Conclusion and Recommendatons

This multi-layered study found diversity in how part-time Jewish schools approach Hebrew, a flexible signifier with several potential symbolic meanings and uses in Jewish communal life. Many schools are solely or primarily interested in Hebrew education for ritual participation, especially to enable successful bar/bat mitzvah performance, and therefore only emphasize Textual Hebrew decoding and recitation. Some schools want their students to gain skills in Modern Hebrew conversation, especially the receptive skill of listening. We also found diversity among various constituencies. Although parents and students are more focused on bar/bat mitzvah than school directors would like, some are more interested in conversational Hebrew than school directors expect. These discrepancies, and the lack of clearly articulated goals, lead to a discourse of failure regarding Hebrew education in part-time Jewish schools.Our findings have much in common with research on Jewish day schools, which also found diversity from school to school and within many schools regarding how much Hebrew and which skills should be taught.82 Similarly, research on language education in “complementary schools” in several immigrant groups (e.g., schools teaching Spanish, Mandarin, Bengali, or Polish) found conflicting ideologies and practices regarding the mixing of languages.83 But part-time Jewish schools differ from these institutions in important ways. Compared to Jewish day schools, part-time schools have far fewer hours to focus on Jewish education. And while some immigrant complementary schools offer instruction in other aspects of culture, they tend to focus primarily on language. Given the severe time limitations and the many topics they wish to cover, leaders and constituents of part-time Jewish schools know that advanced skills in Hebrew conversation and reading comprehension are simply not attainable. Some have come to terms with this and have articulated realistic goals, but others evaluate their schools as less effective than they would like in teaching Hebrew.

These findings have led us to recommend the following changes in part-time Jewish education, some geared toward individual schools and some toward the broader field:

