By Maayan Jaffe
“The prevailing narrative of Hebrew school that is boring, ineffective and chases people away is not true anymore,” says Anna Marx, project director for Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education.
According to Marx, today there are “lots of examples of how congregations with other organizations are experimenting with ways to transform Jewish learning.”
She says Shinui is working with more than 100 organizations and even more educators to help children learn Jewish lessons in “deeper and better ways.”
One of the newest methodologies is called project-based learning, a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem or challenge. According to Marx, the methodology moves students from the traditional Hebrew school setting of listening about Judaism to “really engaging in Judaism and taking ownership of it.”
With project-based learning, the teacher moves from lecturer to partner, Marx explains, and teacher and student work together to create a project.
Project-based learning is backed by research that confirms it is an effective and enjoyable way to learn and develop deeper learning competencies required for success in college, career and civic life, according to the Buck Institute for Education. For nearly a decade, it has been an accepted method of study in secular – and especially secular private – schools. However, according to Allison Gutman, director of youth and family learning for Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Mich., “this is still considered cutting-edge in the Jewish world.”
Gutman helped integrate a new project-based learning holiday curriculum at her Hebrew school, which she says is helping children to find “more joy” in the Jewish calendar. Rather than running through a high-level overview of each holiday at its time of year, her classrooms take a deeper dive into particular holidays and involve more hands-on learning time.
For Sukkot, for example, the students built their own kosher sukkot in whatever theme they wanted – disco, recycled-material, etc. They learned about the value of hachnasat orchim [welcoming guests], walked through the narratives of the ushpizin and experienced the intricate nuances of Jewish law.
Congregation Shaarey Zedek has 1,350 families and Hebrew school, in the past, was often relegated to its own little corridor. The sukkot brought the Hebrew school to the forefront and added value to not only the students, but members of the congregation, too.
Through a pilot program run by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Gutman was able to survey parents and students before and after instituting this new methodology. All of the data from the surveys, she says, supported the program.
“The payoff is just tremendous,” says Gutman.
In Pennsylvania, Rabbi Stacy Rigler is spearheading a program between her Reform synagogue, Congregation Keneseth Israel, and two Conservative synagogues, Adath Jeshuran and Beth Shalom, called JQuest B’Yachad. In this program, rather than learning about Judaism, the kids are participating in group dialogues, making proposals to synagogue leaders and participating as active members of synagogue tefilot.
“By working on projects that reflect real life activities, they create their own experiences – learn skills for their Jewish lives,” says Rigler, who notes that with the advent of smart phones and other technologies teaching methodologies have no choice but change. She said children learn very differently than they did in the past.
“Change is very doable and possible,” says Marx. “These are not isolated anecdotes, but broader trends that are occurring.”