Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, recognized for his work in promoting tzeddek and Jewish ethics, recently shared his thoughts on the Times of Israel blog about the failure of the Hebrew School framework to prepare Jewish youth to grow and develop as committed, active members of the American Jewish community.
The article was criticized by some readers for "rehashing old news" but since the majority of American Jewish youth who receive any formal Jewish education do so through the congregational enrichment model, the subject seems as timely as ever.
In his article Yanklowitz reviewed many of the problems that are inherent in today's Hebrew school framework. These include the problems that the material is irrelevant to most of the kids, many teachers are ill-equipped to teach on a proper level and the families themselves see Hebrew school as last on the totem pole of priorities -- a message that the children pick up quickly and well.
Yanklowitz even goes as far as to say”there is no correlation between attendance in Hebrew school and a sustained commitment to Jewish life. I’d like to say it is better than nothing but I’m not sure anymore. Sometimes the damage of forcing our kids to participate in a boring, out of touch Jewish experience can alienate them forever."
Yet tens of thousands of Jewish families are committed to providing their kids with a Jewish education and since JewishDay School is not a solution for everyone, the Hebrew school model seems to be here to stay. A recent article by Jordana Horn even goes as far as to indicate that Hebrew schools can be, in some instances, a better option than Jewish Day Schools (her view is questioned by many observers).
Which brings up the question that Jewish educators have been struggling with for decades -- how does the Jewish community create an engaging congregational school framework that will address these issues?
Yanklowitz makes several suggestions. These involve moving the classes to Saturday mornings so that parents will be included in the process, creating more experiential Jewish learning as a basis for further study, strengthening peer-learning activities and reducing the emphasis on Bar/Bat Mitzvah study (as well as the obligations to "join" the Hebrew school for a specific amount of time in order to celebrate a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue).
Introducing online learning into an existing Hebrew school framework can also strengthen the afternoon school experience. Distance learning offers new and vibrant opportunities that include asynchronous activities, games, interactive assignments and other enjoyable components that create an energetic and engaging learning environment to present a high quality atmosphere which heightens the students' interest and motivation.
JETS' online learning programs have been a staple of Jewish day schools for several years but they are now being adopted by increasing numbers of afternoon schools. Topics are chosen by the students and their teachers -- Contemporary Jewish Issues, Virtual Tours of Israeli Historical and Archaeological Sites, Jewish Leadership, Hip Hop Hebraics, Tikkun Olam, Ancient Israel, Interactive Textual Study, Jewish environmentalism, Israel's Ethiopian Community, and more. The classes then meet with a teacher who provides material for consideration along with follow-up games and activities that the students can enjoy on their laptops or tablet devices.
Online learning means that the students are not obligated to listen to lectures, take tests, wait their "turn" to participate or sit through boring lectures. The classes create a vibrant environment that combines collaborative learning with independent exploration for a truly new look at what Hebrew school can offer.