  • Engage in collaborative visioning regarding rationales, goals, and practices. Based on educators’ and families’ misalignment of orientations toward Hebrew education and each constituent’s limited knowledge about other constituents’ stances, we recommend more communication within each school. This can occur through guided processes of appreciative inquiry involving appreciating, envisioning, dialoguing, and innovating.84 It can also entail collaborative action research involving all members of a school or community in identifying goals, collecting and analyzing data, and identifying findings and implications.85 We recognize that this process can be meaningful but also difficult, and therefore should involve honest and ongoing partnership with all stakeholders, perhaps with the guidance of experts in organizational change. School directors should meet with teachers, clergy, parents, and students to find out why they are interested in Hebrew education (rationales), what they hope to get out of the school’s Hebrew education (goals), how they prioritize various goals, and to what extent they are willing to commit more hours. Based on these conversations, school directors should determine and articulate which goals their school will work toward—goals they can reasonably accomplish in the hours available. Then, in collaboration with teachers, parents, and clergy, they should reevaluate their current Hebrew educational practices to align with those goals. They might need to change the hours devoted to Hebrew, the integration of Hebrew with other subjects, learning configurations, curriculum, activities, homework, and/or teacher hiring and training. If there is great diversity of goals in their school population and enough interest in Modern Hebrew conversation, they might also choose to offer multiple tracks or an enrichment option for interested families. Once this process is complete, school directors should clearly communicate goals to families: what type(s) of Hebrew and which skills can they expect their children to learn in the brief time they are in school? If some families want additional skills that the school cannot provide, schools should refer them elsewhere, such as to online conversational Hebrew education programs. 
  • Stop calling it “Hebrew school.” Parents and students often call these part-time schools “Hebrew schools,” though few educators do. Most likely this is a remnant of the historical focus on Hebrew in part-time Jewish schools, but it may also symbolize—or engender—an assumption about Hebrew being a primary focus today.86 Some schools that prioritize Hebrew conversation and writing skills may legitimately be called Hebrew schools, but most part-time Jewish schools should not. Clarifying nomenclature and associated goals would be important for each school.87 
  • Set affective goals. Given the primacy of affective goals among all constituencies, schools can make explicit the objective of socializing students to feel personally connected to Hebrew—part of local and worldwide Hebrew-oriented metalinguistic communities. 
  • Integrate and infuse Hebrew throughout the curriculum. To accomplish the affective goals, it may be useful to integrate Hebrew more fully, intentionally, and explicitly into many aspects of the part-time school curriculum, using a content-language integrated approach. Most schools report using at least some Jewish life vocabulary, communal prayer services during school hours, Hebrew songs, fun activities involving Hebrew, and Hebrew writing in the schoolscape. By expanding these practices and articulating them as ethnolinguistic infusion (or perhaps just “Hebrew infusion”), schools can emphasize the importance of Hebrew in Jewish learning and life. This integration may also increase motivation and investment in Hebrew learning. 
  • Spend less class time on learning how to decode in large groups. Jewish children need to learn how to decode and recite Hebrew, but this does not need to be the primary focus of part-time Jewish education. Hebrew recitation may take place during communal tefillah, but learning to decode does not appear to be desirable or effective in large groups. Given that students (and teachers) find other activities less tedious and more engaging, schools should consider alternative models for teaching Hebrew decoding, including waiting until 4th, 5th, or 6th grade to introduce it (i.e., after years of oral and aural input), teaching decoding only in small groups or one-on-one, and/or using online electronic curricula that students complete at their own pace (with scaffolding and check-ins from teachers). These alternative approaches will free up precious class time to focus on other Hebrew skills or, in schools not interested in those, other aspects of Jewish education. 
  • Assign gamified homework. Our findings suggest that schools that offer a small amount of homework have higher rates of alignment of goals and perceived success. Schools should consider assigning students to participate on a regular basis in one of the many entertaining online Hebrew educational programs now available. If students have homework that feels like a game, they might be more likely to complete it. This will increase the number of hours students are exposed to Hebrew and further solidify students’ experience of Hebrew as something fun and important in their lives. 
  • Increase options for teacher training. School directors’ complaints and teachers’ requests indicate a need for teacher training in Hebrew language, educational techniques, and the use of particular curricula. Research on language education supports the efficacy of teacher training.88 Given the part-time nature of work in these schools, teachers may have limited motivation or time for training. In addition, teachers are located all around the country and might find it difficult (or cost-prohibitive) to travel for training. Therefore, support organizations should offer funded online training for teachers in Hebrew language and Hebrew pedagogy. Training could focus in particular on flexible, innovative, and differentiated pedagogical approaches that fit the needs of the individual student (e.g., grouping, classroom management, technology, differentiation,89 ability vs. grade level). Another area of training could focus on formative and summative assessments of student learning as they relate to these diverse approaches to teaching Hebrew. Finally, some teachers would appreciate elementary or advanced training in Hebrew language. 
  • Facilitate information sharing. Despite differences according to denomination and geography, there is a great deal of unity in rationales, goals, and practices. Even so, administrators and teachers often feel they are reinventing the wheel, sometimes on a weekly basis. We recommend that the existing organizations and networks that support part-time Jewish schools collaborate to offer a unified push to strengthen Hebrew education. In addition to the teacher training recommended above, they could offer consulting and training for school directors tailored to their particular context. They could create a repository of information about good practices and curricular resources that can be adapted to particular contexts. This collaborative effort would likely involve the denominational support organizations, local Federations and educational umbrella organizations, informal networks like JEDLAB and Chabad educators’ Facebook groups, and several companies and organizations that create and offer platforms for content. While there is a need for a focus on Hebrew education specifically, this could be part of a broader resource-sharing initiative for part-time Jewish schools. 
  • Conduct further research. This study focused on perceptions of Hebrew education by educators and other stakeholders (clergy, parents, teachers, students)—their rationales, goals, approaches to Hebrew education, and perceived success. The scope of this study did not include the efficacy of various approaches to Hebrew learning, but there is a great need for that kind of research. We encourage researchers and practitioners to collect data on student outcomes vis-a-vis Hebrew, using different approaches to Hebrew education. We cannot determine “best practices” in Hebrew education without research into student outcomes—including short-term and long-term outcomes. We also recommend long-term ethnography in a given setting, especially during a process of change. 

We hope that this report will spark conversations among various constituencies about the rationales, goals, and practices of Hebrew education. Such conversations—within schools and among educational leaders and funders on national and local scales—may transform the discourse of failure into a discourse of success. Our vision is that 20 years from now, leaders and participants in part-time Jewish education will see their schools as meeting or exceeding their goals for Hebrew education, whatever those goals may be.