Resources Available For Part-Time Jewish Educators

 

Now we widen the analytic lens from individual schools to the broader field of part-time Jewish education. What resources are available to help schools in the task of teaching Hebrew, however that flexible signifier is understood in their setting? Several educators in this study mentioned curricular materials—because they either considered them helpful or had not yet located the perfect workbook, textbook, or online game. We found that printed and online materials are available for both Textual Hebrew and Modern Hebrew, focusing on one or more of the many goals educators are interested in. We also investigated what infrastructure exists in the field. There are several support organizations and more informal networks that support part-time Jewish schools, and some of their initiatives have addressed Hebrew. Even so, this infrastructure could be expanded and consolidated to offer more support specifically for Hebrew education.

Curricular materials

Our review of curricular materials found a large number of books and other resources, including a growing collection of online digital resources. The vast majority of these materials focus on Hebrew decoding and prayer reading, recitation, and meaning. However, a handful of materials focus on Modern Hebrew, Jewish life vocabulary, Hebrew songs, or Torah.

The largest publisher of Hebrew materials for part-time Jewish schools—by far—is Behrman House, with over 35 publications, many of which are workbook series, plus enrichment materials such as apps, digital supplements to textbooks, posters, teacher guides, and playing cards. In line with our findings about the diverse rationales and goals for Hebrew education, the materials at Behrman House are designed to provide curricular support for a variety of approaches. Their 2019-2020 guide features a chart, Use Your Hebrew Goals to Choose Appropriate Materials, which lists four possible areas of focus for a community’s Hebrew program: 1) prayer skills and meaning; 2) Hebrew as a living language (conversational Hebrew); 3) Hebrew in Jewish life (Jewish ritual life and connections to Israel); and 4) Hebrew in lifelong learning (materials to learn Hebrew at any age). There are at least eight different Alef-Bet or pre-primer publications; at least six publications (for children) focused on decoding (also known as “primers”); four series that focus on prayer (such as Hineinu, Hebrew in Harmony, and Mitkadem); four series that focus on Modern Hebrew (such as Shalom Ivrit, Let’s Talk, Ulpan Alef); four publications geared specifically to adult learners (a combination of decoding and prayer learning); and four digital apps. According to Behrman House, their most popular curricular material is Hebrew in Harmony, a series that “uses the power of music to engage students with prayer.”

Torah Aura is the second largest publisher of Hebrew materials, offering a wide variety of resources including primers, pre-primers, books for adults to learn to read Hebrew, a series teaching Modern Hebrew (Daber Ivrit), and many books for children and adults to learn Jewish prayer. They also sell enrichment materials for Hebrew learning, such as posters, flashcards, stickers, and online apps, including Online Primer, which focuses on decoding, and PrayerTech, which allows students to practice Hebrew prayers.

In addition to Behrman House and Torah Aura, several other publishers and organizations provide Hebrew learning materials for part-time Jewish schools, for sale or for free. JLearnHub offers Hebrew Step-by-Step (Hebrew decoding packets and online programs) and Beit Midrash Prayer Guides, and their website says that more materials are planned for trope/cantillation, Modern Hebrew, and Hebrew art. Ktav has a series of materials called Read Hebrew Now, and Barvaz Press offers Kavanah Corner, both of which include a variety of materials for learning prayers, such as flashcards, puzzles, and prayer practice files. Barvaz also sells prayer-focused textbooks, a Hebrew phrase book (teaching specific Hebrew words and phrases for conversation), and a book focusing on Hebrew roots. The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland offers a number of Hebrew approaches and materials, including Hebrew Through Movement, Let’s Learn Hebrew Side-by-Side (a decoding program for students in 5th and 6th grade), and jPrayer. Finally, a few organizations provide resources for particular types of schools. The Institute for Southern Jewish Life offers the schools it supports a curriculum called Spirals K-7. Most Chabad Hebrew schools use the Aleph Champ curriculum, published by Chanie Markus, which uses a martial arts-inspired, color-coded progress system to teach prayer decoding and recitation.

