Survey Findings

This section reports findings from the phase 1 and phase 2 surveys. First, we present mostly quantitative data regarding structural features, school directors, teachers, various constituencies’ rationales and goals for Hebrew education, and the extent to which they feel their schools are attaining those goals. We also report how schools assess students’ progress and to what extent schools communicate goals and involve various constituencies in envisioning goals.

Then we turn to the diversity of schools according to denomination and Jewish density of location, various constituencies’ satisfaction, and correlations with school directors’ perceptions of success. Finally, we report qualitative survey data, including factors that various constituencies feel are helping and hindering their schools from achieving Hebrew goals, how schools have recently shifted their Hebrew education, and how they hope to shift it in the future.

Schools’ structural features
Schools exhibit diversity in several areas. In this section, we present quantitative findings on contact hours and Hebrew hours, topics covered, learning configurations, approaches to Hebrew education, grade levels when certain skills are introduced, and attendance.

Hours

Schools’ total contact hours, including classroom hours, private tutoring, and online programs, range from 0.5 to 6 per week, with a mean of 3.5 for 3rd grade and 3.9 for 6th grade (Table C). Most of those contact hours are not devoted to Hebrew. On average, 6th graders spend 39% of their school time on Hebrew learning, with a mean of 1.7 hours. The vast majority of school directors (91%) report that their 6th graders have less than three hours of Hebrew learning each week. The number of Hebrew learning hours correlates strongly with the number of contact hours.

Table c

Topics

“Hebrew learning” means different things to different people, so we asked a series of questions to determine the relative amount of time students spend on various subjects, Hebrew-related and otherwise (Figure 1). On average, school directors reported that their schools spend more than a moderate amount of time on Hebrew prayer recitation and Hebrew decoding, slightly less than was spent on Jewish holidays and life cycle rituals and on values and ethics. Hebrew conversation and Jewish diaspora communities (outside the US) ranked lowest in terms of instructional time. In other words, students spend a good deal of time on ritual participation skills involving Textual Hebrew but very little time on Modern Hebrew conversation skills. Not surprisingly, schools with more contact hours and more Hebrew hours tend to report spending more time on all of the different Hebrew skills. Not surprisingly, schools with more contact hours and more Hebrew hours tend to report spending more time on all of the different Hebrew skills.

Figure 1

 

Learning configurations

We asked school directors how much of their schools’ Hebrew learning takes place in various configurations, such as whole class and small group learning. We found that whole class is the most common (80% of schools do this a great or moderate amount), followed by small group (76%), then whole grade (56%). One-on-one in person (25%) and whole school learning are rare (16%), and one-on-one distance tutoring is quite rare (6%), although it seemed to be a growing trend even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Half of schools report assigning a small amount of self-directed learning at home (in other words, homework). Having more small-group learning and assigning a small amount of homework correlate with better alignment between important goals and perceived success, as we explain below.

Approaches to Hebrew education

In response to questions about various approaches to Hebrew education (Figure 2), school directors highlighted their greater focus on ethnolinguistic infusion than on productive communicative skills. Almost all schools report using at least some Jewish life vocabulary (which we defined on the survey as “Hebrew words used in English sentences, like siddur, tefillah”), communal prayer services during school hours, Hebrew songs, and games/fun activities involving Hebrew.41

 

Figure 2

These activities, along with the use of Hebrew signs/labels for locations and items (73% of schools), represent Hebrew infusion. Schools recognize that proficiency is unlikely in the limited hours they have, but they expose students to routinized elements of Hebrew in fun, communal ways. The practices that are more oriented toward proficiency are less common but are still found at some part-time Jewish schools (in contrast to most overnight summer camps, where they are rare42). About half of schools report using at least some elective-based Hebrew exposure and “Hebrew immersion (activities and conversations conducted in Hebrew),” but very few report doing so more than a small amount. As we found in our observations, such immersive activities might include teachers taking roll in Hebrew, playing a game in which each student must say an elementary Hebrew sentence, or Hebrew Through Movement (HTM). In fact, in the school directors’ survey, using Hebrew immersion correlated strongly with using HTM, suggesting that school directors were thinking of HTM when they reported that their school uses Hebrew immersion.

Hebrew Through Movement

Hebrew Through Movement has become popular: 62% of schools report using this method at least to some extent.43 HTM is a strategy for teaching mostly receptive (listening) Hebrew skills. Students hear and respond to Hebrew commands through physical movements involving body parts, objects, colors, and, in some cases, words that are part of Jewish prayers and rituals. The approach is explained on the HTM website:

The curriculum for Hebrew Through Movement starts with a foundation in modern Hebrew, but in part-time educational settings has as its goal making the prayers in our siddur, as well as synagogue and Jewish vocabulary, more easily accessible to those with limited learning time . . . As with other TPR [Total Physical Response] curricula, it introduces Hebrew in a playful and meaningful way, creating a positive first link between children and Hebrew. Hebrew Through Movement is supported by the latest brain research on learning, providing an aural foundation for Hebrew that opens the door to more facile Hebrew decoding and reading

We can see the emphasis on affective goals in this description (“playful and meaningful”; “positive first link between children and Hebrew”). Based on this, we might expect that HTM use would correlate with having higher expectations or outcomes for affective goals. This is not the case. HTM use does correlate, however, with interest in Israel and Modern Hebrew. Schools are more likely to use HTM if their school directors value the Israel rationale for Hebrew education and if they feel parents and students are interested in Hebrew education beyond bar/bat mitzvah. Some leaders may intend HTM primarily to improve outcomes in decoding and recitation, but many schools are using it to accomplish their goals of teaching skills in Modern Hebrew: following basic instructions and having basic conversations. As we describe later in this report, the HTM sessions we observed engaged students more than some other pedagogical techniques.

When skills are introduced

Schools introduce Hebrew reading skills in different grades (Table D). A majority introduce letters by kindergarten and decoding by 3rd grade. The grade in which each of these skills is introduced correlates with grade size. Schools with smaller populations tend to introduce both letters and decoding earlier. Perhaps this is because leaders feel that it is easier to work on decoding among younger students when there are fewer in a grade, or perhaps larger schools are more likely to have school directors who have adopted the #OnwardHebrew approach, one tenet of which is to introduce decoding after a few years of exposure to spoken language.

 

Table D

Attendance

Educational leaders mentioned that low attendance in part-time Jewish schools hinders Hebrew education. We asked school directors to estimate what percentage of 3rd grade and 6th grade students are present on an average day (Figure 3). Attendance in 3rd grade is slightly higher than attendance in 6th grade, which is to be expected given that students become busier in their preteen years. Over a third of schools report that less than 80% of 6th grade students attend on an average day.

 

Figure 3

Attendance correlates with length of directorship; at schools where directors have been there longer, student attendance is higher. And it correlates with contact hours; schools with more contact hours have higher attendance rates. Attendance also correlates with school directors’ perceptions of how satisfied students and, especially, parents are with Hebrew education at the school.
In short, the survey responses regarding structural features demonstrate great diversity among part-time Jewish schools in America. As we explain below, several of these factors correlate with goals and alignment of goals and perceived success.

School directors

Who leads the schools we surveyed? About half of school directors report that they are full-time, paid employees; only 5% are part-time, unpaid. Three-quarters of school directors have been in their position for 10 years or less, indicating high turnover within institutions. However, there is a great deal of collective experience: three-quarters of school directors have been in the field of Jewish education for over 10 years. Length of directorship correlates with alignment of goals and perceived success, as discussed below.

Just over half of school directors report that they have a relevant advanced degree, including a master’s in education or Jewish/religious education, EdD, or PhD. The educational background of the school director was a significant factor in several items on the survey. For example, 92% of school directors with relevant advanced degrees said they communicate goals to at least one stakeholder group multiple times per year, compared to 59% of school directors who do not have any of those degrees. However, there was no significant difference based on degrees in school directors having changed their approach to Hebrew or in their desire to change their approach in the future.

The vast majority of school directors grew up in the United States; only 4% grew up in Israel, with a few from other countries. School directors have a wide range of Hebrew abilities; almost half report that they are personally able to conduct a conversation in Modern Hebrew to a moderate or great extent. In other words, a majority of school directors consider their Hebrew conversation skills minimal.

Hebrew teachers

We asked school directors to rate the importance of various traits they look for when hiring Hebrew teachers. Hebrew-related skills were rated much lower than other traits, such as engaging personality (which 95% reported as very important or important) and classroom management skills (83%). The most important Hebrew-related skill school directors look for in teachers involves Textual Hebrew—specifically, comfort reciting prayers (79%). Other Hebrew-related skills were rated quite low: competency in Modern Hebrew (27%), training/certification in Hebrew (12%), training/certification in language teaching (7%), and Israeli accent (3%). These results align with these schools’ limited focus on conversational skills. Similarly, while most schools require that Hebrew teachers align with the Jewish orientation of the school (76%), very few require training or professional development in Judaism (13%), Hebrew (11%), or language teaching (8%). As expected, schools with the goal of students having an intermediate Modern Hebrew conversation were far more likely to prioritize hiring teachers with competency in Modern Hebrew and teachers with Israeli accents.

Our survey allowed for additional write-in responses to the question about traits school directors look for when hiring Hebrew teachers. Common responses included being easy to work with, enjoying teaching, having a good rapport with students, and having confidence in decoding Hebrew. One school director wrote, “The ability to talk with (not at) students and to listen to them. I like people who have retail sales experience.”

Although some schools can hire based on these traits, many school directors, especially those in areas with sparse Jewish populations, pointed out that they are not able to be picky in whom they select as teachers. Some schools rely solely on volunteers, mostly parents, to teach (sometimes in addition to clergy). One school director highlighted the most important qualifications for teachers: “Having a pulse, being available during school hours.” Another wrote, “We don’t have very many candidates to choose from in this part of the country. Our Hebrew goals are to a large extent determined by our available personnel.” Because of the “slim pickings” (a respondent’s term), some school directors highlighted the necessity of training teachers after they are hired—in Hebrew, classroom management, or other skills. Even school directors with a deeper hiring pool mentioned training. One wrote, “If they have good class management skills, good rapport w/ kids and make school fun, excellent dedication and willingness to do good prep time and creative lesson planning, AND if they are likely to stick around for more than a year—if I can find that magical quadfecta, I am MORE than willing to put in the time to train them in whatever ways they need.”

