Let’s stop calling it ‘Hebrew School’:
New Study Debunks Myths about Part-time Jewish Education

By Nicki Greninger, Netta Avineri, and Sarah Bunin Benor

Although the official name of a part-time Jewish education program might be “Religious School,” “Limud,” or the like, some persist in calling it “Hebrew school.” This leads to an expectation that students will graduate with speaking ability in Hebrew and a perception that the schools are failing in their primary task. In our research, we found that most part-time Jewish schools foster Hebrew skills for ritual participation and students’ personal connection to Hebrew, not language proficiency. Using the (inaccurate) term “Hebrew School” may be contributing to a discourse of failure.

Starting in 2018, the three of us – a researcher of language and identity (Benor), a researcher of heritage language education (Avineri), and a rabbi-educator (Greninger) – investigated how Hebrew is taught and perceived at American Jewish part-time schools. After interviewing 20 Jewish educational leaders, we conducted a survey of 519 school directors (across diverse denominations, regions, and school sizes). Then we conducted observations at ten schools and surveyed students, parents, teachers, and clergy at eight of those schools.

Through our research, a number of key findings emerged that can help Jewish professionals and lay leaders to debunk myths and to collaboratively strengthen Hebrew learning in part-time Jewish educational settings:

Myth: Students (and their parents) dislike religious school and learning Hebrew.

In fact, we found that students and parents generally express positive feelings about their school and learning Hebrew, and their responses suggest that schools are generally succeeding in affective (emotional) goals more than school directors believe.

Myth: Students (and their parents) are only interested in Hebrew learning for the purpose of bar/bat mitzvah preparation. 

This is true for many students and parents, but some also have other goals, including gaining conversational Hebrew skills. In fact, parents and students value Hebrew for reasons besides bar/bat mitzvah more than school directors and clergy expect them to.

Myth: Part-time Jewish schools are teaching Hebrew like they always have. 

Most school directors reported that they shifted their approach to Hebrew in the past few years (before COVID-19). However, their changes were diverse. Some schools increased the hours of Hebrew instruction, while others decreased them. Some stopped teaching cursive; some started teaching cursive. Some are focusing less on conversational Modern Hebrew while  others are focusing more on conversational Modern Hebrew. By far the most common way school directors reported they have changed their Hebrew approach is by incorporating Hebrew through Movement, which sometimes co-occurred with other elements of #OnwardHebrew.

Myth: Most Hebrew teachers are Israeli.

We found that most part-time schools have few Israeli teachers. In fact, many schools have trouble finding teachers with sufficient Hebrew knowledge and/or pedagogical skills for teaching Hebrew beyond decoding.

Other key findings:

  • We asked directors, teachers, parents, clergy, and students about their goals for Hebrew, including recitation, decoding, comprehension, conversation, writing, reading, and affective goals. The affective goals rated highest for all groups, including associating Hebrew with Jewishness, feeling a sense of accomplishment regarding their Hebrew knowledge, feeling personally connected to Hebrew, and associating Hebrew with fun.
  • It is very difficult to learn a language when exposure is only 1-2 hours a week. Our research found that lack of time is a major challenge for Hebrew learning in all schools. Even schools on the high end of contact hours (5-6 hours/week) wish they had more time.
  • About half of school directors report that they are full-time, paid employees (which means half are not!). A majority of school directors consider their Hebrew conversation skills minimal.
  • Clergy exert more influence than they realize. On average, clergy believe they are involved in goal-setting and developing curricula for Hebrew education to a small extent, but school directors believe they are involved to a moderate/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.
  • Schools infuse elements of Hebrew throughout the school experience, from greetings and songs to Jewish life vocabulary and visual displays. This fosters students belonging in a Hebrew metalinguistic community – a group that values Hebrew as a central facet of Jewish life in America.

Based on our findings (these and many more), we have outlined a series of recommendations, which can be found in the complete report and infographic. One major recommendation is that schools involve all stakeholders in making decisions about goals, rationales, and expectations for Hebrew learning. A discourse of failure is the result of conflicting views of what Hebrew skills should be (and are currently) taught. If a parent expects her child to understand the Hebrew prayers she is reading and converse in Israeli Hebrew, but the school’s goals are only Hebrew decoding and recitation, the parent will undoubtedly be disappointed.

This is the first study of its kind, and we hope that our findings will spark conversations among Jewish educators, clergy, teachers, parents, students, and communal / lay leaders about the rationales, goals, and practices of Hebrew education as they work to strengthen Hebrew learning in the months and years to come. Register here for our August 4 virtual conversation presented by Hebrew at the Center and CASJE in which we will explore these opportunities and challenges.

Rabbi Nicki Greninger is Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California. Dr. Netta Avineri is Associate Professor of Language Teacher Education at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor is Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College. Their study on Hebrew education in part-time Jewish schools, funded by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), can be found here.