There is a change brewing in congregations across North America, one that is dramatically shifting the narrative of children’s experiences with Hebrew learning and Jewish education. Education directors have begun sharing stories of renewed energy in their buildings and of children who are excited to learn, especially Hebrew. This change is not about tweaking the traditional Hebrew learning model in part-time/synagogue settings. We have done that for years and it hasn’t worked. This is not about increasing Hebrew learning time. Over the years, “more of the same” has closed our students’ hearts to Hebrew as they spend four to six years on low-level prayer decoding/reading practice and review. This IS about changing foundational Hebrew learning assumptions that have shaped Hebrew education in synagogues for decades.
A child spends five to six years acquiring her first language by hearing, responding to and speaking (i.e., building sounds) before learning to read (tackling print). So, too, a learner in a synagogue setting needs to hear, respond to and speak/sing/recite Hebrew before being taught to read. Unfortunately, for decades, children across North America have been taught Hebrew backwards – asked to identify letters and pronounce words before having any previous exposure to them nor understanding of their meaning. The resulting boredom, frustration and even tears have given “Hebrew School” its poor reputation.
#OnwardHebrew formally burst onto the scene in October 2017, with its roots planted more than 15 years ago. #OnwardHebrew promotes sound-to-print learning and is built on four elements that honor the principles of language acquisition, three of which build the “sounds” and the fourth formally connects to “print.”
Language learning via Hebrew Through Movement (HTM)
Authentic worship experiences in Hebrew
Infusing Hebrew words into English sentences
- Waiting to teach the skill of Hebrew decoding until students have at least four or five years of aural/oral exposure to Hebrew
In just a year’s time, 20 synagogues have been designated as “On the Way” (formally adopting three of the four elements listed above) or “All In” (four of the four elements). From these innovators and early adopters, we learn that:
The negative “Hebrew School” narrative is being transformed.
Hebrew is no longer siloed as a subject learned in a class period.
There is more time for compelling, meaningful Jewish learning because the time for formal learning of Hebrew dramatically decreases.
- And yes, even with decreased hours, students are achieving.
#OnwardHebrew is a grassroots initiative that is standing “on the edge of possibility,” beginning to transform a tired, decades old learning model in part-time/congregational educational programs. Its innovative work is supported by the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and a leadership team of Jewish educators who have shifted the Hebrew learning paradigm in their own synagogues and now serve as existence proofs for what could be. Members of the leadership team volunteer their time in sharing the power of #OnwardHebrew - assisting fellow educators, clergy and volunteer leadership via one-on-one conversations and workshops at national and city-wide conferences. With hundreds of educator-to-educator contacts over the last year, the leadership team expects that the numbers of part-time/congregational programs adopting #OnwardHebrew will dramatically increase.
While three of the four #OnwardHebrew elements are low-hanging fruit (HTM, JLV and t’fillah), the fourth element (waiting to introduce decoding until fifth or sixth grade) is difficult for a number of stakeholders. Many teachers feel loyal to the traditional Hebrew curriculum and teaching model. Some parents and clergy worry whether children will be competent on the day of their bar/bat mitzvah without years of drill and practice. But those who are willing to acknowledge and confront the challenges of learning Hebrew in part-time settings, understand the need for this disruptive, but hugely successful innovation. The rewards are worth it, because across the continent, children’s eyes are again sparkling when learning Hebrew.
Read more on JFNA.