Let’s Stop Calling it “Hebrew School”: Rationales, Goals, and Practices of Hebrew Education in Part-time Jewish Schools

July 20th, 2020

This CASJE-supported study investigated how Hebrew is taught and perceived at American part-time Jewish schools (also known as supplementary schools, religious schools, and Hebrew schools). Phase 1 consisted of a survey of 519 school directors around the United States, focusing on rationales, goals, teaching methods, curricula, and teacher selection. Phase 2 involved brief classroom observations at 12 schools and stakeholder surveys (376 total) at 8 schools with diverse approaches. These observations and stakeholder surveys were intended to determine how teachers teach, use, and discuss Hebrew; how students respond; how students, parents, clergy, and teachers perceive their program; and these constituencies’ rationales and goals for Hebrew education.

Here are some of the study’s key findings:

  • Most schools emphasize decoding (sounding out letters to form words) and recitation of Liturgical and Biblical Hebrew without comprehension for the purpose of ritual participation. Many schools also incorporate some Modern Hebrew, but only a small percentage teach Modern Hebrew conversation through immersive teaching techniques.
  • In addition, most schools practice Hebrew infusion—the incorporation of Hebrew words, songs, and signs into the primarily English environment. The (unstated) goal of infusion is to foster a metalinguistic community of Jews who value Hebrew. This is reflected in the high importance of affective goals—such as associating Hebrew with Jewishness and feeling personally connected to Hebrew—for all constituencies, especially school directors.
  • A major challenge in Hebrew education is the small number of “contact hours” that most schools have with their students. On average, schools spend 3.9 hours per week with 6th graders, including 1.7 hours on Hebrew. Multiple stakeholders consider this limited time the most significant challenge. Even schools on the high end of contact hours wish they had more time.
  • School directors, clergy, teachers, parents, and students have diverse rationales and goals for Hebrew education, which at times can create tensions. School directors believe parents are only or primarily interested in bar/bat mitzvah preparation. This is true for many parents, but some parents also have other goals for their children, including gaining conversational Hebrew skills. Parents and students value Hebrew for reasons besides bar/bat mitzvah more than school directors and clergy expect them to.
  • School directors express less interest in some Modern Hebrew-related goals than do parents and other constituents. Perhaps this reflects school directors’ more realistic sense of what is possible with limited contact hours.
  • Students generally express positive feelings about their school and learning Hebrew. Their responses suggest that schools are generally succeeding in affective goals more than school directors believe.
  • School directors are more likely to feel they are accomplishing goals that are important to them when certain factors are present: when they have been in their positions longer, when they have realistic goals based on the contact hours they have, when their schools do much of their Hebrew learning in small groups, and when their schools assign a small amount of homework.
  • Many schools have trouble finding teachers with sufficient Hebrew knowledge, as well as teachers with adequate pedagogical skills for teaching Hebrew.
  • Schools are making changes in opposite directions. Some schools are adding more Modern Hebrew instruction; others are shifting their focus solely to Textual Hebrew.
  • Hebrew Through Movement and other elements of #OnwardHebrew have become popular. Many school directors consider these approaches successful.
  • Online Hebrew learning is gaining some traction. Online options include gamified activities and one-on-one Skype/FaceTime tutoring sessions (this study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic). School directors generally feel that these individualized and technologically based approaches are effective.
  • Many school directors and teachers are not aware of the resources for Hebrew education in part-time Jewish schools.

Based on these findings, researchers recommend several actions for schools to take:

  • Initiate a comprehensive process of collaborative visioning regarding rationales, goals, and practices involving teachers, clergy, parents, and students.
  • Make explicit the primacy of affective goals and expand Hebrew infusion practices to accomplish those goals.
  • To teach decoding, spend less class time in large groups and more time in one-on-one and small-group configurations.
  • With parent buy-in, offer a small amount of gamified homework.
  • Offer multiple tracks or an enrichment option for families interested in conversational Hebrew.
  • Change the informal nomenclature to stop using the misnomer “Hebrew school,” except where Hebrew language proficiency is the primary focus.

View the full report, Let’s Stop Calling it “Hebrew School”: Rationales, Goals, and Practices of Hebrew Education in Part-time Jewish Schools and an infographic on the key findings.