Of the 30 teachers we surveyed who teach Hebrew at their schools, a large majority report having at least some training or professional development in Hebrew and in teaching language, but few report a great amount of such training. About half report that they are personally capable of conducting a conversation in Modern Hebrew “to a great extent,” which is more than the school directors. About a quarter of teachers responded, “to a small extent” or “not at all,” reflecting the focus of many schools solely on Textual Hebrew decoding and recitation skills.

Despite the common conception that Hebrew teachers at American Jewish schools tend to be Israeli, most schools have few Israeli teachers.44 A majority (62%) report having at least one or two Israeli teachers, but only 23% report having more than two. Most schools (59%) also report having only one or two students with at least one Israeli parent; only three schools in our sample report that half or more of their students have an Israeli parent. And less than one-quarter (21%) of teachers who responded to our survey identify as Israeli or Israeli-American.45 A majority of teachers report that they visited Israel at least once in their childhood.

Why Hebrew?

Based on educational leaders’ complaints about misaligned goals, we asked all constituencies how much they value Hebrew education for bar/bat mitzvah preparation and for other reasons, and we asked school directors and clergy how much they believe each group values Hebrew education for these reasons.46 Most school directors believe that all constituencies value Hebrew education for bar/bat mitzvah preparation to a great extent: parents (85%), clergy (73%), lay leaders (70%), students (62%), and teachers (62%). They think a majority of clergy (55%) value Hebrew education beyond bar/bat mitzvah preparation to a great extent, compared to a smaller percentage of teachers (40%) and lay leaders (21%), and very few parents (4%) and students (3%). Most school directors think parents and students have at least a small amount of interest in Hebrew education beyond bar/bat mitzvah.
Phase 2 surveys found that parents and students indeed value Hebrew for bar/bat mitzvah more than for other reasons (Figure 4), but they tend to value Hebrew for other reasons (besides bar/bat mitzvah) more than school directors expect (Figure 5). In fact, a majority of all groups said they value Hebrew for reasons other than bar/bat mitzvah to a moderate or great extent. We see a similar pattern in clergy’s expectations of constituencies’ valuing Hebrew for reasons other than bar/bat mitzvah (Figure 5). School directors accurately predicted teachers’ responses, but school directors and especially clergy underestimated how much parents and students value Hebrew for reasons other than bar/bat mitzvah.

Figure 4
Figure 5

 

We explored this issue in more depth by asking about five rationales for Hebrew education. School directors oriented most toward Hebrew as a language of the Jewish religion (90% considered this a rationale to a moderate or great extent), bar/bat mitzvah preparation (89%), and Jewish peoplehood (82%). “Hebrew is a language of the State of Israel” was also a rationale for most school directors, but to a lesser extent (64%). “Hebrew is a language of American Jewish life/culture” was the least important rationale for school directors (43%). The more religious rationales are the top two priorities, while the more secular rationales are the last three priorities. This finding aligns with the setting for most of these educational institutions: religious schools connected to synagogues. Compared to synagogue-based schools, school directors at independent schools (only 17 of the 519 schools) tended to rate the bar/bat mitzvah rationale significantly lower and the Israel rationale slightly (but not significantly) higher. They gave the highest average rating to the “Jewish people” rationale.

We asked the same questions about rationale for Hebrew education on the phase 2 surveys (Figure 6). On average, all groups rated bar/bat mitzvah, religion, and the Jewish people as rationales to a moderate or great extent. School directors and teachers rated the Israel rationale about the same as these rationales, but the other groups rated it a bit lower. The American Jewish culture rationale was rated lowest, especially among school directors and clergy. In this American context, Hebrew, it seems, is associated more with Israel than with America. Parents and students rated the bar/bat mitzvah rationale higher than other rationales, in line with the concerns expressed by educational leaders.

Figure 6

We also asked school directors about their perceptions of other constituencies’ rationales. School directors believed parents are most concerned about bar/bat mitzvah preparation and less interested in the other rationales. This is accurate, but school directors significantly underestimated parents’ ratings of religion, Jewish people, and American life (Figure 7).

Figure 7

Parents’ estimates of school directors’ rationales were closer but still different from their actual rationales. Parents overestimated school directors’ ratings of bar/bat mitzvah and American Jewish life/culture and underestimated the Israel rationale (Figure 8). These results suggest that there is room for increased communication regarding rationales for Hebrew education.

Figure 8

On the student and parent surveys, we asked an open-ended question about rationales before asking them to rate particular rationales. The student survey said, “People have different reasons for learning Hebrew. Why are you interested in learning Hebrew?” while the parent survey asked, “Why do you want your child to learn Hebrew?” Students’ responses confirmed the centrality of bar/bat mitzvah. A large percentage mentioned this life cycle event, and some alluded to family: e.g., “So I can do my bar mitzvah and make my grandparents proud” and “All of my cousins are having their bar and bat mitzvahs. So I want to have mine to[o].” A few explicitly reported no interest in other rationales: e.g., “I am not very interested in Hebrew outside of bar mitzvah preparation.” A few students mentioned that they are not interested in Hebrew or only attend because their parents force them.

However, many students did report an interest in broader Jewish religious and cultural orientations. Several described Hebrew as the language of their ancestors, their people, their culture, or their heritage, generally using the first-person possessive pronoun “my.” For example, one student wrote, “Because being Jewish is in my blood and I would like to know all I can about being Jewish,” and another wrote, “I am interested because it is very important to me to learn my culture and be able to pass on the same traditions to my family.” Israel was also a common motif in response to this question; several wrote that they want to have Hebrew conversations with Israeli friends and relatives or during trips to Israel. While most students mentioned Jewish-specific rationales involving bar/bat mitzvah, religion, culture, and/or Israel, a few offered generic language-learning answers, as in these comments: “Because I think it is cool and it will help to speak another language” and “It is a very pretty language and it’s challenging to learn a language with different letters.”

Parents’ write-in responses demonstrated a similar diversity. A large percentage mentioned bar/bat mitzvah, and some explicitly described that as their sole reason for pursuing Jewish education. One wrote, “Learning a language is always a good skill and good academic exercise however I don’t think Hebrew is that relevant except for a bnei mitzvah.” Another stated bluntly, “Bar mitzvah done, we are done with the school.” Other parents, however, mentioned lifelong engagement in Jewish religious life, including holidays, prayers, and Torah reading. One wrote, “For her bat mitzvah and for participation in Jewish/synagogue life as she grows older. It helps bolster her Jewish identity.” Another specified particular Jewish religious rituals: “Connection with Judaism, ability to participate in prayer, ability to lead shabbat at home, ability to say kaddish when needed in the future.”

Some parents implied that decoding and recitation are sufficient, but a few want their children to learn the meanings of the words they are singing or chanting.

Be able to understand some basic Hebrew words. Every kid should know what ‘David Melech Yisrael’ means, but I would venture to guess that less than 5% know. They should also know, for example, how to translate each word of the Shema. I think knowing the words (not just being able to read them) gives a kid a sense of ownership and accomplishment.


Beyond bar/bat mitzvah, many parents mentioned other aspects of Jewishness when discussing rationales for Hebrew education, using words like “Jewish identity,” “culture,” “history,” “tradition,” and “heritage.” Many of these responses emphasized connection, as in “to be connected to our culture and traditions.” Some mentioned familial ties, such as “ancestors,” “roots,” or “passing down from generation to generation.” Others linked Hebrew to a broader “Jewish community,” “Jewish people,” or “Jewish experience,” often using first-person plural possessive pronouns, like “have a connection to our people’s language.”

A smaller group of parents mentioned Israel. Those who did focused on traveling to Israel or connecting with Israeli relatives. One wrote, “Conversational = travel options, communication options, business options, aliyah options, etc.” An Israeli parent wrote, “Ani Sabra! [I am an Israeli-born Jew] (Would like them to be able to communicate with family in Israel).” Another small group of parents mentioned foreign language learning more generally. One mentioned the “mental plasticity” that results from language learning. Another wrote, “Learning a second language—any—is imperative to my child enjoying a life that is full. I think knowing Hebrew makes attending religious services more engaging so that is why I am happy for them to have the knowledge. Other than that, I am indifferent to it.” Comments like this indicate that some parents do not share the sense of personal connection to Hebrew that was so common among respondents.

Several parents expressed multiple rationales. One wrote, “It is central to Jewish identity and a link to our sacred texts. And all exposure to a second language is great.” Another added, “I want her to access connection with people in Israel to navigate her own future experiences, I want her to feel comfortable with a Siddur in any synagogue in the world, I want her to feel confident in her knowledge of a second language and her relationship with her people.” Notably, parents who expressed rationales beyond bar/bat mitzvah and ritual participation tended to be less satisfied with the school’s Hebrew education.

On school directors’ surveys, we left an “Other” write-in box on the question that listed rationales. In this space, some of their responses reiterated rationales we listed. Some mentioned prayer and Jewish peoplehood, e.g., “It is the language of our Prayer and when they travel—no matter what country they see, the Hebrew should be familiar to them—it is what connects us to our global Jewish community.” A few mentioned changes at their school: “We are moving away from Bar/bat mitzvah focus and moving toward Hebrew as a language of Jews and a gift to us. The culture adjustment is slow.”

As this section has highlighted, there are a range of possible rationales for Hebrew learning for students, parents, and educators. Therefore, it is important for all stakeholders to engage in ongoing discussion of rationales and calibration of goals and practices. The diversity suggests that multiple tracks—some focused only on bar/bat mitzvah preparation, others focused (also) on Modern Hebrew conversation—might be warranted in some contexts.

