Hebrew is a language with an alphabet, pronunciation, grammar rules and idioms. In our community, children may learn Hebrew at home, at preschool, at Day School, in a synagogue-based religious school or with a private tutor – or combinations of those.
That’s a lot of opportunities – do we have enough great teachers? Are the kids learning enough? Post bar/bat mitzvah, are kids continuing to improve Hebrew or does it end with the party? Are we creating a culture of fluency or immersion, or encouraging just enough to get by?
I recently heard a college classmate talk about a Spanish language after-school program she had started. She incorporated a Japanese belt system (green belt to black belt) into the program – kids advance through levels based on proficiency. They have belt ceremonies and the kids get the belts – tangible incentives for excellence. Two things struck me about her program: first, that she didn’t try to force the program through existing channels (public schools), and second, that she focused on engaging kids with meaningful incentives.
In Scott Shay’s 2007 book/manifesto “Getting Our Groove Back,” he too identifies the problem of “torturing” kids through Hebrew school. It needs to be fun and engaging. At a synagogue in San Francisco, they have no chairs in their school, because “learning should be like at camp.” For all the parents who recall being tortured and don’t want to put their children through that experience – what are their choices today?
In our community, we have community Jewish preschool, community Hebrew High School, community Adult Education. . .but no community after-school Hebrew program.
In some Jewish communities, the kids go to one after-school program to learn Hebrew. They advance based on skill. They only learn Hebrew at that school – how to read, write, speak. They receive their “religious” school experience at their synagogues: holiday celebrations, prayers, values.
If we had one community Hebrew School, what might it look like? Imagine the best teachers being matched with the right level of students. Imagine better consistency of teaching: “aleph” level meaning the same thing at any institution in town. Imagine that friendships made in preschool continue through elementary school, regardless of which synagogue a family joins.
Imagine that the program ends with elementary school – with a similar graduation, and that the kids who graduate are fluent readers and speakers. Imagine what that would say about the greater Boulder Jewish community – that the kids we graduate are fluent in Hebrew. Imagine how many more kids might stay involved post-b’nai mitzvah, because of the continued opportunity to use their 2nd language. Imagine no more torture. Imagine kids with gifts for languages being able to progress faster. Imagine how much more meaningful youth groups and Israel trips would be if our kids were fluent.
Imagine how many more families might be interested in b’nai mitzvah if their kids had already bridged the language gap. Imagine if families could choose after-school Hebrew while deferring the decision about joining a synagogue. Ahh, there’s the perceived risk. For those families who “skip” K-2 and plan to join when their child reaches 3rd grade, there is no risk: they weren’t going to join your synagogue during those years. If we can engage their kids for K-2, I think they will be more certain to join at grade 3. For those who plan to join when their kids reach kindergarten, for the holidays, chavurah, family education, etc., there’s no risk there either: the Hebrew school is for language acquisition for kids only – not for all the other services that a synagogue provides.
I’m proposing a real shift in our approach: that we shift to teaching Hebrew because we want to grow Jewish people who are competent and fluent in our language. I believe the best way to do that is to pool our resources and craft the best collaborative community program possible, building on our other community-wide successful programs. I believe that those kids and families will be more committed to b’nai mitzvah and continued involvement in Jewish life.
In the spirit of disclosures: this idea is “recycled.” I’ve been on the education committee at one synagogue. Sometime in the last 10 years in Boulder, there was at least 1 meeting on this topic with representatives from several synagogues (I was in 1 meeting – there were likely others). My recollection of the meeting I attended is that it was somewhat like the President’s 7 hour health care meeting last Thursday: we never got past “No.” Both my kids were educated at more than one synagogue school, they both needed b’nai mitzvah tutoring, and neither is a strong Hebrew reader today, though they excel at high-school level languages.