knew that the Hebrew programs weren’t working.

But change comes slowly. The inertia of the status quo is hard to overcome. “But we’ve always done it that way” is a prevalent unspoken motto, along with “but it worked just fine back when….”

Still, the landscape of Hebrew education is finally changing, and not just because of the 1988 report. With over 50 years of solid research about how children learn languages, it’s becoming easier to identify the specific shortcomings of our traditional models and to create more streamlined and appropriate programs to take their place.

Building on half a century of data, research, experience, and expertise, we’ve designed a Hebrew program at Vassar Temple that’s exciting, efficient, effective, and modern.

By teaching the entire alphabet, along with the vowels, in 5th grade, we avoid the drudgery that in the past has accompanied Hebrew School. (Research has dispelled the myth that students do better the earlier they learn the alphabet.) Because the students learn everything so quickly, their progress serves as a source of pride and motivation.

In 6th grade we focus on a brand new skill: reading without vowels. Advanced eye-tracking experiments show that the brain automatically focuses only on the consonants in Hebrew. So unlike traditional models that are at odds with how the brain naturally functions, this approach meshes with a child’s innate ability.

Seventh grade is devoted, naturally, to bar/bat mitzvah preparation. The students apply what they’ve learned over the prior two years as they prepare for this milestone in their life. The pay-off is two-fold. Because the students use their skills, they feel proud of what they’ve learned. And because of what they’ve learned, bat/bat mitzvah preparation is less stressful and more fun.

We augment these classes, which take place on Wednesday afternoons from 4:30 to 6:00pm, with Hebrew instruction for everyone on Sunday mornings.

The 21st century is an exceptionally rewarding time to be Jewish in America. The combination of a vibrant Jewish community and newly understood ways of engaging each new generation holds the promise of an unparalleled golden age of Judaism, and we’re thrilled to take part in building it.

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman served on the faculty of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for ten years, and in 2008 he chaired the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, the largest gathering of Jewish educators in the world. He currently directs the education program at Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY. He can be reached by e-mail or through the school’s website, which also has more information about the educational programs at Vassar Temple.

[This essay also appears in the August, 2013 issue of The Voice.]

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  1. Wendy Marcus

     /  August 11, 2013

    Very interesting post Joel!!!


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