Carmela Malkin-Kuhn, UJC Education Director
Most Jewish educators would think I’m crazy for writing this article when the rest of the Jewish education world is chock full of articles about why supplemental Jewish education fails and why we need to change our systems,curricula, and approaches. And, they are correct.As responsible professionals we always need to evaluate and adjust. At the UJCVP we do and we have and we will. However, I am here to say that after a quarter century being involved in,teaching in, and directing our UJCVP Community Hebrew School….it works! But what does this mean? What exactly is our success?
There is no doubt that “Hebrew School” is a tough nut to crack. We function in the lateafternoon when our children have already had along day. If you asked the majority of students onany given day if they wanted to attend Hebrew School I imagine the answer might be are sounding “no.” Nonetheless, with our controlled chaos, and unique individualized approach to Hebrew reading we provide a fun,relaxed atmosphere.
We begin with a short T’fillot (prayer) service gathering together for an opportunity to hear the sounds of Judaism and learn the rudiments of basic Hebrew prayer. Afterwards we split into classes where traditional lecturing is kept to a minimum. Children are encouraged to work together in pairs, going at their own pace, and making themselves physically comfortable.Sitting on chairs is not a requirement for learning. We recognize that little boys and girls have “ants in their pants” in the afternoon and may be more squirmy and yes, even a little disruptive, so appropriate slack is given whenever possible.
Our “academic” goal is to teach the decoding of Hebrew words so that when children child leave our program at the end of 6 grade they have at the respectable comfort level with reading and following a prayer book, and are able to effectively study a Torah and Haftarah portion for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. We also expect a level of familiarity with prayers that are common to all congregations like the Shma,Kaddish, Michamochah and the Amidah. Likeany acquisition of skill that we desire for our children, this doesn’t happen over night and it doesn’t happen without some consistency of attendance. In addition, our policy is not to assign homework or grade children making accountability more difficult on our end. We recognize that children don’t need more homework on their plates and that a skill level of Hebrew reading is NOT what makes a child Jewish. Sometimes the results are slow and uneven, but I challenge any community member, parent or friend to attend a t’fillot session and hear what our children can do! The vast majority of our regularly attending children are reaching these measurable goals.
The unmeasurable goals are more difficult to achieve; the attempt to create a positive Jewish memory while meeting all benchmarks. How do we create an environment in which children are having fun, building positive Jewish memories,and excelling at the same time? Should “Hebrew School” be more like school or like camp which we know has a measurable positive effect on a child’s Jewish outlook? Can it be both? For the Jewish educator who ultimately figures out the perfect path towards this end, I believe there is truly a pot of gold at the end of his or her rainbow. Over the years I have struggled with this balance between fun, work, structure, and controlled chaos, and believe that we are successfully ahead of the national curve in this arena. Are there moments when we sacrifice individual progress for a little Jewish fun?Definitely, but never with the purpose of leaving anything out in the long run.
We Jewish educators should never stop striving for the perfect program with the best results and should never be afraid to try new approaches. How do we best accommodate a culture that is very heavy on scheduling children while expecting the highest levels of achievement in all that they do? How can we best help parents and congregations adapt to this culture while encouraging the integration of meaningful Jewish living and practice into families’ daily lives? These are huge questions. Part of the answer is the realization that any supplemental Hebrew school is only a small piece of a very large pie that will ideally include home practices, synagogue life, and greater Jewish communal participation.
Afternoon Hebrew school was never meant to and should never be the totality of a child’s Jewish life, a religious and cultural experience that is optimally filled with fun holidays,observances, stories and family time. When our children learn to read English we assume that they will have preschool readiness skills, home reading practice, and a world full of books and examples of others reading. Learning Hebrew reading is no different. Hebrew School gives children the aleph bet, the vowels, the introduction, and what could be described as minimal practice. From first through sixth grade there are approximately 360opportunities to attend a session. This is plenty, in fact more than some children need for the goals that have been set out here if there is regularity of attendance over a period of years. The question of how many days, for how many hours,for how many years may well be different for each family and child. Yet, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that “consistency over time” works. In addition, this year the UJCVP has made Hebrew School free for all children and the year is not yet done, so if you haven’t considered this offer there is still time!
As sympathetic stewards of Jewish education we do recognize that parents are coming from very diverse backgrounds and that many parents don’t have the skills to provide optimal reinforcement so we always welcome parents to learn along side their children. Indeed, there are those in the Jewish education world who believe that family education is the key to learning in the future and they may be right. In conjunction with our local synagogues we ought to be able to provide ample opportunities for meaningful Jewish learning and practice and I know that our local congregations, who themselves have wonderful educators hard at work, are increasingly doing this in creative and engaging ways.
So, as you can see, it’s a difficult notion this Hebrew School. Considering this, it’s pretty amazing we achieve what we do! Though a child may be happy to “graduate”after 6 grade and enter their years of teenage angst and the questioning, most of them do not look back having had miserable Hebrew school experiences at the UJCVP. Many of them have had a lot of fun with their peers and teachers and have learned their Hebrew reading as well.
My hope and prayer is that as a community of parents,congregations and educators we can move forward with our efforts to provide our children and families with the best,cutting edge educational and Hebrew programming available. To this end I welcome all of your input, ideas, and participation as we move forward from strength to strength.