A recent session of Temple Isaiah's JQuest Hebrew school. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Isaiah)
A recent session of Temple Isaiah's JQuest Hebrew school. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Isaiah)

Learning Hebrew in ‘Hebrew school’? That’s not always the point.

Rabbi Nicki Greninger thinks part-time religious education is due for a name change.

“When we call it ‘Hebrew school,’ people assume you’re going to learn Hebrew, and that means full spoken-language proficiency,” she said in a recent webinar presenting new research on the subject. “And we all I think recognize that that’s not really possible in the limited hours that we have.”

Greninger, director of lifelong learning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, was part of a team that recently conducted research on what it means to “learn Hebrew” at religious school. The report found that most synagogue-based programs focus on “decoding,” or reading Hebrew characters without understanding them, as opposed to teaching conversational Hebrew.

Bottom line? There just isn’t time for more. Choosing how and what to teach is only one aspect of an educational tradeoff that religious school programs have been struggling with for decades, as families commit less and less of their kids’ afterschool time to Jewish education.

“This has become secondary, below sports, or the arts, or music,” said Phil Hankin, director of education at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose.

Rabbi Nicki Greninger
Rabbi Nicki Greninger

Greninger — along with co-authors Netta Avineri, a language-learning assistant professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, and Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles — surveyed over 500 school directors across the country, interviewed students, observed classes and looked at curricula. The study was funded by the Avi Chai Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation and was done in partnership with the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education.

The findings across the board concluded that at most religious schools, including in the Bay Area, the focus is on teaching kids how to sound out Hebrew letters so they can read from prayerbooks and prepare for their b’nai mitzvahs when they read from the Torah. But reading isn’t the same thing as understanding.

“In most communities, Hebrew instruction for comprehension is not the goal,” confirmed Alex Weisz, director of youth education at Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. For the families who send their kids to Weisz’s program every week, the goal is “can they pick up a Haggadah every year and be able to read it,” he said.

Where schools expand beyond decoding, the report said, it is usually about infusing Hebrew into the language of the school and synagogue environment, rather than teaching conversational skills. A happy greeting of “boker tov,” Hebrew for “good morning,” encourages kids to think of Hebrew as a language that is culturally relevant to them, even if they are not conversant in it. Teaching phrases, expressions or vocabulary, the thinking goes, can connect the students to the wider Jewish community.

Teaching Hebrew for prayer illuminates another finding from the research: No matter how schools focus their pedagogy, students can learn only so much in the time allotted. According to the researchers, teachers at synagogue schools on average spend 3.9 hours per week instructing sixth-graders (the prime grade for b’nai mitzvah preparation), with less than half of that time, 1.7 hours, spent on Hebrew.

Weisz believes that the current state of affairs, where study is scaled back to fit in around a host of other extracurricular activities, does a disservice to kids and families. Sports teams can require training three days a week and travel for games on the weekend, for example.

“People would riot in the parking lot if we asked [for] even a fraction of that,” Weisz said.

He’d like to see a robust program with more time in the classroom. Even if some kids inevitably aren’t enthusiastic about spending more time in school, Weisz said, it’s up to the parents to convey to them that Jewish education is a priority over other activities.

“Being Jewish is not a hobby,” he said. “It is who we are. But we can’t expect it to be much of who we are if we don’t make time for it.”

Synagogues try to make the most of the time they do have — or, as Adam Lowy of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom said, “less, but more meaningful.”

Lowy’s title is Moreh Derech, or “one who shows the path,” instead of director of education. He started the position during the pandemic, when everyone was making changes in their approaches to teaching. Synagogue leaders already had been planning to phase in a new “emergent curriculum,” and instead decided to dive in right away.

Being Jewish is not a hobby… But we can’t expect it to be much of who we are if we don’t make time for it.

Emergent curriculum is a common methodology in early childhood education that is responsive to the interests and questions of students, rather than the more traditional, adult-led approach that moves kids through learning modules. In Hebrew school, that might include segments on holidays, history or prayer that kids learn in a certain order.

“Ideally, [learning] emerges from the interests of the students,” Lowy said. “This opportunity came, and we decided to take this as a chance to just go for it.”

The Bay Area generally has a culture of openness to innovation in education, according to Greninger.

“Things are very different than they probably used to be,” she said. “There are a lot of creative models.”

At her synagogue school, students learn about “God, Torah and Israel” through three tracks: art, building and nature. The program is called JQuest because, as the website explains, “Jewish education works best when it doesn’t look like, sound like, or feel like ‘school.’” Her school uses a Hebrew-language curriculum called Onward Hebrew, which waits until sixth grade before introducing decoding.

At Oakland’s Temple Sinai, plenty of time has been spent figuring out how to adapt to the many changes, said director of education Stephanie Ben Simon.

“When the pandemic hit, we at Temple Sinai immediately went to: ‘What are our goals?’” she said.

With kids unable to do their usual extracurricular activities, “I’d actually say that the time crunch is a bit less of a conversation, in some ways,” she said. On the other hand, some parents are concerned about adding more screen time to their child’s day, and teachers are missing seeing students in person.

“You can’t really feel the energy, you can’t really feel the togetherness when you just see people in these boxes,” said Hankin of San Jose.

Weisz says switching to screens has been tough, but he also sees a silver lining. He thinks online educational tools — in Hebrew learning, for example — may gain a foothold after the pandemic. “When it comes to certain areas of instruction, it works great,” he said.

He’s looking forward to getting kids back in classrooms and hopes he might even see them more often, with the pandemic shifting priorities and perspectives on kids’ overscheduled lives — that the “bubble of extracurriculars has burst.”

“Today the kids are so stressed out, or they were,” Weisz said. “I believe that’s going to change.”

Greninger’s research found that 67 percent of the 133 students surveyed liked their religious school experience, while 20 percent loved it. That is a contrast with the reputation among some in their parents’ generation, who recall the “gas station” model experience: “Drop your kid off, fill them up with some Judaism, and pick them up,” she said. “That doesn’t work [anymore].”

She’s seen it play out at her own school. She worked with a family that she said was resistant to sending their kid to JQuest. But once Greninger convinced them to try it, they made a complete U-turn.

“They were like, this is amazing, and our kids love it!” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.