Bringing Hebrew to Life for Our Students

Kashkesh ImageBy Felice Miller Baritz

Hebrew is a very rich and dynamic language. Did you know a funny word like Kashkesh can mean chat, doodle AND be silly?

This language, our language, can come alive for students in any learning environment. At Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY, we wanted to bring Hebrew to life – to make it relevant, engaging, and fun. More accurately, we needed to make a change. Parents told us they wanted their children to be exposed to and to learn more Hebrew. What we had been doing in Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade – a constant repetition of learning the Alef Bet without any context for this learning – was not working. Children were matriculating through these early classes with little Hebrew language knowledge.

So began our journey to shake up Hebrew learning for our youngest students. The new initiative, “Kashkesh,” began as an “after school” enrichment opportunity. Our participation in the Jewish Education Project’s LOMED Initiative helped propel us towards developing this new and innovative model. Kashkesh is the embodiment of the theory that we can help our students to develop a basic Hebrew vocabulary though music, art and dance. Immersion is one of the most effective ways to learn a language. Hebrew immersion through Kashkesh is project-based, experiential learning designed to help students put meaning in context.

We know that other congregations are also experimenting with their own creative ways to engage students – to innovate the Jewish learning experience. Learning at congregational schools is much different than a generation ago. Even different than it was just ten years ago. Communities can learn from – and with – each other, to continue to offer students increasingly diverse and relevant learning experiences.

Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education is a catalyst for this learning. It is comprised of six community organizations from around the country, including The Jewish Education Project, committed to sparking, nurturing, and spreading educational innovation. Through Shinui, we’ve already shared the Kashkesh model with some. If we want to help communities across the country adapt new models and other best practices, this sharing must increase. After all, bringing new learning models to fruition is not without its challenges. Developing Kashkesh, for example, curriculum posed challenges that we know others will encounter as well. Who could/would teach this modern Hebrew to our students? How could we best integrate this type of learning into a very rich themed curriculum?

But from these initial questions came our plan for “teaching specialists”: Fluent Hebrew speakers already engaged in Music, Art and Dance in the Jewish world and wanted to share this unique gift with our community. Now, a specially-qualified teacher teaches each of these modalities. We also created a schedule and curriculum to allow our Kindergarten, first and second grade students to rotate through each specialty for a trimester of intensive Hebrew, project-based learning.

As our first full year of Kashkesh concludes, we have begun to measure success and gather feedback. Students love it because they love their dance, music or art classes. When children are immersed in the language, paired with enjoying the activity, they absorb more. As a result, we see early signs that students are acquiring a working Hebrew vocabulary that they can use not just at school, but also at home, in Synagogue, and as they celebrate holidays with their families.

We’ll need more time to fully measure the impact this has on children’s Hebrew learning in the older grades, but we are hopeful that Kashkesh will bring them to reading readiness with more ease and a more meaningful connection to the language. We want students to be familiar with basic terms and phrases that they can use in their homes, in their Jewish lives, and even on the streets of Israel.

As we refine this model and curriculum, we will continue to share it with other congregational schools. The Shinui network is dedicated to helping communities think creatively about what Jewish learning looks like – and offering resources and models to put those learning opportunities into practice. Kashkesh is just one model of many that offer students engaging new ways to learn, to be in inspired, and to gain a deep love of Judaism.

Felice Miller Baritz is Religious School Director at Congregation Kol Ami. Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education is supported by The Covenant Foundation and includes the New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Houston, San Francisco, and Detroit communities. Shinui works to spark, nurture, and spread educational innovation.