The Gift of #OnwardHebrew

By Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz

Simon Sinek is a name familiar to many. His Ted Talk has been seen by almost 40,000,000 (wow!), his book Start with Why remains at the top of Amazon’s Business book list, and he’s the author of a website, numerous articles and videos. Over the years, I’ve read some of his work and watched him on YouTube, but it was a summer stroll that opened my heart to him.

No, Sinek and I did not walk side-by-side. Instead, I engaged with his ideas while plugged into an audio version of Start with Why. Over ten days I came to realize that my Jewish educational “why” (the purpose or belief that offers inspiration for my work) is helping people find meaning and value through the lens of Judaism. This has always been my “why,” starting in my years as a camp educator, growing during my tenure as a congregational education director, and strengthening later as a day school director. In my work at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JEC), adherence to the Understanding by Design curricular model has ensured that curriculum developed by the JEC cultivates meaning and value through a Jewish lens.

However, on this summer’s journey with Simon Sinek, I came to realize that the almost ubiquitous Hebrew learning approach in part-time/congregational settings is antithetical to my defined “why.” Current synagogue education is comprised of multiple years of prayer study that does not touch the souls of our nine, ten and eleven year olds. In addition, by the time a student reaches third or fourth grade, the hours devoted to Hebrew can outweigh that for Jewish content, meaning that prayer-based learning overtakes other potential foci.

On my summer walk I became more deeply committed to lessening the hold that prayer-Hebrew has on Jewish education. I’m not dismissing Hebrew learning as an important goal, but rather suggesting that we transform the current model by bringing to life the sound-to-print principles at the foundation of #OnwardHebrew, an initiative that is capturing the hearts and minds of Jewish educators and clergy across North America. #OnwardHebrew offers an approach in which students more effectively and efficiently learn Hebrew AND opens our schedules for more robust and engaging Jewish learning that grabs the hearts of our young learners.

I’m delighted that a number of congregations have already transformed their learning approaches, often referring to their results as a sea change. These pioneering synagogues have created rich Hebrew learning environments while lessening the years of, or completely removing Hebrew decoding and prayer practice from their regular curriculum. These programs emphasize recitation of Hebrew in t’fillah (prayer) and build joy in language learning by integrating Hebrew Through Movement and Jewish Life Vocabulary. In addition, they introduce decoding/reading in one-on-one settings after learners have achieved a rich background in aural/oral Hebrew. In creating this shift, they have made room for more robust Jewish learning. And yes, their 13 year olds competently handle their bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies.

If I were starting the modern Jewish education enterprise from scratch, with no preconceived notions of current models, I would start with this “why” >> ensuring that meaningful and compelling Jewish learning is the focus of most of our students’ time. But to get to this “why,” I (we!) have to enable students to engage with Hebrew in a way that brings them joy and a sense of competency. And, as we shake loose the decades-old hold that prayer Hebrew has held on our programs, I (we!) also have to grasp the gift that #OnwardHebrew offers – a new way to conceptualize the part-time Jewish educational enterprise.

Compelling Jewish learning is at the heart of my practice as a Jewish educator and what #OnwardHebrew can enable us to more robustly achieve. I invite other Jewish professionals to start their own journeys with Simon Sinek, consider their “why” and then join the #OnwardHebrew conversation on the web and on Facebook!

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the Director of Curriculum Resources for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and a founding member of the #OnwardHebrew Leadership Team.