I first realized how much can be accomplished at Hebrew School when I became principal of Shearith Israel’s ‘Polonies Talmud Torah School‘ five years ago. I saw that it is possible to teach a child to read Hebrew in less than a year, which leaves years to cover so many of the other elements that go into a well-rounded Jewish education. While children can likely learn more in a full-time Jewish day school, even so, there is still so much that can be learnt in just a few hours of targeted learning each week. My school meets twice a week, for four hours. (Once a week simply isn’t enough, especially when it comes to skill building, such as the acquisition of a new language)
I was surprised to learn that there are ‘Hebrew Schools’ that don’t even teach Hebrew. I’ve written in another post about what I see as the misguided attempts of many schools to keep their students’ attentions, while neglecting to deliver a substantive Hebrew School education. In my estimation, when schools challenge their students academically, they can keep them better engaged that way than with other ‘informal’ methods. Though informal education plays an important role, it works best as a supplement to the core curriculum, not as a substitute for it (more on that later).
In terms of our core curriculum, Hebrew is essential. Hebrew is the key to accessing a meaningful engagement with Jewish life. Reading Hebrew enables you to participate in synagogue life. Since reading can be taught in a year, schools then have years more to also teach Hebrew script (reading and writing), vocabulary, grammar and other comprehension skills, enabling students to also engage in Hebrew Jewish texts, the source of our tradition. On top of that children can also be exposed to the basics of the spoken Hebrew language in a fun way that shows them how Hebrew and Judaism are alive and well, and connect them to the modern State of Israel.
Another essential factor in creating a meaningful Hebrew School curriculum is to avoid repetition. The key ingredient in keeping children’s attention is newness and challenge. If they think they’ve already studied a subject, they are likely to tune out and become bored. Schools must avoid repeating the same subjects each year. I’ve therefore created a program of study that builds from year to year. The challenge is that while there are a number of quality Hebrew School text books for when covering subjects such as Genesis or the Holidays, that is not the case when moving beyond them. We’ve therefore had to create our own materials for when studying the post Exodus portions of the Torah and certainly for the works of Prophets and Writings, and Post-Biblical Jewish history too. Instead of reading the Bible (Tanakh) verse by verse , we focus on the major stories (chapters), so that we can zero in on the main issues at hand, get the big picture, ask the important questions, and learn valuable lessons.
Our progression is as follows: Weekly Parashah, Genesis up through the Exodus, Post-Exodus through the end of the Torah, The Early Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), Babylonian Exile and Second Temple (Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Josephus, Dead Sea Srolls), Post Temple through Middle Ages (Mishna, Talmud, and Commentaries), Early Modern period (Ashkenaz, Sepharad, Emancipation) and Modern Jewish History (American immigration, Holocaust and Israel). Our older students also read relevant works of literature, to help them personalize the subjects being studied. I’ve compiled a list of those works here.
The study of Judaism through the prism of history helps children place their religious understanding in a context that they can understand and to which they can relate. The Book of Esther read as a Jewish exile story takes on totally new meaning and significance, as does the holiday of Purim. When studying about the Temple’s destruction, we then teach about the related Jewish fast days and their meaning. Passover means so much more when actually studying about those events in the Bible. Also, it is through these stories that we are able to convey Jewish values and life lessons. Children wish to emulate their heroes, and so we study and explore the Biblical and post-Biblical stories with an eye towards deriving practical messages and the raising of important questions.
Of course, schools will wish to return to the Holidays annually, but it must be done with great care, so that each year something new is being taught. While our younger students may focus on ritual objects, older students will focus on the meaning and messages of the holidays, special prayers, Biblical sources, Talmudic teachings, etc. There is so much to teach, that there is no reason to not add new material each year. Over the course of a student’s studies they will also become familiar with the Jewish life-cycle, Jewish ethics, Israeli culture, and so much more.
As students are provided with a substantive and well-rounded Jewish education, it is then that it becomes relevant to introduce meaningful experiential elements. Doing so is vital to ensuring that their education is not simply academic, but instead becomes a part of their lives. We therefore begin Sunday mornings with a communal tefillah in our Small Synagogue, so students can actively participate in services and put into action the Hebrew that they’ve studied. We also include school parties to go along with Succot (in the Succah!), Hanukkah, and Purim, as well as a model seder (haggadah) before Pesah, and the singing of songs like Hatikvah. When possible we also add class trips to relevant exhibits at New York’s world class museums (Jewish and general). These experiences allow children to engage with Judaism in a manner altogether different than what is possible in the classroom alone. However, it is the strong foundation built in the classroom that makes it possible for these experiences to be meaningful and impacting to them.
We also encourage families to become involved in synagogue life, such as by attending our weekly Shabbat Junior Congregation. The link between study and practice then becomes solidified, helping to ensure that Judaism remains a vital part of their lives.
I’m always impressed by the commitment that families have towards Hebrew School. With so many other demands pulling at parents, their sticking with Hebrew School year after year demonstrates to their children that they firmly believe that being Jewish should always remain central to their lives. As schools we must do our best to help them fulfill that goal.