Goals



The surveys included a series of questions about 24 Hebrew-related goals in recitation, decoding, comprehension, conversation, writing, and affective dispositions. School directors, teachers, and clergy were asked to what extent each is a goal for students by the time they graduate (graduates should be able to do it) and to what extent students are achieving that goal (graduates are generally able to do it). Parents were only asked to what extent each is a goal, and students were only asked to what extent they are able to do each skill.
School directors’ responses indicate that most want their students to learn enough Hebrew skills to participate in Jewish religious and communal life, and they want them to feel part of a metalinguistic community that values and feels personally connected to Hebrew. The goals that school directors tended to consider most important involve affective orientations (associating Hebrew with Jewishness, feeling a sense of accomplishment regarding their Hebrew knowledge, feeling personally connected to Hebrew, and associating Hebrew with fun) and decoding and recitation (recognizing Hebrew letters, decoding Hebrew words, and reciting Hebrew prayers while reading Hebrew letters). Also highly valued were understanding Jewish life vocabulary, understanding themes of key prayers, and singing Hebrew songs.

 

School directors rated as moderately important reciting Hebrew prayers by ear/heart, reciting or chanting Torah in Hebrew, having a desire to pursue further Hebrew education, writing Hebrew block letters, and using Jewish life vocabulary. Somewhat important were understanding basic Hebrew instructions (e.g., la’amod bator [stand in line], lashevet b’sheket [sit quietly]), reciting Hebrew prayers while reading transliteration (Hebrew words written in the English alphabet), and understanding key Torah passages in Hebrew.

Few directors reported interest in the goals of students having a basic Modern Hebrew conversation (e.g., greetings, directions, ordering food) or decoding or writing Hebrew words using cursive letters. The least important goals were having an intermediate Modern Hebrew conversation, comprehending Modern Hebrew prose, and producing Modern Hebrew prose. Only 14% of school directors consider “having an intermediate conversation in Modern Hebrew” to be a goal at all. (Figure 10 below lists all goals, as well as evaluations.)

How did other constituencies rate these goals in the phase 2 surveys? Parents, teachers, and clergy agreed with school directors that affective goals, recitation, and decoding are more important than conversation and writing. However, these groups rated most goals higher than school directors did (Figure 9), meaning they are more interested in students acquiring each skill. In some cases, parents differed widely from other groups. For example, 56% of parents reported that understanding a story in Modern Hebrew is a goal to a moderate or great extent, compared to 39% of teachers, 13% of school directors, and 7% of clergy.47 This difference likely reflects school directors’ (and clergy’s) more realistic orientation, grounded in years of experience. The largest discrepancy between school directors and other groups was in writing goals, as few school directors considered this important. School directors were in line with or slightly higher than other groups regarding affective goals, which were the most important goals for all groups. Clergy rated recitation goals higher than other groups and reading Hebrew in transliteration lower than other groups. Teachers rated conversation and writing goals higher than other groups.

We asked students about goals in an open-ended question: “What are your goals regarding Hebrew? What would you like to be able to do by the time you are done with 6th grade?” The most common responses mentioned bar/bat mitzvah, reading, and prayers, but many students also discussed comprehension or conversation. One student’s response implied frustration regarding the focus on decoding: “I would like to be able to understand what the words I’m reading actually mean.” Several students mentioned a desire to have Hebrew conversations, including with friends and relatives in Israel. A few expressed ambitious goals, like “speak fluent Hebrew” or “read a book in Hebrew,” but most were modest, such as learning specific prayers and learning “useful phrases, such as ‘where is’ or ‘can I please.’”

One student expressed negative feelings toward Hebrew when reporting their goal: “Leave it behind me.” Here again, we can see a wide range of goals for students, highlighting the importance of differentiation in curriculum design.

Figure 9

Perceived success in goals

Many would like to know to what extent part-time schools are meeting these goals. Our research did not involve assessment of students, but we did collect data on perceived success: to what extent various constituencies feel their programs are meeting these goals. School directors gave the highest success ratings to goals regarding decoding, associating Hebrew with Jewishness, and understanding Jewish life vocabulary. In general, however, school directors felt that students were meeting most goals less than they would like. The goals with the largest discrepancy (i.e., the largest difference between school directors’ rating of importance and their reports of student success) were also goals that were quite important to school directors. These include four affective goals (that students should have a desire to pursue further Hebrew education, feel personally connected to Hebrew, associate Hebrew with fun, and feel a sense of accomplishment regarding their Hebrew knowledge) and two goals related to ritual participation (understanding themes of key prayers and reciting Hebrew prayers while reading Hebrew letters). For one goal, school directors reported that students are succeeding more than they would like: reciting Hebrew prayers while reading transliteration. In other words, students use transliteration while reciting Hebrew prayers even though educators want them to use Hebrew letters.

Figure 10

In the phase 2 surveys, we asked students—with age-appropriate wording—to what extent they were able to do each skill.48 Students felt they were succeeding most at recognizing names and sounds of Hebrew letters, reciting Hebrew prayers while reading transliteration (which we defined for them as “English letters”), decoding Hebrew words (defined as “sound out letters and vowel sounds to form words”), singing Hebrew songs, associating Hebrew with Jewishness, and writing Hebrew block letters (all of which averaged at least “more than a little bit”). In addition, students evaluated themselves highly for the affective goals, contrary to the common trope that students hate “Hebrew school.” A majority gave the two highest ratings—”more than a little bit” or “a lot”—on these questions: “Do you feel a sense of accomplishment about your Hebrew knowledge?” (69%); “Do you have positive feelings about Hebrew?” (63%); and “Do you think Hebrew is fun?” (53%). Significantly, a majority also responded with “maybe” or “definitely” (rather than “maybe not” or “definitely not”) to the question about their desire to pursue further Hebrew education: “Do you hope to learn more Hebrew in high school, college, or beyond?” (63%).

Student self-evaluations were generally in the ballpark of school directors’ evaluations of students, but students more often rated themselves higher than school directors did. In particular, students felt they were much better than directors assessed them to be at understanding a story in Modern Hebrew (unlikely in most schools), understanding key Torah passages in Hebrew, writing Hebrew (block) letters, and having a desire to pursue further Hebrew education. It is possible that students’ higher scores in some of these areas reflect a social desirability effect: because the questions were on the survey, students may have assumed they were supposed to be learning how to understand key Torah passages in Hebrew and write Hebrew block letters, even at schools that do not teach those skills. Some of the discrepancies could be due to the different wordings of the questions and scales.

Directors’ evaluations of students were higher than students’ self-evaluations for reciting or chanting Torah in Hebrew, reciting Hebrew prayers while reading Hebrew letters, understanding Jewish life vocabulary, and associating Hebrew with Jewishness. Such discrepancies call for schools to be more explicit about their goals (and about what the school does not teach), conduct periodic assessments, and share the results with students and their families.

The survey also asked students additional questions about language acquisition. When asked, “Did you learn new Hebrew words this year?” the vast majority responded affirmatively—“a lot of words” (30%), “some words” (31%), or “a few words” (28%), while only 11% responded, “no new words.” We also asked students two write-in questions about specific areas of language: “What, if anything, have you learned about Hebrew pronunciation at [school name] (for example, how the sounds differ in Hebrew and English)?” and “What, if anything, have you learned about Hebrew grammar at [school name] (for example, roots, prefixes, suffixes, order of adjectives and nouns)?” In response to these questions, a few students’ reported learning little or nothing, but most mentioned specific linguistic facts. Regarding pronunciation, several students mentioned differences between Hebrew and English, such as the “ch” sound in Hebrew, the “w” sound in English, the two languages’ different pronunciations of “r,” and the greater number of vowel sounds in English. Others offered facts about Hebrew vowels, silent letters, or letter pairs that sound the same, like kaf and kuf. Some mentioned idiosyncrasies of Hebrew, such as, “If there is a chet at the end of a Hebrew word with a vowel under it, you pronounce the vowel first and then the chet.”

Regarding grammar, more students indicated learning little or nothing, pointing to the greater focus on decoding than comprehension or production of Hebrew. In fact, one student replied, “I think that this year has been more about being a good Jewish person more than learning the language.” However, several students did mention specific facts about grammatical features prompted by our question, such as roots (“Roots are the base of most to all words and they will always be in order in a word”), prefixes, suffixes, and the placement of adjectives after nouns. In addition, some students mentioned grammatical gender (using child-appropriate descriptions like “I learned a little bit more about what is his and what is her” and “that girls and boys have their own prefixes and suffixes”). One student wrote, “I’ve learned the grammar by learning the prayers.” This integration of linguistic and content knowledge seems to be effective for the learners, and research on content-based language instruction confirms this.49 Schools may not have sufficient time for explicit instruction on Hebrew grammar, but students do acquire some grammatical knowledge from hearing and using Hebrew recitation in the experiential contexts of prayer and ritual and Hebrew loanwords (Jewish life vocabulary) in the course of many interactions.

Rather than ask parents to what extent their children are succeeding in all 24 goals, we asked an overarching evaluation question: “To what extent do you feel the school is succeeding in Hebrew education, according to the goals you identified as important?” Most responded positively: 29% said “to a great extent” and 51% “to a moderate extent.” In write-in comments, several parents emphasized their desire for their children to acquire more skills in Hebrew conversation and/or writing; a few requested more instruction by Israelis or exposure to contemporary Israeli music. One wrote, “Our school is a religious school and not a Hebrew school. It’s unfortunate.” Several parents recognized that such skills are impossible in the short time the teachers have with the students. To address this, a few parents suggested a weekly online component that students would complete at home. Some parents expressed desire for more differentiation, both for students who are struggling and for advanced students, including one-on-one tutoring and small groups. One wrote, “Hebrew tutoring [is] by far [the] best component of [this school]. 1 to 1 is fantastic for learning.” These findings once again highlight diversity in goals and point to the importance of school leaders communicating with parents and other constituencies about goals and potentially offering multiple tracks.

Assessment


How common is Hebrew language assessment, and what forms does it take? Most schools reported that they assess student progress through observation and conversation with teachers. Most assess students’ decoding abilities orally, and about half use some kind of written assessment of Hebrew skills. Some schools are more likely to use tests: in particular, larger schools, schools with full-time directors, and schools whose directors have a relevant advanced degree (master’s in education or Jewish/religious education, EdD, or PhD).

