By David Behrman

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the diversity of Hebrew learning goals options for congregational schools.

We live, we are told, in times of scarcity and limits. The Jewish community is contracting. Our budgets are under stress. Our instructional hours are declining. We look back and see times of optimism and hope, while today many of us are hunkered down hoping just to make it through the week, or month, or perhaps the year.

Yet in many ways this is a time for optimism. Steven Pinker, author, psychologist, and winner of a MacArthur Award (also known as the “Genius Grant”) argues in his latest book, Enlightenment Now, that people are dramatically better off today than ever before in human history—and that such progress serves as inspirational fodder for the future. Pessimism abounds, he says, perhaps because “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”

It’s true of the Jewish community as well. There are many reasons for optimism, many reasons why we are not in decline from the heights of the so-called “good old days” 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Technology and brain research give us richer and more varied teaching options. We can reach our children in the classroom, in the home, in youth groups, at camp, even in the car. We can engage them in print, with sound, through imagery, and video, or interactively. We know more about the diversity of modes of learning, about how our children engage in learning, about how the brain works, than ever before in human history.

And we are more inclusive. Educators work tirelessly to provide modes of learning that suit a wider range of learning styles—for children and for adults.

This new inclusiveness, new technology, new knowledge about learning, and desire for flexibility to develop educational goals that best suit our community’s individual needs, requires choice. Choice of tools to ensure that our programs are suited to the unique needs and resources of each of our communities. Choice about what we teach and where. And about who we teach and when.

Of course, our curricular choices are not unlimited. Our resources—time, money, and talent—are finite. Our community may have goals that differ from those of other, even neighboring, communities—perhaps in subject matter, or learning outcomes. The parents of our children may be willing to devote more, or less, time to our educational programs. All these things affect and can limit our options.

We see this most clearly in the teaching of Hebrew, where there are so many options and the answer as to what any individual educator may choose depends on the community’s resources and goals. Is my goal to teach liturgical competence, Hebrew as a modern language, or simply provide a familiarity with the sights and sounds of Hebrew? What learning outcomes do I seek? How much class time is available, and in what years? I want to be able to choose a learning modality—or multiple learning modalities—best suiting the unique combination of answers to these questions.

It’s tempting to look for the single “right” answer, someone with a plan and a program where we can “just add water” for a successful program. It’s as tempting in Hebrew education and in Judaica as it is when we’re in a hurry for a quick supper and there’s a box of ramen, or macaroni and cheese, in the cupboard. It may satisfy our immediate hunger, but it’s not the long-term nutrition we need.

We at Behrman House passionately believe in your right as an educator to have available—and to choose—the tools that best suit the needs of your community. You need to ask the right questions. You need to decide what is best for your learners. You are uniquely qualified to understand the resources you have available. You are entrusted with the responsibility for setting the goals of your educational program.
That’s why so much of what we do at Behrman House is about providing choices. It is our role to give you the tools you need, and help you choose what is best suited to your purposes. And it is why if you’re looking for a learning outcome, it’s more likely than not that we have several solutions for you to choose from. And the expert staff to help you choose among them.

David Behrman is the publisher of Behrman House.
Originally posted on the Behrman House Blog