By Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz
“Almost everyone I have spoken to at our temple, thinks it is a phenomenal idea. Most comments (from them) include, ‘Why did no one think of this before?’”
Respondent, #OnwardHebrew 2018 survey
#OnwardHebrew burst onto the Jewish educational scene in the Fall of 2017 with the goal of radically transforming the decades-old, less-than-effective approach to teaching Hebrew in part-time/congregational settings. In contrast to most students’ current experiences – with years of less-than-inspiring Hebrew decoding practice – #OnwardHebrew advocates sound-to-print learning, paralleling the way children acquire their mother tongue, i.e., building an oral/aural foundation (i.e., hearing sounds) prior to learning to read (i.e., tackling print). #OnwardHebrew students are immersed in rich Hebrew learning.
In its first year of existence, #OnwardHebrew quickly expanded beyond its initial leadership team of seven, to hundreds of Jewish educators and clergy who have participated in workshops, shared conversations, and joined the initiative’s Facebook group. In this short period of time, almost 20 congregational education programs achieved special #OnwardHebrew status. And, what does that mean? Students in “On-the-Way” programs engage in three of the four key elements (below), whereas students in “All In” programs enjoy all four. #OnwardHebrew students:
- Learn Hebrew via “Hebrew Through Movement” (HTM).
- Participate in regular Hebrew t’fillah (worship).
- Hear Jewish Life Vocabulary (JLV) intentionally infused in English sentences.
- Learn to decode/read Hebrew after they have spent years learning Hebrew aurally/orally.
The large interest and speedy adoption of the #OnwardHebrew principles across North America inspired the development of a Fall 2018 survey against which future progress will be measured. Reaching out to educator groups through Facebook and other social media, 86 valid surveys were attained, representing 86 different educational programs, most of which (but not all) had adopted one or more elements of #OnwardHebrew. The information from the respondents provide evidence of #OnwardHebrew’s early impact, as well as potential trajectory.
- #OnwardHebrew is an initiative still in its infancy, beginning to spread from a small group of initial “innovators” to a larger number of “early adopters.” Education directors who are intrigued with #OnwardHebrew have generally started with low-hanging fruit (e.g., Hebrew Through Movement, Jewish Life Vocabulary, and more frequent and intentional Hebrew worship opportunities).
- Respondents whose educational programs have adopted elements of the #OnwardHebrew learning approach indicated high student and high teacher enthusiasm. There is new energy for Hebrew learning in part-time settings.
- The biggest two challenges for those adopting #OnwardHebrew are convincing stakeholders that a) aural/oral literacy should be well–established before introducing the skill of Hebrew decoding/reading and that b) print is more efficiently taught in a one–on–one setting, rather than in an all-class environment. The survey results illustrate that most responding educational programs have not (yet) moved their decoding instruction to a later grade, nor created one-on-one learning opportunities.
- The potential of #OnwardHebrew’s reach is large. Among the 62 survey respondents who had adopted Hebrew Through Movement (HTM) there is a combined total of over 5,000 HTM students this Fall, alone. While 5,000 sounds impressive, the number is undoubtedly low – the 62 HTM respondents represent less than 20% of the 350+ educational programs that have enrolled teachers in the JECC’s online HTM seminar since its introduction six years ago.
#OnwardHebrew is a new initiative that is standing “on the edge of possibility,” ready to transform a tired, decades old learning model in part-time/congregational educational programs. In the last year, the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, with the input and direction of #OnwardHebrew’s leadership team, has provided a number of supports including a robust, resource-filled website and a “join-the-conversation” Facebook group, Instagram site (OnwardHebrew) and Twitter account (@OnwardHebrew). But more is yet to come! Survey results hint at the need for more attention to supporting transformational change and more intentional involvement of stakeholder groups (clergy, parents, teachers). With almost a third of the survey’s respondents asking for someone to contact them regarding #OnwardHebrew, it is clear that more personal attention will be needed to accelerate the initiative.
Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the Director of Curriculum Resources for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and a member of the #OnwardHebrew leadership team.