 

Envisioning and communicating goals

Based on educational leaders’ concerns about discrepancies in goals, our surveys asked to what extent various constituencies are involved in envisioning Hebrew-related goals and methods for their schools. Most school directors reported that clergy (85%) and teachers (81%) are involved to a moderate or great extent, as are about half of lay leaders (56%), but fewer directors reported that parents (38%) and students (24%) are involved in this way.

In the phase 2 surveys, we asked parents, teachers, and clergy about their perceptions of their involvement in this envisioning process.50 Parents’ reports of their involvement were on par with school directors’ perceptions of parent involvement, but teachers and, especially, clergy reported less involvement than their school directors perceived. On average, clergy believe they are involved to a small extent, but school directors believe clergy are involved to a moderate or great extent. This may reflect school directors feeling pressure from clergy to teach Hebrew a certain way even if clergy members do not participate in dedicated meetings regarding the school’s Hebrew-related goals and methods.

We see a similar discrepancy in communication of goals. The school director survey asked, “How often have you communicated your school’s Hebrew-related goals to each of the following constituencies? Parents, Students, Teachers, Clergy, Lay leaders.” We did not survey lay leaders, nor did we ask this question of clergy. But we did ask teachers, parents, and students questions about this.51 School directors believe they are communicating goals to each group more frequently than each constituency reports (Figure 11).

Figure 11

There are many ways to communicate goals, as well as student progress. At a school with an online tutoring component, one parent pointed out that these sessions help them understand what the child is accomplishing: “The Skype program is incredible. But without it, you really don’t know how well your child is doing in Hebrew. I don’t get any reports and indications from the school about personal progress.” Comments like these highlight the importance of ongoing communication among all stakeholders in the educational context to ensure that everyone is on the same page as much as possible.

Denominational differences


When we compared schools by denomination, we found several differences in structural features and goals. First, we present results from Conservative and Reform schools because they had enough respondents to enable statistical analysis. Then we present some striking differences regarding other denominations, which may be skewed by the small number of each in our sample (the N figure given in parentheses is the number of respondents in each denomination who answered enough questions to be included in this analysis).
Directors at Reform schools (N=255) were slightly more likely than directors at Conservative schools (N=130) to value Hebrew education for bar/bat mitzvah, and Conservative school leaders were more likely to report that parents, teachers, clergy, and lay leaders value Hebrew beyond bar/bat mitzvah. School directors’ reported goals reflect these slightly different orientations. In particular, Conservative schools were more likely than Reform schools to report having goals for Hebrew skills beyond the decoding and recitation necessary to perform at a bar/bat mitzvah; these goals include understanding key Torah passages in Hebrew, understanding basic Hebrew instructions, understanding and using Jewish life vocabulary, having a basic and an intermediate Hebrew conversation, decoding cursive Hebrew letters, and writing block and cursive Hebrew letters.

Based on these different goals, we found differences regarding personnel and teaching approaches. Directors of Conservative schools tended to report personally having stronger Hebrew conversation skills than directors of Reform schools and having more teachers who are Israeli. We also found differences in certain classroom activities: Conservative schools were more likely to spend class time on Hebrew conversation and have some “immersion (activities and conversations conducted in Hebrew)” than Reform schools. Conservative schools tended to introduce decoding earlier: 85% reported introducing decoding by 2nd grade, compared to 29% of Reform schools. Reform schools were slightly more likely to report that parents and students are satisfied with Hebrew education for bar/bat mitzvah.

We also found differences that are not necessarily related to the orientation toward bar/bat mitzvah. Reform schools tended to have larger classes (average 6th grade size 23.8 students vs. Conservative 13.5) and slightly fewer contact hours (3.7 vs. 4.6 in 6th grade). While schools of all denominations were more likely to separate Hebrew and Judaics than integrate them, Reform schools tended to separate them even more than Conservative schools. Reform schools were slightly more likely to give a small amount of homework.

 

In goals, Reconstructionist schools (N=20) generally patterned between Conservative and Reform schools but closer to Reform schools. However, in rationales for Hebrew education, they rated Israel lower than other denominations did (Reconstructionist mean of 1.45 vs. Reform 1.75 and Conservative 1.79). Reconstructionist schools were less likely than Conservative and Reform schools to report having services during school hours.

Secular/Humanist schools (N=8) differed from other denominations in rationales for Hebrew education: they were most concerned with peoplehood and least concerned with religion. They were barely interested in most of the Hebrew-related goals, except a few that they rated as goals to a small-moderate extent: singing Hebrew songs, decoding, and the affective goals. They reported higher levels of parent and student satisfaction than did other denominations.

Israeli schools (N=2) were quite interested in both the religious participation goals and the Hebrew conversation and writing goals, and they reported less interest in the bar/bat mitzvah preparation rationale for Hebrew education. They reported giving more homework, doing more Hebrew Through Movement, and having more Israeli teachers.

Compared to other denominations, Chabad schools (N=7) were less concerned with the bar/bat mitzvah preparation rationale for Hebrew education and more concerned with the religion rationale. Chabad schools patterned between Conservative and Reform schools on several goals, except they were less interested than Conservative and Reform schools in some affective goals, singing songs, and reciting/chanting Torah in Hebrew. However, Chabad schools were much more likely than other schools to report reciting Hebrew prayers by ear/heart and reciting Hebrew prayers with transliteration as goals: six of the seven Chabad schools reported transliteration as a goal to a moderate or great extent, reflecting the movement’s desire to make Judaism accessible to a broad population.

We found a particularly striking denominational difference regarding Hebrew cursive. A majority of schools that identify as Conservative, Israeli, no denomination, and pluralistic (and the one Orthodox school) considered cursive decoding a goal at least to a small extent, but a majority of Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular/Humanist, and Chabad schools reported that cursive decoding is not at all a goal. In addition, schools that ranked “Hebrew is a language of the State of Israel” higher as a rationale were more likely to report cursive decoding and writing as goals. Behrman House, a publisher of curricular materials popular among part-time Jewish schools, reported a decrease in demand for cursive materials over the past few decades.52 This could be due to a decrease in the Conservative movement’s size, and/or it could represent a historical shift away from a focus on cursive, as it is not necessary for bar/bat mitzvah preparation.

Differences by Jewish density


In addition to denominational diversity, we also found a few differences according to the density of the Jewish population in the state where the school is located. Schools in Jewishly dense states tended to have larger class size, higher attendance rates, and a longer length of directorship (the current school director has been in their job on average 7.5 years in Jewishly dense states, compared to 5.7 years in Jewishly sparse states). Schools in Jewishly dense states were more likely to give a small amount of homework, to have some Hebrew teachers who are Israeli (66% vs. 42%), and to feel that teachers value Hebrew beyond bar/bat mitzvah. Most of the goals did not reflect these differences, except that schools in Jewishly dense states were more likely to have a goal of students understanding basic Hebrew instructions, and schools in Jewishly sparse states were more likely to have a goal of reciting Hebrew prayers with transliteration (as were schools without full-time directors). The emphasis on transliteration is necessary in some schools in Jewishly sparse areas with few available teachers with Hebrew knowledge, as a leader at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life explained. For example, at one school, the Hebrew teacher is a Baptist father of one of the students, and at another the only teacher is a Catholic neighbor. Neither can read Hebrew, so they make ample use of the curricular materials provided by the Institute, which are written in transliteration, Hebrew, and translation. The diversity according to denomination and location reminds us that there is no one best approach to Hebrew education in part-time Jewish schools. Schools’ rationales, goals, and practices differ based on many factors, including ideologies and orientations of the leaders and constituents and their broader movements, as well as resources available locally.

Satisfaction



One might be surprised at the surveys’ findings regarding satisfaction, given the pervasive discourse of parents disliking “Hebrew school” and expecting their children to dislike it too. All groups are, on average, quite satisfied with their school and its Hebrew education (Figure 12).53 The vast majority of students—87%—report either liking or loving the school (20% love it, 67% like it, 9% do not like it, and 4% hate it). Parents are more satisfied than children (61% of parents are very satisfied, 33% moderately satisfied, 6% a little bit satisfied, 0.6% [1 parent] not at all satisfied). For each group, satisfaction with the school’s Hebrew education is lower than their satisfaction with the school overall, but still high: a majority in each group are somewhat or very satisfied with Hebrew education at the school.

Parents, teachers, and clergy all feel that Hebrew should be more central at the school than they currently perceive it to be. (We did not ask this question of students or school directors.) This is an important finding, given many educators’ assumption that parents are generally not interested in Hebrew. Teachers feel Hebrew should be slightly more central than parents and clergy do. This is not surprising, given that the teachers who completed the survey are those who teach Hebrew (among other subjects).

 

Figure 12

In write-in responses at the end of the survey (“Is there anything else you want to tell us about learning Hebrew at [this school]?”), students generally offered positive comments about Hebrew. An especially grateful student wrote, “Learning Hebrew is very fun and I love it very much. Thank you very much for helping me reach my goal of Hebrew Ninja and beyond” (this school uses a level system with “Ninja” as the pinnacle). However, some students expressed negative feelings, as in this example:

It is very hard and boring . . . I plan to never use Hebrew again after my bar mitzvah, I doubt that it will but I might change my mind . . . For anyone planning to become Jewish for personal reasons I do not recommend it unless you are willing to spend your time learning things you will never use in your life again (unless you become a Jewish leader). I guess Hebrew is not useless for people living in Israel, but it is almost pointless if you live anywhere else.


A few students criticized how their school teaches Hebrew, as in this comment: “I wish that you could learn the prayers in a fun way. Just reading them is a bit boring and hard to learn.” Some gave specific suggestions for improvement; for example, “I would enjoy learning Hebrew more if I could learn it from games.” Others expressed a desire to learn more Hebrew: “I feel like [school name] is really fun, but I also feel like I am not learning Hebrew as much as I could be.” As these responses demonstrate, students have a range of affective and linguistic goals along with their own metrics for success. Consistently asking about their perspectives in relation to their learning is an effective way for their teachers and school directors to get a clear sense of what pedagogical approaches are most appropriate at the individual, class, and school levels.

Correlations with perceived success

When we have discussed this research with Jewish educators (including some who participated in this study and some who did not), many have asked us what works—what practices lead to better outcomes in Hebrew education. Of course, the answer to this question depends on what the goals are. For a school whose goals relate only to Textual Hebrew decoding and recitation, the measures of success will be quite different from a school that also has goals for Modern Hebrew conversation and writing. Our study was not designed to measure actual outcomes; we did not test students or conduct quantitative analysis on students’ Hebrew use in the classrooms where we observed. And because we conducted constituent surveys only at eight schools, we cannot offer statistical analysis comparing constituent perceptions at schools of different types (size, denomination, etc.). However, we can provide data on school directors’ perceived success, using two measures:

  1.  Evaluation scale: School directors’ evaluations of the extent to which students are achieving all goals (or particular goals).54
  2.  Alignment scale: Extent to which school directors’ perceptions of student success in all goals (or particular goals) align with school directors’ ratings of goals’ importance. 55

It is important to note that a school director’s positive evaluation does not imply students’ actual success. In fact, some highly trained school directors might be more critical of their students’ success than novice school directors, perhaps indicating a more realistic perception. Even so, these measures offer a useful means for comparing various teaching approaches.

The factors that correlate most strongly with the evaluation scale are, in order starting with the strongest correlation, having more hours devoted to Hebrew learning, introducing decoding earlier, doing more work in small groups, giving a small amount of homework, and having more contact hours. This means that directors of schools that do these things are more likely to feel their students have acquired Hebrew-related skills and affective orientations than are directors of other schools. However, this does not mean that these schools are more successful. In general, the high ratings reflect these schools’ more ambitious Hebrew-related goals.

The alignment scale is a more equitable way than the evaluation scale to compare schools and determine factors contributing to success because it offers data on school directors’ perceptions of their students’ success in goals that are important at their school. Scores on the alignment scale correlate, in order, with small group work, length of directorship, contact hours (negatively), and homework.56 In other words, schools that do more work in small groups, have a longer-serving director, have fewer contact hours, and have a small amount of homework are more likely to report they are successful in goals that are important to them. In addition, introducing decoding later correlates with alignment in particular goals.

This section offers more detailed analysis of these factors using these measures, both overall and regarding specific goals.

Hours

School directors’ evaluations of student achievement for various Hebrew-related goals correlate with contact hours and Hebrew learning hours (the questions specified hours in 6th grade). At schools with more contact hours, school directors were more likely to report success in a few goals, such as decoding Hebrew words using block letters, understanding basic Hebrew instructions, and having a desire to pursue further Hebrew education. But the number of hours devoted to Hebrew learning correlates more strongly with those and with many additional goals, such as decoding and writing cursive Hebrew letters and having a basic and intermediate Hebrew conversation.

It is not surprising that schools with more Hebrew hours reported more success in goals that are important only in a minority of schools. But there are also strong correlations between Hebrew hours and perceived success in more common goals, such as reciting Hebrew prayers while reading Hebrew letters, feeling personally connected to Hebrew, and feeling a sense of accomplishment regarding their Hebrew knowledge. Clearly, directors of schools that devote more hours to Hebrew learning feel they are better able to impart skills and positive affective orientations.

When we analyze contact hours in relation to the alignment scale, we see the opposite trend. Schools with more contact hours have less alignment between goals and perceived success than schools with fewer contact hours. This is because schools with fewer contact hours have more modest goals, knowing that they are unlikely to accomplish goals regarding conversation and writing in only a few hours each week. In other words, schools with fewer contact hours tend to prepare students for bar/bat mitzvah but not offer instruction in most other Hebrew skills. Schools with more contact hours may attempt additional Hebrew-related goals but may not feel they are achieving them as thoroughly.

Length of directorship

The length of time the director has been at the school does not correlate with the evaluation scale, but it does correlate with the alignment scale. The longer the director has been in their current position, the more likely they are to feel their school is succeeding in goals that are important to their school. Similarly, the longer they have been in their current position, the more likely they are to feel that parents and students are satisfied (Figure 13).

These results likely stem from the changes directors make and the relationships they build. They could also reflect higher turnover in executive leadership at schools with less engaged families or less competent teachers.

 

Figure 13

When decoding is introduced

We found negative correlations between the grade in which decoding is introduced and evaluation of many Hebrew skills. This means that the later decoding is introduced, the lower the rating of success given by school directors. This is the case for skills that are rarely identified as goals, such as decoding and writing Hebrew in cursive letters and having a basic Modern Hebrew conversation. But it is also the case for skills that are commonly identified as goals, such as understanding and using Jewish life vocabulary, understanding key Torah passages in Hebrew, and writing Hebrew in block letters, as well as commonly held affective goals, such as feeling personally connected to Hebrew and having a desire to pursue further Hebrew education.
However, many of these correlations can be explained by the fact that schools that introduce decoding earlier tend to have more ambitious goals. When we look at alignment, we see correlations in the opposite direction. At schools where decoding is introduced later, school directors tend to report higher alignment between goals and perceived success. These include skills that are goals at many schools, such as reciting Hebrew prayers by heart (not surprising, given that they spend more years doing just that before introducing decoding) and understanding key Torah passages in Hebrew. They also include skills that few schools expect, such as decoding Hebrew words using cursive letters, writing cursive Hebrew letters, having a basic Modern Hebrew conversation, having an intermediate Hebrew conversation, and comprehending Modern Hebrew prose. Figure 14 gives an example of this alignment regarding Modern Hebrew conversational ability.

Figure 14

These findings can be explained by the fact that schools that introduce decoding later have more modest goals—and more realistic goals given the small number of contact hours. The findings suggest that such schools are able to focus more on skills beyond decoding in the many hours they save by not teaching decoding in the early grades. While we found correlations between the grade in which decoding is introduced and specific goals, we did not find correlations with the overall alignment scale, nor did we find correlations with perceptions of parent and student satisfaction. In other words, whether schools introduce decoding earlier or later, parents and students are perceived as no less or more satisfied with the Hebrew education they receive.

 

Small groups

 

Among the several learning configurations we asked about, one stood out as correlating with the alignment scale. The more schools report that their Hebrew learning takes place in small groups, the more aligned their perceived success is with their goals (Figure 15). This likely reflects students’ more frequent opportunities to practice skills in small groups compared to whole-class configurations. Students are better able to learn language-related skills when they have more opportunity to practice them.

Figure 15

 

Homework

 

 

The amount of homework schools assign correlates with evaluations of various goals. The more homework schools give, the more likely school directors are to offer higher evaluations in the goals of reciting Hebrew prayers while reading Hebrew letters, decoding Hebrew words using block letters, singing Hebrew songs, and (a weaker correlation) having a basic Modern Hebrew conversation (Figure 16). We also found positive correlations between homework amount and school directors’ perceived success in affective goals: graduates associating Hebrew with fun and (a weaker correlation) feeling a sense of accomplishment regarding their Hebrew knowledge.

Figure 16

We found no negative correlations between homework amount and perceptions of success in any goal. However, we found a negative correlation between homework amount and school directors’ perceptions of student and parent satisfaction. Perceived satisfaction levels were the same at schools that give no homework or a small amount of homework, but directors at the few schools that give a moderate to great amount of homework tended to report lower levels of perceived student and parent satisfaction (Figure 17).57

Figure 17

These findings suggest that schools that assign a small amount of homework yield greater (perceived) success in Hebrew learning, but that they must balance this success with student and parent satisfaction. If they give too much homework, they may face unhappy families who choose to leave the school. And, as we discuss below, many school leaders report low homework completion rates or family opposition to homework.

Factors helping schools achieve their Hebrew educational goals

In addition to the statistical analysis above, we collected qualitative data on factors in perceived success: we asked school directors, teachers, and clergy what factors are helping their schools achieve their Hebrew-related goals. Common responses reiterated several factors that we heard from educational leaders and that showed up in our quantitative analysis, but they also surfaced new issues. Their responses included clear goals, communication with various constituencies, strong leadership and personnel, dedicated families, bar/bat mitzvah as a motivating factor, high attendance, many hours of Hebrew instruction, small class size and differentiation, optional instruction, and various pedagogical approaches and curricular options, including engaging activities. Several of these factors also came up as hindering factors.

Goals

Many of the school directors’ responses mentioned goals—having clear, measurable goals, assessing whether those goals are being met, and/or regularly re-evaluating and revising the goals. One emphasized the need for “lots and lots of attention to the Hebrew goals, including clear goals and assessments and teacher training.” Some specified that they use pre- and post-unit assessments or multiple assessments throughout the year. Of course, goals must be attainable. Some school directors pointed to their “modest” or “realistic goals.” One director pointed out, “We have reasonable goals for the time allotted—aspiring to fluency with limited hours once a week would be unreasonable.” Having reasonable goals allows schools to have high expectations regarding those goals. In fact, several school directors with various types of Hebrew-related goals considered their high expectations to be a helping factor.

Communication

Another helping factor school directors commonly mentioned was communication—building relationships and buy-in among teachers, students, parents, and clergy. This can involve communicating about goals and student progress. One director reported communicating goals “over and over and over and over again to parents and students and teachers.” Another wrote, “Regular and consistent attention and observation of students; regular and consistent communication between teachers and the director; regular and consistent communication between school and home (teacher and parents or director and parents).” As we discussed above, in the schools where we collected data, constituencies reported some communication from the school director but not as much as the school directors reported.

Leadership

Who determines goals and executes communication? Generally, the school directors. Most school directors did not mention their own leadership, visioning, and implementation as helping factors, but a few clergy members and teachers praised their school directors. One clergy response lauded the school director for “continually engaging in task force work to update the Hebrew program and try new methods to achieve goals.” Leadership can be key to setting out missions, visions, and goals to ensure consistency and satisfaction for all involved in a particular context.

