We’ve Been Doing Online Hebrew for Six Years. How? Why?

Photo credit: Monica Santana Rosen

By Lauren Reeves

“Hebrew@Home was the ONLY thing in April and May that didn’t change in our lives. It was a lifesaver.”

That was a parent’s recollection of our midweek Hebrew program staying exactly the same last spring when the Illinois governor issued a stay-at-home order. Parents were grateful for the continuity and normalcy. Learners continued decoding Hebrew prayers. Teachers furthered their rapport with their learners. When religious schools across the country were pivoting at the last minute to teach new skills to faculty and figure out what to do with Hebrew, how did our program stay the same? Easy – we’ve been doing this for six years.

Our Shabbat-based religious school program, Shoresh, transitioned from Sunday mornings to Friday afternoons in 2014. Part of that transformation was shifting our midweek Hebrew program from a typical in-person group setting to Hebrew@Home, the online one-on-one midweek Hebrew program we created for 3rd-6th grade learners. There are myriad benefits to this approach to midweek Hebrew.

Learners get focused attention from their teacher for 30 minutes per week. Teachers tailor our custom prayer-based curriculum to the child. If a child takes more or less time than average to learn the V’ahavta, that’s ok. If a child has a question about God in the middle of a session? It’s not an annoying tangent after which the teacher has to get the class back on track. It’s an opportunity to explore and discuss.

Teachers have a lot of flexibility and creativity in the activities they use to engage learners. Some learners love the timed, competitive games that make others very anxious. Some learners use Hebrew roots and vocabulary to understand the prayer’s meaning and to learn decoding. Some learners need kinesthetic activities to remember the difference between a dalet and a resh. Teachers meet learners where they are, and both love the freedom that that affords.

Teachers are also amazed at the relationships they’re able to establish with learners during Hebrew@Home. They see the family cat wander through the screen or the sports uniform the child is wearing and use that in their teaching. Learners share their favorite YouTube from the week or the science project they’re finishing. New teachers are always surprised at the ease with which this rapport is established and sustained.

It’s around this point in my description of Hebrew@Home that a director interrupts to ask: How many learners do you have? How do you schedule all of these sessions? What curriculum do you use? How much does all of this cost? Here are my answers to those questions and how this approach would work in a congregation of any size:

• Our program has nearly 70 learners, and I am a part-time director with a faculty team of about 12 teachers, including four dedicated Hebrew@Home teachers. Hebrew@Home is manageable for me, and I believe it’s feasible to scale up for larger schools and down for smaller schools.

• Our religious school has built our budget around the cost of this program because we believe in its value and impact. We have tremendous parent support. Depending on your teacher-learner ratios for midweek Hebrew classes, the cost might not be a huge shift when class duration is factored in. Further, we’ve discussed starting Hebrew@Home later because learners pick up so much Hebrew they can learn the same amount in fewer years, with a nod to delayed decoding discussions.

• Parents and teachers use a scheduling website to schedule weekly sessions starting in the fall. Teachers set their availability (e.g., Monday-Wednesday 4-7:30 pm), and parents select a time that works best for them (e.g., Tuesday at 4:45 pm). The system automatically selects the best teacher for that time. PickTime is a free option, and Calendly is an option with a per-user monthly fee.

• We have moved to a custom prayer-based curriculum for 4th-6th grade that loosely follows the order of a Shabbat evening or morning service. 3rd graders learn to blend sounds of letters and vowels they first learned in-person in 2nd grade and then learn simple prayers like brachot. Hebrew@Home teachers focus on decoding while also incorporating prayer meaning and choreography. Teachers use publicly-available prayer texts, such as on ReformJudaism.org, sites like Quizlet, YouTube, and JTeach.org, and their own creative activities like bingo, tic-tac-toe, and reading races.

If you’re not already sold, here are two additional advantages that we love. First, Hebrew@Home can utilize teachers anywhere in the country (or beyond!). We have found teachers in our backyard through these nationwide searches, and we have hired teachers from other states. I can find the best teachers for our community, full stop. What makes a good teacher? Someone who is flexible and creative, who is a good communicator with parents and with me, and who can easily establish rapport with learners in an online setting.

Second, in a world where children are constantly accompanied and supervised, often in small or large groups, Hebrew@Home offers a reliable, laid-back 30 minutes where children establish a learning relationship with an adult all on their own. They learn that curiosity can lead to an interesting discussion. They can set the pace. They can rise to a challenge. They get to communicate and set goals and make mistakes and triumph as they grow to be skillful, engaged Hebrew readers.

Even more than Hebrew readers, they are engaged, skillful Jews and people. In our ever-changing and confusing world, that is a lifesaver.

Lauren Reeves is the Religious School Director at Shoresh, the Shabbat-based religious school program at KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago. She has made Shoresh meaningful and accessible to learners of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds through interactive experiences and high-quality learning.