By Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz

In the classic business parable, Who Moved My Cheese (Johnson), four mice live in a maze. Every day, two of them find cheese in a particular spot and feast on it. But one morning they encounter monumental change – their cheese has moved. For many days they return to their once-trusty location, but alas, the cheese does not reappear. Finally, one mouse puts on his sneakers and begins looking elsewhere to find the cheese.

In part-time/congregational educational settings, it’s time to realize that the Hebrew-learning-cheese has moved, and we need to lace up our sneakers and tackle the challenge differently.

In the decades-old “traditional model” of Hebrew learning, students spend one to three hours a week for four to six years, learning the skills that enable them to decode Hebrew prayers. In this article, I won’t address some of the underlying causes for the Hebrew learning challenges in part-time/congregational settings; my thoughts are shared in “Let’s Turn Hebrew Learning on its Head.” However, I’m excited to report that 10-20 Jewish educators across the country have found the courage, support and resources to shift the model of Hebrew learning in their congregational programs. A two-day meeting, hosted by the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC) in mid-November 2017, offered a unique opportunity for a few of these educators to share their experiences and begin to lay a formal foundation for other colleagues to  learn from their experiences and take up the challenge of change.

During the JECC-sponsored meeting, participating education directors discovered elements in their Hebrew programs that strongly overlapped, but each congregation also described unique learning paths. Taken together, the image of a new approach for Hebrew learning quickly emerged.

This, we believe, is what 21st Century Hebrew learning in part-time/congregational settings should look like:

  • A Hebrew-rich environment, not time-bound by 45-60 minute learning periods, nor within the four walls of a Hebrew classroom. Rather, quite organically, our programs must offer multiple Hebrew-touches so that our students see and hear Hebrew everywhere around them, ever so regularly. [Refer to the three bullet points below the section, “Sound-to-print learning.”]
  • Learners that exhibit confidence, competence and community. The use and learning of Hebrew is joyful and enhanced with attention to the building of what Dr. Netta Avineri calls a metalinguistic community – in our case, a group of people who value, honor, enjoy and support Hebrew language and culture, and who infuse their conversations with Hebrew terms, even though they might not be fluent Hebrew speakers.
  • Sound-to-print learning, i.e., beginning with Hebrew sounds (language, prayer, and song) and moving eventually to print. This is the opposite of the traditional decades-old model of Hebrew learning that starts with a letter (“this three-sided letter is a Bet and it sounds like the English ‘b’”), followed by years of learning focused on blending letters with the help of vowel signs (generally, words that students have never heard before). Twenty-first Century Hebrew learning offers years of opportunity to build the sounds of Hebrew in a child’s head and heart, before tackling decoding/reading. The education directors who have made this sound-to-print shift generally:
    • include Hebrew Through Movement from kindergarten through sixth grade, 10-15 minutes each time the students are in session.
    • schedule regular worship experiences that highlight Hebrew prayers, even when children have not yet learned how to decode the language.
    • teach Hebrew “Jewish life vocabulary” by finding creative ways to introduce and then naturally infuse key Hebrew words and phrases in English sentences – for example, “Boker tov (good morning). We will start our t’fillah (worship) with Modeh Ani (a specific prayer). Open your siddur to page 3.”

The majority of the directors around the table in Cleveland delay teaching the decoding of Hebrew, waiting till after third or fourth grade. Two of their congregations completely eliminated formal teaching of Hebrew decoding in their educational programs, attaching it instead to a child’s b’nai mitzvah tutoring schedule, generally providing 3-4 months of one-on-one instruction before beginning traditional tutoring.

In addition, when Hebrew letters and vowel signs are introduced, teachers who use a sound-to-print approach first read newly introduced passages to students (i.e., offer the sound) and then ask students to decode aloud (read the print).  Through this process, students are formally taught to match the sound of Hebrew in their head with the print they see on the page.

  • A more seamless connecting of the educational part of the congregation (e.g., learning) with the spiritual one (e.g., worship and b’nai mitzvah). This means making sure that educators and clergy have the same expectations for how and when students learn to decode, to read/recite prayers, and learn Hebrew as language.
  • The opportunity for learners to experience diverse learning models.
    • Hebrew Through Movement, is a social model – Students support each other in learning, often running, jumping and yes, laughing, too, especially when the teacher interjects a surprising, novel command.
    • T’fillah (worship) occurs in community and has the potential to build community, but it also offers moments for personal reflection.
    • Decoding is best taught one-on-one. This was one of the most interesting conclusions of the group is Cleveland. After students have spent years learning the “sounds” of Hebrew (i.e., through regular worship, Hebrew Through Movement, and the use of Jewish life vocabulary), they work one-on-one with a tutor, teacher or learning facilitator, progressing relatively quickly and accurately through the process of learning to decode Hebrew. When students learn Hebrew decoding in a 1-1 setting, they don’t miss the introduction of a letter if they happen to be absent, they have a person working with them dedicated to their success (“I’m happy to repeat this 20 times, if that’s what you need”), their personal learning styles and needs are quickly and directly addressed, and they build a relationship with an older Jewish role model, whether teen or adult, who has a passion for Hebrew. Many of the congregations that successfully implement one-on-one Hebrew learning use the JECC’s online and hands-on program, “Let’s Learn Hebrew Side-by-Side.”

And the benefits? The directors who met in Cleveland believe that changing the decades-old Hebrew learning model can improve the learners’ overall Jewish educational experience because this foundational shift:

  • Energizes learning, not only of Hebrew, but also Judaics. This new model also enables teachers to find opportunities for meaningful integration of Hebrew and Judaic learning.
  • Better addresses students’ individual learning styles, needs and interests.
  • Shifts long-held scheduling assumptions (such as the traditional Sunday morning pattern of one hour of Hebrew and one hour of Judaic studies), thus offering more time for Jewish learning and experiences that are deeply engaging (e.g., project-based learning, explorations, field trips, meaningful prayer).
  • Encourages new and supportive roles for parents, teens and congregational volunteers, especially as one-on-one tutors for younger students. This new model has the potential to build multi-generational relationships. [For examples of teens and adults in these one-on-one roles, check the “Flashmob” and “Let’s Learn Hebrew Side-by-Side” tutors.]

At the JECC in November, this group of visionary congregational education directors openly shared how they have successfully put on their sneakers and created new instructional assumptions for 21st Century Hebrew learning. We invite our colleagues to lace up their own running shoes: to consider the challenges of the traditional model with their staff and volunteer leadership, and to begin taking steps to create Hebrew-rich environments that bring joy and energy to their students and families. We call our efforts, “#Onward Hebrew!” and have established a presence on Facebook. Please, join the conversation!

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the Senior Director and Director of Curriculum Resources for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. She thanks the Jewish educators who helped give shape to #OnwardHebrew, especially for their assistance in the development of this article.