Personnel

Many school directors did mention personnel—administrators, clergy members, and, most commonly, teachers—as central to attaining their schools’ Hebrew-related goals. They highlighted several traits of teachers, especially their experience, their training, their commitment, their ability to engage students and serve as role models, their Hebrew skills, the fact that they are Israeli, or the fact that they “return year after year.” One wrote, “Having an effective teacher who connects with the kids determines effectiveness about 90% I would estimate.” This statement aligns with teachers’ most common responses regarding helping factors: themselves—skilled, motivated, dedicated teachers who prepare well for class. Some school directors pointed to specific teachers or groups of teachers: “A great 2nd grade teacher who sets our students up with a desire to continue to learn after creating a solid foundation.” One director touted his new policy of hiring only teachers who are certified by the state Department of Education. Some school directors pointed to their regular supervision and guidance of teachers and teachers’ continuing professional development as important factors in the school’s success.

School directors also mentioned other personnel, including bar/bat mitzvah tutors, teaching assistants (sometimes known as madrichim—generally teenagers who were previously students), volunteers or lay leaders, and, in one case, shinshinim—young Israelis completing their year of service in an American community. One teacher highlighted the potential of her school’s madrichim: “When the teens are able to support small group interactions, the younger students thrive and the teens reap the benefits of the saying, ‘What one teaches, one also learns.’”

Families

Many school directors also mentioned parents as a helping factor, including their involvement with their children’s learning, their volunteer activities, or their desire for more Hebrew. Some indicated that the success of the school revolves around parents. One wrote, “The greatest factor of achievement is how dedicated the parents are to making sure their child attends and studies.” Directors also praised students, focusing on their commitment, enthusiasm, and desire to learn.

Bar/bat mitzvah

Bar/bat mitzvah came up a few times as a helping factor, as in responses like “time pressure to prepare for the b’nai mitzvah” and “the fact that parents value B’nei Mitzvah, which is the chief reason they enroll them in Hebrew School at all.” In fact, the support organization leader who called bar/bat mitzvah “the third rail of Jewish education” said, “It’s the big obstacle, but it’s also the big opportunity.” The opportunity is that bar/bat mitzvah keeps families coming to the schools and engaged in Hebrew learning.

Attendance and hours of exposure to Hebrew

A factor controlled primarily by students and parents is attendance. A few school directors mentioned high attendance as a helping factor, and some pointed to their attendance requirements. In fact, reported attendance, especially in 6th grade, correlates with school directors’ perception that students and parents are satisfied with Hebrew education. Related to attendance is time. Some mentioned “the massive amount of time that we are devoting to” Hebrew, additional sessions dedicated to Hebrew, or the fact that students practice Hebrew at each session (not limited to once a week) and/or at home.

Another way that schools report increasing students’ exposure to Hebrew is by expecting them to participate in prayer services (full-community or youth), especially in leadership roles. One clergy member reported that students are more successful in their Hebrew learning when they attend services, and it helps them understand that Hebrew has an application and does not exist only in the vacuum of religious school.

Small groups and differentiation

Structural factors came up a few times as helping factors, such as the small size of the school or of classes, small-group work, differentiation, individualized attention, or opportunities for students to work at their own pace, including leveling “based on ability rather than grade.” Some of these structural factors were framed as changes from previous years. One school director wrote that their school now has “smaller class sizes, ideally with 8 or less students per class.” Another shifted “from whole class/ whole grade model to Hebrew Reading Groups based on capabilities.” Many reported offering one-on-one or one-on-two sessions during or outside of school hours. A few pointed to specialists who help students with special needs or different learning styles. As discussed above, three-quarters of schools report a great or moderate amount of learning in small groups, but only one quarter report that amount of one-on-one learning.

Of course, small-group and individualized instruction require more staff resources than whole-class instruction. One school director wrote that it was helpful to have “enough staff and space to break up into smaller groups to give students appropriate attention.” One might assume differentiated learning is only feasible in a small school, as this respondent suggests: “Adjusting the approach to Hebrew based on the interests and strengths of students (which we can do in a small school).” Indeed, responses regarding Hebrew differentiation and small-group learning were most common in small schools. But some medium and large schools also indicated individualized pacing and one-on-one tutoring as helping factors. One large school we observed requires weekly one-on-one sessions where students practice decoding prayers with their tutor, either in person or via Facetime or Skype. Several students and parents mentioned this as a positive aspect of the school. One student in a different school wrote, “I would love to have more one on ones with the teachers.”

Optional instruction

One teacher suggested optional additional sessions as a way to address the time crunch. Indeed, a number of school directors mentioned these additional sessions as a helping factor. One wrote, “A free Enrichment section offering has helped make it possible for each student to maximize success with an extra opportunity each week for exposure to the material.” Another wrote about “adding an hour weekly (opt-in) for Hebrew for grades 4-6.” One school director indicated an additional goal: “Help every student who wants to learn Hebrew at a higher level do so, without expecting that most students would have this personal goal. (A few would be interested in learning script and verb conjugations, but not the majority of students . . . )”

Some parents felt their children were being held back by students with lower Hebrew skills and wished there were more track options. A few parents felt their goals would be better met with more immersive Hebrew instruction, especially from Israelis. One parent wrote, “I wish there would be a fully immersive ulpan for a portion of the class.” Similarly, some students mentioned a desire for more conversational Hebrew. One student wrote, “I would, at some point, like to learn to have a conversation in Hebrew at Hebrew school,” and another added, “If I go to Israel I would like to know enough Hebrew to communicate and have basic conversations.”

Based on the quantitative data, families like these seem to be in a minority. In fact, some school directors reported mixed success convincing families to take advantage of optional elements of the program, not only additional weekly sessions focusing on Hebrew conversation, but also online distance-learning or sessions where parents can learn the skills they need to support their children’s learning. For example, one school added a Hebrew enrichment track but had to cancel it after two years due to lack of interest. Please see below for our recommendations related to complementary learning opportunities.

Approach and curriculum

As another common helping factor, school directors and teachers identified particular approaches to Hebrew education. Several school directors mentioned specific curricula they have found helpful, including original materials or curriculum guides compiled by current or previous directors and publicly available workbooks and apps. These include materials from Behrman House (especially Shalom Ivrit, Hebrew in Harmony [a music-based curriculum], Mitkadem, and their Online Learning Center), from Torah Aura (Siddur Hebrew program and Prayer Tech), from the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (Let’s Learn Hebrew Side-by-Side), and Chabad (Aleph Champ). A few pointed to the particular immersion or ulpan-style programs they use. Some specified changes in approach they had recently made, such as “changing from a tefillah to a modern Hebrew based curriculum.” No matter which type of Hebrew they emphasized and which curriculum they used, repetition and review of previously learned material came up several times as helping schools achieve their Hebrew-related goals.

A number of school directors specified #OnwardHebrew or its components as helping factors. One wrote, “We have just shifted our goals and methods this year; our adoption of HTM and Let’s Learn Hebrew Side-by-Side, Hebrew-rich Tefilah, and JLV [Jewish Life Vocabulary] will help move us toward our revised goals.” Many highlighted Hebrew Through Movement in particular, the kinesthetic approach to Modern Hebrew comprehension used by 62% of the schools in our sample. One said, “Hebrew through Movement has improved students’ comprehension and fostered enthusiasm. It has also made room for more theological discussion.”

Our quantitative analysis revealed a strong correlation between the use and frequency of HTM and school directors’ reports that graduates are succeeding in the goal of understanding basic Hebrew instructions, as well as a weaker but still significant correlation with students’ ability to have a basic Modern Hebrew conversation.

Engaging learning

Several school directors pointed to the importance of class being fun and engaging for students, which relates to the primacy of affective goals. “Fun” and “engaging” are subjective terms, and different students or teachers might evaluate the same activity as more or less fun and engaging. Activities that many consider engaging involve active participation from students and are often framed as games, a common practice in language pedagogy.58 Several school directors mentioned specific engaging activities, such as a weekly quiz bowl on Jewish vocabulary that they call The Hebrew Games, or Animal Reading Days where students read in English and Hebrew to dogs. One school director reported integrating Hebrew instruction with aspects of Jewish tradition, especially food, in “an exciting and fun environment.” A few mentioned project-based learning, also a common technique in language education.59

Several school directors reported using technology-based multimedia resources, such as apps, music, YouTube clips, and PowerPoint presentations, “to tap into kids’ existing interest in screens,” as one explained. Another school director said a factor helping their program is “playing to the interests of the children and utilizing apps and music.” For example, in the schools where we observed, teachers showed a BimBam video about kashrut, a Chabad video about the Passover seder, and “A Lion King Passover” by the acapella group Six13.

Another aspect of engaging learning that school directors mentioned is gamification, competition, and incentives, such as a Golden Shekel that students receive for demonstrating impressive Hebrew skills and can exchange for prizes, and a reward for spontaneously reading one of many prayer excerpts posted in a particular hallway. Several schools have a karate-belt-style reward system where students earn dog tags or medals of different colors as they learn each set of prayers or skills. One director said that kids “love to earn their next tag” and “are eager to move to the next group quickly.”

One school director explained how engaging learning came to influence several aspects of the school:

Our elective program infuses a lot of Hebrew in a way that is more fun and active (games, active words in Hebrew), and that is migrating more into the (very traditional) class setting—a good thing!! It is easier to allow the teachers to have freedom in a non-classroom setting—and then they understand how Hebrew learning can be more fun—we also have a congregational family trip to Israel which boosts students’ interest in Hebrew before and after the trip.

Additional helping factors

A few school directors mentioned factors outside the school as helpful, such as a Jewish day school that is connected with the part-time school or camps the students attend in the summer. One director in a Chicago suburb singled out important role of OSRUI (a URJ summer camp) in fostering campers’ enthusiasm for Hebrew.

Only a few mentioned funding, including grants they received from their local Federation, or support from specific organizations, such as Gateways, an organization that works toward inclusion of children with special needs in Jewish educational settings. Notably, nobody mentioned support from umbrella organizations like the URJ or the USCJ, even though they do provide some resources.

Factors hindering Hebrew educational goals

When we asked school directors, teachers, and clergy what factors are hindering their schools from achieving their Hebrew-related goals, we received even more responses. Common responses included insufficient instructional time, opposition to homework, parents and students with poor attitudes, a lack of qualified teachers, a lack of clear agreed-upon goals, lack of differentiation, issues with space, and bar/bat mitzvah. Many of these hindering factors are the flip side of helping factors discussed above, often in different schools and sometimes even in the same school. For example, a school might have some strong teachers but not enough, and each school likely has parents with an array of goals and commitments. Bar/bat mitzvah can serve as both a motivating factor for families to pursue Hebrew education and a hindering factor if families are interested only in bar/bat mitzvah and not in the wider array of Hebrew skills educators wish to emphasize.

Instructional time

A majority of school directors who answered the hindering factors question mentioned the limited number of contact hours with students. Within this limited time, some addressed the lower priority of Hebrew conversation among the many subjects the school focuses on:

Better (in my mind) to spend that time teaching more Jewish history, or famous Jews in American history, etc. Things they will remember going forward that might actually inform and have applicability in their lives. All conversational Modern Hebrew, even if used regularly in all our grades, would be forgotten because it would never be used again after b’nai mitzvah.

A few school directors indicated that they would have additional Hebrew-related goals if they had more instructional hours. One wrote, “Many of the things I answered ‘not at all’ to were not for a lack of personal wish by me or the kahal [community]; there just isn’t time.” (See also the quote in the introduction to this report.) Mentions of time constraints did not correlate with number of contact hours or number of Hebrew hours. Even schools on the high end of contact hours expressed a desire for more time.

Some respondents pointed to the consequence of meeting only once a week: “It is hard for the students to really remember each lesson with so much time in between. We spend a lot of time going over what we learned the week before.” One school director mentioned this issue in particular with regard to the long summer break, citing the “lack of retention from year to year, so teachers end up reviewing, reviewing, and reviewing.”

In write-in comments, many parents also mentioned time, indicating a recognition that it would be impossible to succeed in all of their goals in the limited time available. One parent wrote, “I went to Hebrew school 3 days (7 hours) per week. [This school] is 2.5 hours per week + 30 minute/week Hebrew tutoring. It would be virtually impossible to accomplish everything. I think [this school] is doing [a] good job with their limited time.” Another said, “If we had 4-6 hours a week like the old days, maybe the kids could learn. But 25 minutes a week (after snack and settling down), after a whole day of school. Who can learn anything?” A third wrote, “It’s tough given the hours available. We might be in the minority but would be open to the option for more.”

Instructional time was also the most common hindering factor mentioned by teachers and clergy. One clergy member wrote, “We need twice as much time with students.” A teacher connected this to the tension between Textual and Modern Hebrew:

I would love to be able to teach these kids some conversational Hebrew or reading comprehension, but in the amount of time we get with them—one hour of Hebrew per week plus a half-hour private Hebrew tutoring session . . . that’s just not possible. Modern conversational Hebrew is not the primary goal—the primary goal of our program is to educate the students in Hebrew that will allow them to pray with other Jews, and to succeed at their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.


One facet of the limited contact hours is time devoted to ritual participation. Some school directors feel that students’ Hebrew skills would be strengthened if they attended or led services more frequently. One school director laid blame on clergy who do not support students participating in “adult” services. Many schools address this issue by incorporating communal prayer during school hours; 94% report doing this at least a small amount, but only 42% a great amount. Some school directors mentioned this as a missing element: “We really need to add Tefillah to our regular program schedule” and “still need to figure out how to use services and music to best achieve our Hebrew related goals.” Regular participation in communal prayer in Hebrew is a pillar of the increasingly popular #OnwardHebrew approach.

In their discussion of time as a hindering factor, many school directors mentioned students’ (and parents’) competing priorities; the word “overscheduled” came up often. In theory, sports, dance, and other activities could coexist with Jewish educational activities, but many school directors pointed to students, and especially parents, who make Jewish education a comparatively low priority. This can affect attendance, completion of homework, and families’ willingness to send their children to a school with more required hours or participate in optional programs. A few of the educational leaders we interviewed indicated that time constraints have gotten worse over the past few decades. One school director reported that trend within their school: “Students are less and less able to commit their time to attending/studying.” To address this, some school directors indicated that their programs had reduced their hours.

Homework

With limited contact hours, one way to increase the hours students are exposed to Hebrew is by assigning independent or parent-guided work at home. Over half of all schools report giving at least a small amount of homework. But homework came up as a hindering factor among both schools that assign it and schools that do not. Among schools that do give homework, many directors complained that students do not complete it, often blaming parents. A few hold themselves accountable, making statements like, “We do not consistently enforce at home work.” A few blame availability of materials, such as “a lack of effective methods [of] out of class engagement” and “lack of excellent online resources for kids to use at home.” These school directors may have tried existing online resources, such as Jewish Interactive and Behrman House’s Shalom Hebrew, or they may not be aware of them. Among schools that do not give homework, some school directors mentioned that parents are opposed to homework or that students would not complete homework because of their many other commitments.

One Reform congregation school in New Jersey gets relatively high homework compliance using several techniques. At each year’s orientation, the director runs a parent workshop describing the school’s Hebrew reading method (which emphasizes syllabification) and the expectations for homework (completing a workbook page and reading prayers aloud three days per week for 15 minutes, divided into 5-minute chunks interspersed at the beginning, middle, and end of secular homework). After each class, parents receive an email specifying that week’s homework, and homework is also indicated in the workbook. Students whose parents sign the homework book indicating that they have completed their home practice receive a sticker on a classroom homework incentive chart. If students are not progressing, teachers call their parents to remind them of homework expectations. Even with this multilayered approach, this school finds that only two-thirds of students complete the homework.60

Parent and student attitudes

What are the factors behind the problems of limited time, inconsistent attendance, and lack of interest in homework? Many respondents invoked low student motivation and investment. Motivation can be defined as “a readiness to learn”; students have an easier time learning and enjoy it more when they are motivated.61 Research on investment in language learning,62 L2 [second language] selves,63 and intergenerational motivation64 are important to consider in relation to Hebrew learning. Investment is dynamic and integrates identity, ideology, and context. Whereas motivation is essential to students’ experience of learning Hebrew, it is important to combine motivation with an intentional commitment of time and resources to truly become invested. Some students may experience low investment because they do not see how learning Hebrew can make a difference in their lives. Perhaps they do not know anyone who speaks Hebrew or they believe that knowledge of Hebrew is not necessary for a meaningful Jewish life. One teacher pointed out that students who are less invested in Hebrew often disrupt the class and make it difficult for motivated students to learn. Another teacher brought up the misalignment of goals: “Students and parents aren’t committed to being Hebrew readers or speakers.”

Many school directors implicated parents in students’ lack of motivation and other problems. “Parents do not feel that Hebrew is important, so students do not practice at home,” commented one director. They often attributed this problem to parents’ poor attitudes about Jewish education generally or about Hebrew in particular. One school director highlighted “negative feelings parents have about [their] own Hebrew school experiences,” and another mentioned the “student and family perception that Hebrew is a necessary evil.” Some brought up parents’ low Hebrew knowledge or confidence, which makes them less able to support their children’s learning at home. Poor attitudes were sometimes explicitly connected to bar/bat mitzvah: “Families who do not see the value of this learning other than for Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation.” A less common complaint about parents was that they are uncomfortable with change. At one school that had recently adopted the #OnwardHebrew approach, the director mentioned low parent buy-in regarding the later timing of decoding and the integration of Hebrew Through Movement.

Indeed, in the parent surveys, a few write-in comments expressed concern with decoding practice beginning in 4th grade or later: “Because we don’t start Hebrew learning til 4th grade, the kids are getting a late start to learning to decode words.” And, “They should start more focused teaching of Hebrew younger. The Skype is the most impactful part and that doesn’t start until 4th grade. My kids felt like they didn’t learn much for multiple years.” These types of responses by parents indicate a lack of awareness about the philosophy and purpose of the #OnwardHebrew approach to Hebrew learning, in which learning to decode is delayed not to delay Hebrew learning overall, but to create time for the scaffolding of language learning (including oral/aural input) that is needed to make decoding easier for students in the long run. Parents’ responses, in conjunction with the quantitative findings on decoding, suggest a misalignment of goals and insufficient communication.

A few respondents suggested that Hebrew learning would be enhanced if parents and students studied together, either in school or at home. One teacher proposed a related remedy: “Increased engagement with the families even at the END of Hebrew school as they come to pick up their student(s); for example: a CONSISTENT PRACTICE of a parting song in Hebrew sung with family, classmates, teachers sends a HUGE message of how we VALUE our Jewish Life TOGETHER!” At one Reform school in California, we observed such a practice. All classes gathered in a big circle in the social hall, and many parents stood behind their children or in the back of the room. Using a microphone, the school director had each class do a “silent cheer” and asked them questions about the Hebrew letter and words of the day.

Two song leaders with guitars led “Shalom Chaverim” and “Hashkivenu,” and then students were dismissed. This creation of a community of parents and students participating in activities together at the school may enhance parents’ and students’ investment in the language learning process.

Teachers

Additional hindering factors that came up frequently in school director surveys pertained to teachers. Many school directors wrote about a “shortage” of teachers who are skilled, experienced, or able to speak Hebrew (or, in some cases, even able to decode prayers comfortably). One referred to “teachers who can teach to read but do not understand what they are reading; out of a staff of 20, only 2 are Hebrew speakers.” Another wrote, “Our madrichim and supervising teachers are great for prayer book Hebrew, but I don’t have any teachers who know Modern Hebrew. This limits our ability to bring Hebrew into the classroom and our students do not have the opportunity [to] truly hear Hebrew as a conversational language.” One school director mentioned several factors regarding teachers: “A lack of individuals willing to receive guidance on best practices (teaching Hebrew, classroom management), smaller community with less individuals to pull from, lack of individuals educated in teaching/second language acquisition.” A few parents also expressed concern about the teachers. One wrote, “Please hire real Hebrew teachers, not just glorified baby-sitters who happen to know Hebrew.” However, some parents offered praise for specific teachers.

Some school directors wrote about having high turnover in their teacher pool because they do not pay enough or because many of the teachers are college students. Some mentioned that their teachers do not buy into or feel comfortable with changes, such as incorporating Hebrew infusion. One alluded to “teachers stuck on prayer mastery.” Others mentioned lack of time for teacher training: “We have a bi-weekly professional development but it is not enough to properly train the teachers to teach Hebrew.”

Teachers generally did not critique themselves as a hindering factor, but a few expressed a desire for more professional development opportunities in topics such as classroom management and curriculum development. One requested training in Hebrew language:

I can only read Hebrew but I have no idea what I am saying which makes it really hard to . . . teach vocabulary or meaningful words when we learn new letters. I definitely wish that there was an opportunity for me to receive Hebrew training as a Jewish educator that is expected to teach Hebrew (even just the basics) because it would definitely enliven the Hebrew experience for my students.


Another teacher pointed out that teachers and students benefit when teachers meet with each other to share instructional strategies.

Goals

As the discussion above implies, goals came up as a hindrance factor; several school directors mentioned goals being unclear, misaligned with curriculum, or in competition with other goals (“Judaic knowledge, holidays, etc.”). Some school directors pointed to a “lack of agreement on clear goals among all senior staff members” or between themselves and parents, students, teachers, and/or clergy. Some comments suggest diverse understandings of whether Hebrew education should entail Textual Hebrew recitation for ritual participation and bar/bat mitzvah or Modern Hebrew conversation for interactions with Israelis. For example, one school director wrote about “uneven expectations of outcomes (especially where one parent in the family is Israeli).” Some teachers also mentioned unclear goals as a hindering factor, and a few blamed such problems on weak or inconsistent leadership.

Differentiation

A number of school directors wrote about a need for differentiation,65 citing issues such as “not enough individualized instruction” and a “range of levels and seriousness” among students. Some mentioned diverse student abilities, including special needs, and some mentioned student behavior problems and classroom management. One school director indicated a need for differentiation due to “kids joining later and wanting to be w[ith their] age group.” This issue relates to class size, classroom space, and teachers. For example, one school director complained about not “having enough staff and space to break up into smaller groups to give students appropriate attention.”

Space

Space came up a few times in survey responses in relation to small-group learning. One school we visited addressed the dearth of classrooms by locating many small groups at tables in a large social hall. Permanent space also came up as a factor in schools’ “ability to create permanent Hebrew visuals.” This connects to the findings of our observations, in which Hebrew schoolscapes, or visual representations of language within schools, created additional opportunities for engagement with the language. This issue played out differently in schools that shared space with day schools. Two such schools we visited had many Hebrew materials on the walls of particular classrooms that were devoted to Hebrew (such as Hebrew conjugations), while secular studies classrooms had only English visuals.

Bar/bat mitzvah

Several school directors mentioned bar/bat mitzvah as a hindering factor. Most such responses focused on parents or students being interested in learning Hebrew solely or primarily for their bar/bat mitzvah. One highlighted a different angle: students who do not sign up for religious school until they are approaching bar/bat mitzvah age. A few teachers also considered bar/bat mitzvah a hindering factor. One wrote: “Students are more interested in ‘passing’ their b’nai mitzvah than in engaging with Hebrew as a part of their tradition and heritage.” Although the bar/bat mitzvah is part of the broader Jewish tradition, this response highlights a common perception that this life cycle ritual holds too much sway in schools’ decisions about Hebrew education.

Other hindering factors

Less commonly mentioned factors included transitions in school leadership, which result in a “lack of institutional knowledge of prior results,” and the scheduling of school during afternoon or evening hours when students are tired of being in a classroom. A few saw curricular materials as a hindering factor. One school director wrote that there was “no science on what method works well for teaching Hebrew in [a] part time setting.” A few mentioned money: funds to pay teachers sufficiently or acquire the space or curricular resources they would like. One school director wrote, “More budget would enable me to hire a special education aide, and/or pay our teen aides (which would increase attendance and commitment on their part).”

Recent shifts in approach

School leaders’ recognition of helping and hindering factors sometimes leads them to make changes. In fact, 72% of schools reported that they shifted their approach to Hebrew in the past few years (before COVID-19). Their changes were diverse, often representing opposite trends. Some schools increased their rigor, while others lowered their expectations. Some increased the hours of Hebrew instruction, while others decreased them. Some stopped teaching cursive; others started teaching cursive. Some are focusing less and others are focusing more on Modern/conversational Hebrew. One director wrote, “We are not focusing on Hebrew as a language. It is an introduction that we hope will grow as the students grow.” Another responded that they are adding “more emphasis on Hebrew as a language instead of only a means to their b’nei [mitzvah].”

By far, the most common way school directors reported they changed their Hebrew approach is by incorporating Hebrew Through Movement. HTM sometimes co-occurred with other elements of the #OnwardHebrew approach, such as communal prayer, Jewish life vocabulary, and waiting to teach decoding until 5th or 6th grade. This suggests that initiatives have the potential to spread throughout the country. (In addition, a few school directors used the words “infuse” or “infusion” to describe how they incorporate Hebrew—terminology we have used in our previous research and workshops for educators.)

Other common responses included adoption of new curricula/textbooks, more focus on prayers, more focus on Modern/conversational Hebrew, and more small-group or partner learning, sometimes via Skype or other technology. Many mentioned clarifying goals and expectations. Several of the responses to the question about recent shifts match the important factors in school directors’ perception of their program’s success (as we discuss in our quantitative analysis and in helping factors).

These diverse shifts in approach demonstrate school leaders’ ongoing engagement and experimentation with what is innovative and effective within their contexts. In some cases, changes were sparked by a transition to a new director. One director gave this response to the question about whether they had shifted their approach recently: “Yes, but not intentionally. We’ve had a lot of education directors over the past 5 years, each bringing different goals so the approach has been changing.”

How school directors would like to shift their approach in the future

Many directors indicated that they are satisfied with their program and have no plans for shifting their approach in the future. Several of those said they merely want to convey their goals to students and parents more clearly or obtain more family buy-in. However, half of school directors reported great or moderate interest in shifting their approach in the next few years. Among those, the most common focus was increasing students’ skills in conversational/Modern Hebrew. One school director said that in the following year, they planned to incorporate more conversational Hebrew in all grades because that is a selling point for parents. Another expressed a common sentiment:

I know realistically with our short time we have with the children, I will not be able to teach them modern Hebrew as well as reach our goals for their understanding and facility with Loshon Kodesh [Textual Hebrew, lit. ‘holy tongue’] for Torah study and Tefilah. I am happy we are not a bar mitzvah factory because we have completely different goals that don’t have an expiration date. That being said, I’d love to be able to give parents and students a way to learn modern Hebrew on their own time, in their own home.

A few school directors expressed a desire to add a Modern Hebrew track for advanced or interested students. In line with the #OnwardHebrew approach, many school directors planned to change when their school teaches decoding or focus less on decoding.

Another common plan for future changes was adding more differentiated learning and/or individualized instruction. Some planned to incorporate one-on-one tutoring via Skype. One wrote, “I’m questioning our class-based model of Hebrew instruction in grades 4, 5, 6 and wondering if we should join the growing trend for single or duo-with-teacher weekly learning via Skype or in person in lieu of class-based Hebrew instruction.” One-on-one learning seems to be common in small schools, as well as in large schools with many available teachers. One school director wrote, “We are getting too large for the one-on-one approach for every student, but it is culturally entrenched. We need a new solution.” A few expressed a desire to find new resources for teaching students with special needs.

Technology is a major part of the conversation around individualized learning. This conversation includes not only technologies for remote tutoring, but also apps and websites that enhance Hebrew instruction in the classroom and/or at home. One wrote, “If there were better on-line games available, I would use them.”

Bar/bat mitzvah was mentioned in some responses. One school director hopes to “continue to shift away from rote recitation for BBM and towards meaning.” Another wrote, “I would like to fully extricate b’nai mitzvah prep from our Hebrew language curriculum.” Some hoped to add a Modern Hebrew conversation component after students completed their bar/bat mitzvah.

A few expected to move toward a more experiential approach, including project-based learning, models influenced by summer camp, and HTM. One director planned to implement an “ulpan camp” the following summer, but when we contacted him a year later he had scrapped the idea due to lack of interest.

In line with the hindering factors, several school directors pointed to the lack of contact hours as a barrier to changes they want to make. Here is a sampling of these comments:

  • Due to current trends, kids have less and less time available for classes following their public school day; I think it may be necessary to come up with a new model for achieving the required number of hours each week.
  • Parents want less time, we are looking at different options to avoid them going to rent-a-rabbis for Hebrew. More one on one tutoring, teaching to the test, with Hebrew offered as electives for language acquisition for those interested.
  • Students are overscheduled and attendance affects consistent learning. Think about other online weekday options to increase the retention and focus on Hebrew learning.

A few school directors reported caution about making too many changes or about making particular changes. One wrote, “Ideally I would like to move decoding even later however I am not sure that the congregation and constituents are open to further change at this time.”

Several respondents recognized that change is a long-term process. One wrote, “I feel strongly, but it will take time for the school to shift from B’nai Mitzvah focused to Language focused.” Another explained how they expect to initiate changes: “I plan to start a visioning process, formally interviewing parents and lay leaders to identify goals of our supplementary program, including Hebrew. Depending on the outcomes, I would shift our approach to Hebrew to align with our vision.”

School directors also recognized that teacher training was necessary for many of the changes they planned to make. Several expressed a desire to add HTM or Modern Hebrew conversation, but they recognized that those changes were impossible or unlikely with the teaching staff available in their region. Professional development opportunities are available for schools in this situation. The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland offers a 10-hour online certification program to teach HTM. There are many options for teachers to study Modern Hebrew—online and in person—but these courses require many more hours. Most schools do not set aside funds for teachers to take advantage of such time-consuming professional development opportunities.

Many school directors reported that they regularly tweak their program. One wrote, “We’re always innovating based on desires and needs of our community.” In addition, many indicated an openness to future changes, even if they did not have anything in particular in mind. Several indicated that the process of taking the survey was illuminating for them, as illustrated by this comment:

I want to sit down with my teachers, understand what they are trying to teach in each grade, develop goals and a flow so that we can know what the kids ought to know at the end of each year, and also think about which goals we want to meet and don’t want to meet. To that end, I will now go back in this survey and write down all your well-developed goals, because you’ve thought about this much more than I have.

We hope this report will provide many school directors with ideas for future changes in approach.