Disrupting Hebrew School:This New Approach is Transforming Jewish Education

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the Senior Director and Director of Curriculum Resources for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. She is also the catalyst behind much of #OnwardHebrew’s work.
“The children are like sponges soaking up every bit of Hebrew they get!
Then they go home and squeeze it out on their siblings, parents and friends.”
Education Director,
2018 #OnwardHebrew Survey Response
There is a change brewing in congregations across North America, one that is dramatically shifting the narrative of children’s experiences with Hebrew learning and Jewish education.  Education directors have begun sharing stories of renewed energy in their buildings and of children who are excited to learn, especially Hebrew.  
  • This change is not about tweaking the traditional Hebrew learning model in part-time/synagogue settings. We have done that for years and it hasn’t worked.
  • This is not about increasing Hebrew learning time. Over the years, “more of the same” has closed our students’ hearts to Hebrew as they spend four to six years on low-level prayer decoding/reading practice and review.
  • This IS about changing foundational Hebrew learning assumptions that have shaped Hebrew education in synagogues for decades. 
A child spends five to six years acquiring her first language by hearing, responding to and speaking (i.e., building sounds) before learning to read (tackling print). So, too, a learner in a synagogue setting needs to hear, respond to and speak/sing/recite Hebrew before being taught to read.  Unfortunately, for decades, children across North America have been taught Hebrew backwards – asked to identify letters and pronounce words before having any previous exposure to them nor understanding of their meaning. The resulting boredom, frustration and even tears have given “Hebrew School” its poor reputation. 
#OnwardHebrew formally burst onto the scene in October 2017, with its roots planted more than 15 years ago. #OnwardHebrew promotes sound-to-print learning and is built on four elements that honor the principles of language acquisition, three of which build the “sounds” and the fourth formally connects to “print.”
  1. Language learning via Hebrew Through Movement (HTM) – HTM is an active method for introducing Hebrew the same way children acquire their first language. First, students learn to respond physically to Hebrew words (stand up, sit down, walk, run, jump, spin, touch, lift up, etc). Then these movement words are used to introduce other vocabulary - “stand up, run to the Shabbat candlesticks, put in the candles, and ‘light’ the candles (l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat,” i.e., the exact last Hebrew words of the Shabbat candle blessing). It is estimated that this year alone, 10-15,000 children are spending an average of 15 minutes a week with HTM, kinesthetically building foundational vocabulary for Hebrew blessings, prayers and rituals.
  2. Authentic worship experiences in Hebrew – It is impossible for a person to decode Hebrew (letter-vowel-letter-vowel) at synagogue speed, even if the prayer leader is on a slower pace. In fact, most regular daveners know the prayers by heart. With this in mind, #OnwardHebrew programs incorporate Hebrew t’fillah (worship services) on a regular basis. An education director reported that in a recent t’fillah, the rabbi expressed surprise at the third grade’s ability to “belt out” prayers in ways that no third-grade group accomplished in previous years. This happened as a result of the children participating in regular in-Hebrew prayer services, even though they had not yet learned to “read” Hebrew.
  3. Infusing Hebrew words into English sentences, thus increasing connections to Jewish traditions, culture, people  and life. – #OnwardHebrew calls these words “Jewish Life Vocabulary” (JLV). An example of a JLV sentence is, “Grab your siddur, we are going to t’fillah” (siddur = prayerbook and t’fillah = Jewish worship). In a synagogue setting, JLV is taught in all-group gatherings (e.g., at the beginning or end of a t’fillah) or as a complement to specific lessons (e.g., introducing the phrase b’rit milah in a life cycle lesson). The power of JLV is magnified when the words spread beyond formal learning - in everyday encounters (“Sorry, I left my siddur next to my tallit”) via prominent posters in the hallways and in informational emails to parents.  JLV builds an ear for Hebrew, transmits the essence of our tradition and strengthens attachments to Jewish life.