Through our observations, we found many of these curricular materials in use. At some schools students studied from workbooks from Behrman House or Torah Aura, but other schools used only copies from published books (including an array of siddurim and haggadot), as well as printouts downloaded from the internet. For example, a Reform school in New York was using a printout from ReformJudaism.org, and an independent school in Massachusetts and a Conservative school in Illinois were using worksheets from the BJE in Chicago. Given this hodgepodge of sources, and the comments from educators who felt they did not have sufficient Hebrew curricular materials, there seems to be an opportunity for some umbrella organizations to consult with school directors about which resources are appropriate for their schools.

A relatively new trend in Hebrew education—even before the COVID-19 pandemic—has been online learning. Several for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations, including the ones mentioned above, offer gamified electronic materials for Jewish education, including for Hebrew decoding and conversation. Three organizations that focus primarily on this space are Jewish Interactive, ShalomLearning, and JETS Israel. Activities through one of Jewish Interactive’s apps, JiTap, have become particularly popular. ShalomLearning, which provides content and a learning management system to 100 part-time Jewish schools in North America, offers some activities using JiTap’s technology, among other technologies, in partnership with two curriculum creators, Torah Aura and JLearnHub. In part-time Jewish schools, these online resources generally supplement other activities in the classroom, or in some cases they are assigned as homework.

In our observations we did not notice any students using electronic resources like these; the closest thing we observed was students in one independent school using Google Translate to look up Hebrew words. Electronic resources were rarely mentioned in our interviews or surveys. In fact, some school directors complained of a “lack of excellent online resources for kids to use at home,” perhaps not knowing about the options that exist. And some parents requested online Hebrew activities for their children to complete at home to supplement their in-class learning. These findings indicate an opportunity for umbrella organizations to raise awareness about online resources and perhaps offer educators training on how to use them.

Educational infrastructure

Through interviews with educational leaders, we learned about the institutional infrastructure supporting part-time Jewish schools in the United States. Some denominational umbrella organizations, such as United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and Union for Reform Judaism, offer consulting services and downloadable curricular materials. Some groups offer networking and professional development opportunities for educators, including the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE) and the JEDLAB Facebook group. The authors of this report have presented webinars through ARJE, for example. A group of independent Jewish schools, some of which focus more on Modern Hebrew conversation, has a network called Nitzan. Chabad school directors share resources in Facebook groups and at in-person convenings. Several cities and regions have educational support organizations, generally based at Federations and Bureaus of Jewish Education (BJEs) or other central Jewish agencies. The Institute for Southern Jewish Life supports synagogue schools in the South, providing a fully scripted curriculum of 30 lessons, an annual conference, educational consulting, and school visits three times each year.

A few initiatives are geared toward innovation. A group of educators who have adopted particular innovations in Hebrew education created the #OnwardHebrew initiative to publicize their successes and encourage their colleagues to adopt these innovations. #OnwardHebrew leaders have presented at conferences like the ARJE and offered webinars through BJEs and other umbrella organizations. One of the authors of this report has also provided a webinar series for #OnwardHebrew practitioners to engage in a guided and collaborative process of action research within their contexts. This author also worked with #OnwardHebrew leadership to identify relevant projects that master’s students in her service-learning course could assist with. The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland has supported the work of #OnwardHebrew, and #OnwardHebrew recently received a three-year grant from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation to support staffing, professional development, and evaluation/research. Related to this work is Shinui, a network of BJEs and similar bodies that are advancing innovation in part-time Jewish schools, including in Hebrew education. For example, the Los Angeles BJE, part of the Shinui network, convenes directors of local part-time Jewish schools for networking and professional development and provides funded training for several teachers in the #OnwardHebrew approach. Similarly, 10 congregations in the Chicago area are part of a two-year project funded by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago called Changing the Paradigm, focusing on #OnwardHebrew’s innovations.

In response to our (open-ended) survey question about factors that help their schools succeed in Hebrew education, several school directors mentioned #OnwardHebrew, and a few referred to funding from particular foundations or Federations. However, nobody mentioned the support, networking, or professional development opportunities provided by ARJE, NewCAJE, JEA, JEDLAB, BJEs, and other support initiatives. It is likely that Hebrew education in many schools has benefited from this infrastructure, and a direct question about that would likely have yielded many positive responses. Even so, this gap in write-in responses suggests an opportunity for support organizations to offer more targeted initiatives to strengthen Hebrew education.