Students Give Voice to Reimagining Hebrew School


Students from 20 area synagogues came together at a youth summit to share their thoughts on what an ideal supplementary Jewish education program would look like. 

If you were to ask 80 fifth- to 12th-graders if they would rather go to Hebrew school every week or just a couple times a month, you might be surprised by the answer.

When asked that question at a youth summit on Feb. 1 at Gratz College, a large majority of the students walked to the left side of the auditorium, signaling that they were in favor of meeting more regularly.

More Hebrew school?

“They felt the continuity was important,” said Barbara Hirsh, director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

With a $50,000 grant from Federation, Hirsh has been meeting with leaders of Gratz College and Jewish Learning Venture, two local agencies focused on supplementary education, to develop Jewish educational programming that is more effective.

Before they come up with a plan, she said, they want to hear from the stakeholders.

So students from 20 synagogues in the Greater Philadelphia area were selected by their congregation to gather at the summit on Sunday morning. They broke into age groups and brainstormed about times and places where they felt Jewish, illustrated their examples on murals and analyzed what qualities made those particular experiences feel Jewish. They then shared what new ideas they had thought of to improve Jewish education before all the age groups again combined in the auditorium.

The organizers will hold a second summit for adults later this month and then start developing the pilot that they hope to launch in the fall.

One of the ideas being considered for the pilot would be to have students come together less frequently, for longer sessions and in partnership with institutions such as the Frank­lin Institute or the National Museum of American Jewish History for the programming.

Most students signaled that they would prefer to meet outside of the synagogue. As for the unexpected response about how often they meet, “you should also bear in mind that these kids are the most interested kids,” said Lowell Dub­row, a board member of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning who attended the event.

In an effort to hear directly from some students, the Jewish Exponent interviewed some of the participants to find out what they like and don’t like about Hebrew school and changes they suggest. Below are some thoughts from four students we interviewed. Their responses have been edited for clarity.

Marielle Zakrzwski, 11, Beth Sholom Congregation, Elkins Park Carlye Zuckerman, 13,
Congregation Kol Emet,

“Hebrew has been a little hard for me, but I’m really interested in learning about Jewish history.”

“I wouldn’t really change much about Hebrew school, but maybe with learning Hebrew, we could play some games to learn prayers because my teacher just gives us prayers and we have to read them. Maybe we could do a little interactive game online to help us further our skills.”

At the summit, she “learned that people have many different styles of doing mitzvahs. Some are more like sending something out and not doing it hands-on, and some are more hands-on, working hard, like packing food or doing a food drive.”

“It’s really fun because now that we’re in Hey class and we’re getting closer to our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, we don’t have to stick to the schedule at Hebrew school, we have more of what we want to do, not just learning the letters.”

“The worst Hebrew school experience would be probably just sitting there and learning everything and not doing anything. The best one would be the parties we have for holidays.”

Simmy Decker, 14
Former student at Perelman Jewish Day School; student at Jewish Community High School; Hebrew tutor at Beth Sholom Congregation

“It’s fine to learn prayers, but I think you should definitely understand what you’re saying because at the end of birchas hamazon, we say, ‘I do not see a righteous man ask for bread,’ and I don’t agree with that. We see righteous people go hungry all the time so I choose not to say that, but I think that these kids in Hebrew school aren’t taught that.”

Comparing Jewish day school to a supplementary program, she said: “I think that it’s harder to teach conversational Hebrew once a week.”

Zach Munin, 13,
Temple Sholom, Broomall

“It’s called Hebrew school but we don’t really learn words and phrases and greetings and commentary.”

“The worst Hebrew school experience was probably Sunday school when the curriculum didn’t change throughout all the years. We kept learning the same things and it just got repetitive. The best experience was probably finishing it. It’s a tradition to go to Hebrew school and get Bar Mitzvahed or Bat Mitzvahed, and accomplishing that is a great feeling.”



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