  4. Waiting to teach the skill of Hebrew decoding until students have at least four or five years of aural/oral exposure to Hebrew (via elements #1, 2 and 3, above, between kindergarten and fifth grade) –  #OnwardHebrew advocates that educators wait to introduce Hebrew print (decoding/reading) until either fifth or sixth grade. With stronger language background and enthusiasm for Hebrew built over the years, students are motivated to learn and the process is quick -- often in just 12-15 hours of one-on-one learning scheduled right before the preteens begin working with their bar/bat mitzvah tutor. 
In just a year’s time, 20 synagogues have been designated as “On the Way” (formally adopting three of the four elements listed above) or “All In” (four of the four elements). From these innovators and early adopters, we learn that:
  • The negative “Hebrew School” narrative is being transformed. One director said, “… the kids LIKE Hebrew, are excited about Hebrew, and that makes them like and be excited about Hebrew school in general. Our 7th graders requested a modern Hebrew elective (instead of baking, art, etc). So we offered it and they signed up and DO their homework!” Excitement and energy are common themes reported by #OnwardHebrew educators.
  • Hebrew is no longer siloed as a subject learned in a class period. #OnwardHebrew programs develop rich multi-faceted Hebrew learning environments. A cantor might use HTM commands to ask children to stand up in t’fillah. A Jewish studies teacher might infuse a few JLV words into her lesson. Children say, sing and recite Hebrew prayers on a regular basis, whether in an all-program setting or in a classroom. Their short HTM sessions are often scheduled as part of other learning experiences.
  • There is more time for compelling, meaningful Jewish learning because the time for formal learning of Hebrew dramatically decreases. 
  • And yes, even with decreased hours, students are achieving. 
The last two points are illustrated by data attained by Rabbi Stacy Rigler, an education director and member of the #OnwardHebrew leadership team. The chart, below, compares the number of formal Hebrew learning hours between second and sixth grade for her typically-developing students (i.e., those with no special learning challenges) TO their average scores on a 75 question diagnostic Hebrew reading test.

The Hebrew learning hours in Rabbi Rigler’s education program began to drop as she phased in the four #OnwardHebrew elements, including waiting to teach print until later grades. Even with less in-class Hebrew hours in recent years, it is clear that with the sound-to-print learning and increased motivation, children can learn to read Hebrew in much less time. As a bonus, a synagogue educational program that gains an extra 115 hours for Jewish learning (as in the example above) could have students deeply engage in project-based learning, mindfulness practices, off-site service leaning, higher level text study, or any number of foci not possible with a day split between Hebrew and Jewish content.
#OnwardHebrew is a grassroots initiative that is standing “on the edge of possibility,” beginning to transform a tired, decades old learning model in part-time/congregational educational programs. Its innovative work is supported by the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and a leadership team of Jewish educators who have shifted the Hebrew learning paradigm in their own synagogues and now serve as existence proofs for what could be. Members of the leadership team volunteer their time in sharing the power of #OnwardHebrew - assisting fellow educators, clergy and volunteer leadership via one-on-one conversations and workshops at national and city-wide conferences. With hundreds of educator-to-educator contacts over the last year, the leadership team expects that the numbers of part-time/congregational programs adopting #OnwardHebrew will dramatically increase.
While three of the four #OnwardHebrew elements are low-hanging fruit (HTM, JLV and t’fillah), the fourth element (waiting to introduce decoding until fifth or sixth grade) is difficult for a number of stakeholders. Many teachers feel loyal to the traditional Hebrew curriculum and teaching model. Some parents and clergy worry whether children will be competent on the day of their bar/bat mitzvah without years of drill and practice. But those who are willing to acknowledge and confront the challenges of learning Hebrew in part-time settings, understand the need for this disruptive, but hugely successful  innovation. The rewards are worth it, because across the continent, children’s eyes are again sparkling when learning Hebrew.
YOU are invited to join the conversation and offer support to #OnwardHebrew’s transformational changes to part-time/congregational education: