By Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler

I graduated from Hebrew Union College in the age of possibility. At the turn of the millennium anything was possible for Jewish life. Five years before the first recession, looking back, it seemed like the golden age of synagogues. I started at an amazing job – a dream senior staff team with a learned senior rabbi who cared deeply about our religious school, a cantor who brought smiles to synagogue through music, and an assistant rabbi whose charisma and passion for youth and families brought energy and creativity to our work. When I entered the building the first thing I was told was – we have to improve the Hebrew. What I found was each class was creating their own Shabbas. So we met, reflected on our goal, developed a plan, chose textbooks, and off we went.

Five years later the Hebrew learning had improved. Students were exposed to letters in 1st grade, used a pre-primer in 2nd grade, were decoding in 3rd grade, able to recite or chant prayers in 4th, 5th, and 6th, and leading large portions of their B’nai Mitzvah service. But, something was not right. At the end of 2nd grade students could decode, but they then needed to learn it all again in third grade. From 3rd to 4th about half of the class had to start over, and from 4th to 5th we focused on look alike letters and vowels. The transition from 4th to 5th was better and by 6th the students seemed to retain their letters and vowels over the summer. This repetition resulted in boredom, skepticism, and a need for differentiated learning with limited resources. As a young educator, I was frustrated and wondered about the efficiency of the system.

The frustration was not limited to the grade level transitions. While some kids were motivated to master a prayer, or the grade level list of prayers, it would take our fifth grade classes six to eight weeks, at an hour and a half a week, to master V’ahavta or Kiddush. Kids were leveled so they were separated for multiple years based on their ability to read or chant fluently, We also faced the challenges of frequent student absences, misbehavior challenges, and helping 15 students learn the same prayer week after week. In addition, we had students with special needs who would go to a resource room, though we learned that their parents often did not want them removed from the class. So by the time I had been at my congregation for 8 years, I began to see that not only for the system, but for the students themselves, Hebrew was a big challenge.

Around the same time, the Union for Reform Judaism invited our synagogue to become a pilot congregation in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. As part of this process we thought deeply about our goals, examined the meaning of B’nai Mitzvah and asked big questions about how we prepare students for Jewish life. We heard from parents and students and clergy. And we heard from Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz, who shared a new vision of Hebrew education.

At the time, Nachama had been working with Dr. Lifsa Schachter of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (Cleveland, OH) with a focus on Hebrew education principles that were different from the current norm, These included:

  • Hebrew learning should be joyful and communal. Language learning need not bring tears. Through the Hebrew through Movement program, students can learn modern Hebrew and Jewish heritage and synagogue words in a fun, age appropriate way.
  • Students should pray regularly to gain competence and confidence with synagogue Hebrew. It’s ok (and why shouldn’t it be) for students to learn prayers by heart and to use all tools available to them to understand the Siddur.
  • Languages are learned from sound-to-print. Just like learning to read English, students must hear Hebrew regularly, and be familiar with it, to be able to “read”/decode it. The recommendation is 5 years of exposure prior to teaching decoding.
  • Hebrew decoding should be delayed until at least 5th or 6th grade. We are making a hard task almost impossible by asking them to differentiate letters too early in their development; students need exposure to Hebrew not decoding at a young age.

Five years after this initial encounter I can tell you that at JQuest B’Yachad in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania we are experiencing great success in our Hebrew program with joyful learning, regular prayer, students who are confident and competent, and a program that delays decoding. We went from approximately 162 hours over 5 years of Hebrew decoding and classroom prayer practice to 47 hours over 2 years. Over the past 5 years, we annually have measured our sixth graders’ decoding ability using a 75 question test from Behrman House publishers, and we have tracked the number of prayers our students are able to chant/recite at the end of sixth grade. What we found is the average 75 question test score has gone up and our students are able to chant/recite the same number of prayers from the Shabbat service. We have also observed that motivation increased, attitudes about Hebrew learning changed, and we have far fewer discipline issues. The culture and climate of our Hebrew learning has been turned on its head.

The decision to push the start of decoding to later elementary school years encouraged me to learn about best practices in educational instruction. Dina Maiben, author of Behrman House’s Alef Bet Quest and Z’man Likro series, spent time with me and my Hebrew instructors on teaching decoding. Dina explained that learning Hebrew requires orthographic representation mastery. This means a student no longer confuses b,d,p,q – the letters with the same shape in different positions. I learned that teaching typical students to decode Hebrew prior to fourth grade is a challenge depending on their ability to identify symbols and shapes. This is why my students needed to repeat the learning each year – they were not developmentally ready to learn it.

Dina also reminded me of the importance of motivation. There is a sweet spot in which students are excited about becoming a Jewish adult and eager to learn to decode and lead with competence and confidence. Teach decoding too early and motivation will fade. Teach decoding in the time leading up to B’nai Mitzvah and the sweet spot is achieved.

Fifteen years after I started at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Hebrew learning looks very different.

  • Students in K-6 learn language via Hebrew Through Movement. You will find first grade students following multiple-step directions spoken only in Hebrew (for example, the teacher says, “Take the candle, place it next to the candlestick, pick up the challah, and give it to your friend”).
  • You will find students of every age involved in t’fillot (Jewish worship) every time our program meets. Students are comfortable in the synagogue, they are knowledgeable, and they feel at home. Their clergy lead engaging and diverse forms of worship.
  • You will find the teaching of the meaning of the prayers is a focus of our program. Just like we want them to be able to say Sh’ma at a synagogue halfway across the world, we also want them to know why they would say the Sh’ma: that prayer invites them to stop and notice God in our world, to give thanks or to ask for what we need.
  • You will find our classrooms and hallways infused with Hebrew language – labels for classroom items, conversations about ritual words, and directions to stand and sit. Our students acquire Hebrew quite naturally with a focus on Jewish life vocabulary.
  • And, you will find our oldest students either individually or in small groups learning to decode and recite the prayers of the Jewish people.

Delaying decoding, introducing Hebrew Through Movement, focusing on t’fillah, creating a Hebrew rich environment, and introducing theology has changed the shape of our learning. All these have enabled us to bring our Hebrew education program into the 21st century and, more importantly, has enabled our students to better connect to the language of the Jewish people!

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Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler, MAJE is the director of JQuest B’Yachad the comined Religious education program for Adath Jeshurun, Beth Sholom, and Keneseth Israel Congregations in Elkins Park, PA. She holds a degree in Jewish Education and was ordained from HUC-JIR and is a proud member of the ARJE Leadership and the URJ Camp Harlam Jewish Life department.

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com