People involved in supplementary or congregational school education – administrators, teachers, parents and even learners – know that instructional time is short and precious. When describing the challenge of time, I often revert to the following analogy. In our school at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, learners begin a two day per week program in 2nd grade for a total of three and three quarter hours of instruction per week. Multiply this number by our 26 week school year, and then by 6 years until graduation in 7th grade, and the total is 600 hours. This is equivalent to the number of instructional hours that a child in Jewish day school will receive in the Jewish Studies half of their curriculum in one year. This succinctly sums up the challenge of maximizing available time.
It is clear to me that it is near-impossible to impart everything we want a Jewish child to know in only 600 hours. This means that educators must make careful selections regarding subject matter (as stated by Rabbi Aaron Starr), but it also means that methods of instruction are built around different goals – we are now seeking ways to create interest in Jewish life so that learners will continue to seek out their own Jewish experiences once they leave the walls of our institutions.
Participating in the first ReFrame Design Lab at the Jewish Theological Seminary only reinforced my commitment to this principle. Seeking innovative, experiential and informal (pick your term) ways to convey subject matter – and more importantly, create positive associations – is at the heart of what ReFrame is seeking to accomplish. As easy as it is to agree with this logic, the Design Lab also demonstrated how challenging it is to move from logic to reality.
Take, for example, the challenge of teaching Hebrew, specifically reading and decoding Hebrew. Unlike topics such as Jewish holidays or Prayer, or even acquiring a spoken language, learning to read presents challenges for experiential education. Furthermore, many supplementary school settings tie reading Hebrew to the Siddur, meaning that a learner might figure out the tune and words to a prayer orally long before their reading becomes proficient. By attempting to double-up content, a natural action given limited time, educators are assuming that learners are achieving proficiency when they may in fact be falling behind. Additionally, in settings where modern conversational Hebrew and what I will call Mishnaic Siddur Hebrew are both being taught, we are asking learners to acquire one-and-a-half languages, as there are differences between ancient and modern Hebrew that are challenging for children to discern.
Our ReFrame working group attempted to tackle some of these challenges. We first discussed the pros and cons of using the Siddur as a Hebrew text and determined that this doubling-up likely did more harm than good. We then were left with the question of what text to use instead. Our brainstorm produced a few interesting results, yet nothing approached the level of experiential-ness that can be achieved in other subject matters. We also acknowledged the challenge of teaching two different versions of Hebrew, though we did agree that focus can be placed on the commonalities in each dialect.
What might be some ways to take the principles of experiential education and apply them to reading and decoding Hebrew? How can learners be assisted in working towards the acquisition of both Siddur Hebrew and modern Hebrew, all in an environment that engrains positive experiences and puts them on the path for continued Jewish engagement?
Daniel Silverman is Director of Education & Family Programming at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto