Post-Pandemic Gifts for our Children

By Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz

When I ask Jewish educators to identify what learning from the pandemic they would like to take into the future (from the midst of crisis, let us find opportunity), many talk of the success of individualized Hebrew. Scheduled on Zoom at the family’s convenience, the child is the winner of this targeted one-on-one attention.

While many education directors would be happy to take this logistical shift and say dayenu (“enough!”), I challenge us to make more radical and satisfying post-pandemic changes in synagogue Hebrew education. Even after four years of Hebrew prayer classes, many of our children still struggle with Hebrew decoding accuracy. More so, they spend years practicing prayers and learning about prayers, not learning to pray.

Reaching back two thousand years, our tradition aspired to high level learning and spiritual worship experiences. After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE), rabbis of the time formulated the structure of Jewish worship, but the prayers themselves were not standardized for centuries. Rather, following a thematic outline, prayer leaders and worshipers could choose the wording that was personally meaningfully.

Not until the 9th century, did a well-respected rabbi put pen to paper and offer definitive wordings for the prayers and blessings of daily worship. These, which formed the first siddur/prayerbook, were written in Hebrew on an adult conceptual level. Even with this standardization over a millennia ago, prayers continued to be recited by heart, not read. The printing press was not invented until the 15th century and only four hundred years later (1865) were Jewish siddurim/prayerbooks mass-produced. Thus, for centuries, prayers and blessings were committed to memory, not read from a book.

And, indeed, one can only pray at synagogue-speed if one knows the prayers by heart. Anyone tackling prayers by sounding out each letter/vowel combination (a.k.a., decoding) quickly gets left behind. Yet, that is what we teach.

It is time to consider radical change – our learners deserve a compelling connection to Judaism and Jewish life and the opportunity to develop spiritually. They deserve a robust age-appropriate connection to Hebrew as a language, not disparate letters and vowel-signs threaded together with no sense of meaning.

Thankfully, with our educational world turned upside down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have the opportunity to hit the reset button and give our children some very special gifts:

  • The gift of connecting to our prayers and blessings, possible when Jewish educators and clergy commit to nurturing our children spiritually, both in the context of a traditional worship experience and with developmentally-appropriate learning.
  • The gift of more compelling Jewish learning. If decoding practice did not take hours of time each year between third and sixth grade, our children could be granted the gift of time to explore age-appropriate, interesting and relevant big ideas of Jewish life.
  • The gift of introducing our children to the richness of Hebrew in age-appropriate ways, building confidence and competence with Hebrew. The #OnwardHebrew initiative has shown the way with Hebrew Through Movement, Jewish Life Vocabulary, and spirited t’fillah (worship).
  • The gift of offering our children years of hearing, speaking and singing the sounds of Hebrew (prayers, songs and vocabulary), before asking them to work with print. Our English-speaking six year olds have multiple verbal exposures to the word “dinosaur” before they see it in print – something many sixth graders have not been gifted before encountering a prayer word like b’mishm’rotayhem.
  • The gift of one-on-one Hebrew learning with someone specifically looking out for each individual’s learning needs. Not large group. Not small group. But one-on-one.

The national initiative #OnwardHebrew has demonstrated that with years of rich, age-appropriate Hebrew learning, children enrolled in synagogue or part-time settings can learn to decode/read Hebrew in 12-15 hours when working one-on-one in sixth or seventh grade. Looking for an existence proof? Years ago, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA, removed Hebrew decoding from JQuest, its part-time synagogue education program. Instead, ten to twelve months prior to the date of a B’Mitzvah, they schedule that student for three to four months of one-on-one meetings with a volunteer facilitator who guides them in learning to decode Hebrew using an online experience called, “Let’s Learn Hebrew Side-by-Side.” Upon completion, the child is immediately assigned to their professional B’Mitzvah tutor, with whom they spend approximately seven months. Temple Isaiah’s students enter this tutoring fresh from mastering the skill of decoding Hebrew and with years of age-appropriate foundational skills, including praying from their hearts. One-on-one, they are easily helped to match the sounds they have in their head with the words on the page, leading not only to competence but confidence with Hebrew.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world of Jewish education upside down, giving us the opportunity to challenge assumptions of Hebrew learning that have been part of synagogue education for decades. Yes, change isn’t easy, but the assumed “right way” to teach Hebrew prayers has sucked time and energy from the synagogue education enterprise for decades. On behalf of our children – enough! As we emerge from the pandemic, let us give our children the gift of engaging, compelling Jewish learning by having the courage to consider what they need, and then shaping our learning experiences to match. They deserve no less.

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the Senior Director and Director of Curriculum Resources for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. She also facilitates #OnwardHebrew. Join the conversation!