How Hebrew Schools Are Turning The Corner

Published: 
December 17, 2010

Source: Baltimore Jewish Times 

 

In this Jewish Times cover story, Gail Naron Chalew tells of the many difficulties faced by the 2000 synagogue Hebrew schools across the US serving 230,000 children and some. She describes some of the pioneering initiatives that are attempting to bring complementary education into the 21st century.

 

She opens the story with a discussion with Jon Woocher, chief ideas officer of the national Jewish education group, JESNA. Woocher listed some of the challenges faced by complementary schools: "a scarcity of well-trained and Jewishly knowledgeable teachers; the use of “old-school,” frontal teaching techniques; the handful of hours allotted to education; the competition for even that limited time from sports and music and drama and other activities; students who either come tired after a full day of school or after waking up early on a weekend morning; and the belief shared by many parents and children that Jewish education ends with the bar mitzvah and the small sizes of most of the programs, causing budgetary and resource constraints." The lack of philanthropic support for these schools aggravates the situation.

 

In attempting to meet these challenges, some complementary schools are renovating their vision, now viewing the learners at the center of a holistic approach embracing mind, body and spirit. "In their efforts to provide learner-centered, holistic, engaging education, part-time Jewish education programs are experimenting with where and when they offer this education, who delivers it, what is delivered and even, who are the learners: the child or the entire family?"

Chalew then describes a number of pioneering Hebrew school projects around the country.

 

Melding Jewish Education and After-School Care: Kesher (Boston area)

 

Kesher Cambridge and Kesher Newton serve 175 students, who each attend two afternoons a week from the end of school to 6 p.m. The key to the effectiveness of Kesher, is that it deliberately community building among students, and between students and teachers. Another key element of Kesher is the intensive professional development of its teaching staff.

 

Home-Centered Jewish Education: Yerusha (Princeton, N.J.)

 

Yerusha takes place in the homes of participating families, the parents take most of the responsibility for teaching, it is predominantly run by volunteers, and children advance not through grades but through a self-paced system of ranks and badges, much like in scouting. Yerusha meets for two hours a week in the families’ homes, and the parents facilitate the lessons that are designed by Rabbi Justus Baird.

 

Ikar in LA

The IKAR LA Synagogue's school, called Limudim meets twice a week and is a classroom-based model; it teaches Hebrew and how to chant Torah and the haftorah. Where it differs from most synagogue-based schools is that it is held on Shabbat, integrating family prayer with learning.

Limudim also stands apart in its emphasis on social action. IKAR has five social action initiatives — immigration, food justice, feeding our neighbors, green action and a partnership with an early children center in Ecuador — and each religious school class chooses one of these paths.

 

WOW: Synagogues Cooperating in Columbus

 

In collaboration with JESNA, the national Jewish education agency, Columbus, Ohio, is serving as a pilot for a new community approach to providing part-time education, one in which synagogues from across the religious spectrum, the JCC, other programs that reach Jewish children, and parents are all working together.

Updated: Dec. 30, 2010
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