Jewish educators have been grappling with the question of how to create a more meaningful and engaging Hebrew School environment for over half a century. Afternoon Hebrew schools have been an important part of transmitting Jewish heritage to young American Jewish youngsters since the 1920s but 100 years later, it's clear that changes are needed in order to more fully engage 21st century youngsters.
Most Jewish educators agree on several points:
· Today's Jewish educational model must offer a more meaningful and personalized experience that will provide students with the knowledge and guidance that they need to integrate Judaism into their lives
· Experiential Jewish education is a highly effective way of transmitting Jewish heritage on to the next generation
· When parents are involved with their children's Jewish education, Hebrew school becomes a more significant experience for the students. The students are more likely to take their Jewish studies more seriously, and parents may choose to integrate their child's Hebrew school experiences into the home
· Hebrew schools often send an unspoken message that the "goal" of Hebrew school is to perform or chant for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. This message should be replaced with information and skills that aim to help the children develop into ethical, giving and kind people with an understanding of how their Jewish heritage translates into these values.
To address these issues the Religious School of Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley, under the leadership of Education Director Rabbi ShelleyKniaz, has partnered with JETS, Jerusalem EdTech Solutions, to present a highly innovative distance learning program for their 7th grade students. The interactive program meets online, to provide the students with an opportunity to learn about a wide range of Jewish concepts and values via engaging online tools.
The subject matter includes sessions entitled Freedom and Slavery, Pursuing Justice, Redeeming Captives, Accepting Strangers, Remembering and Rebuilding: Holocaust and the State of Israel, and more. Students log on from their home computer and chat, talk, post, create audios, play online games appropriate to the lesson, break off into teams, view guided multi-media and engage in non-stop activities as they relate ancient texts to modern day dilemmas and consider "what does it mean to be Jewish?"
Parents have responded enthusiastically to the program. One parent noted that "it uses the technology that relates to the children’s interest; it holds their interest longer" while a second parent related to the content, writing that "The topics are rich for learning and discussion. My son sometimes wants to do more research into a topic after school."
A core component of the program is parental involvement. Religious schools often look to involve parents by inviting them to come to the school or synagogue/temple. Conversely, parents try to find time to participate in their children's Hebrew School program. The online program enables parents to participate in their children's Hebrew School experience without ever leaving their home. Parents can join in the class, observe their child's engagement and interactions and even watch the discussions so if they wish, they can follow up later. This has proven to be a successful model, with parents expressing their satisfaction as they watch their children interact with their peers and teachers in the online environment. Some of the parents' comments:
· "The topics are rich for learning and discussion. My son sometimes wants to do more research into a topic after school."
· My daughter finds the subject matter very interesting and informative."
· I like the enriched learning they are receiving. It is very interactive and incorporates technology into the learning."
· "My son is enjoying the experience immensely. I am happy that my child is enthusiastic about the program and enjoys participating"
· "My daughter is enjoying it very much!"
Students, parents and Temple Emanuel synagogue staff are enthusiastic about the project which is scheduled to move into its second year in September 2014. Both students and parents note the convenience aspect. Students expressed their heightened engagement in class activities and comprehension of the subject material. Parents commented that the online program holds their children's interest longer even as it presents more challenging subject material and a faster pace which includes multiple interactive activities in each lesson. For the school staff, the ability of the parents to be present and observe their children's Jewish learning is a tremendous benefit of the program, unifying the Hebrew school, parents and children.
Students also weighed in on the new program with comments that expressed their involvement and engagement with the material.
· "I have learned so much I will never forget. I really feel a part of something big."
· “Better than class and you can relate to more of your classmates.”