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Hebrew School During—and After—the Pandemic

Synagogues have made changes to their educational programs. Which changes will endure once life gets back to normal?

Paula Jacobs
April 02, 2021
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman

Before the pandemic struck, every week Emily Webb drove her two children to three-hour Sunday morning religious school classes at Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue a 25-minute drive from her home in Decatur, Georgia. But the school—which served approximately 400 children in grades K-6 as well as more than 100 teenagers in its teen leadership program—stopped meeting in March 2020 due to COVID-19.

Although in-person Sunday classes resumed this past October—adhering to strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols, with limited class size—many parents opted for a virtual school instead. Webb and her family have been participating in a new online program known as Noar Family—Noar means youth in Hebrew—together with approximately 115 Temple Sinai families from across the Atlanta metropolitan area. “This program has brought people together,” said Webb, “at a time when togetherness is hard.”

Noar Family has met twice a month on Shabbat afternoons since this past October. Synagogue educators facilitate discussion, games, and interactive activities related to a theme or holiday: protecting the environment on Tu B’Shevat, for instance, or identifying heroes and heroines in our lives on Purim. The afternoon culminates with Havdalah led by Temple Sinai’s clergy and educational director, with families singing and lighting candles together.

“Noar Family has shifted our model to meeting families where they are and creating community, with family learning more a priority … where parents can participate and engage their kids … where we create a Jewish space and a meaningful Jewish experience,” said Marisa Kaiser, director of Temple Sinai’s Center for Learning & Engagement and first vice president of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators. “We have prioritized community and connection because people want to connect.”

When synagogues abruptly shuttered last March because of the pandemic, religious schools around the country pivoted to online learning. Initially, this unanticipated shift presented a slew of educational challenges such as learning new technology, adapting to the virtual platform, and figuring out how to keep students engaged. Since then, educators have been inspired to create innovative programming, use different teaching strategies, strengthen Jewish family education, and foster connection during a period of social isolation.

For Temple Sinai teacher Jody Miller, who teaches Hebrew to fifth and sixth graders, virtual teaching has meant tapping into new educational tools and online resources such as Kahoot!—a game-based learning platform with user-generated, multiple-choice quizzes that can be accessed via a web browser or the Kahoot app; Google Jamboard, an interactive whiteboard system; and Quizlet, an online study application that allows students to study various topics via learning tools and games. “There are lots of opportunities for doing new things. It has forced me to look for more resources. On the other hand, some things are much harder,” said Miller. For example, it’s difficult to give individual help over Zoom—unlike when she walked around the physical classroom, checking each student’s Hebrew reading progress.

This past year, as Hebrew schools went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they made many changes, including new teaching approaches, smaller classes, and shorter sessions. Teachers and students Zoomed in from home, while parents studied alongside their kids. While nimbly adapting to an online model, Hebrew schools gained some key insights about the benefits of making Jewish education more accessible, actively engaging families, using technology to enhance the classroom experience, and making Judaism more meaningful. Given the lessons they have since learned, Hebrew schools may never be quite the same.

At Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Voorhees, New Jersey, virtual learning has brought Judaism directly into the home, with special student projects and family activities, such as family challah-baking over Zoom and a scavenger hunt where students searched for Jewish objects in their house. For Passover, students will participate in an interactive JKids Radio Musical Passover Seder created by musical performer Rick Recht, featuring songs, stories, and blessings led by well-known Jewish musical artists.

“The pandemic gave me the opportunity to try new things, be creative and look for new curriculums and strategy,” said Rabbi Nogah Marshall, educational director of Beth El religious school. “As an educator, you have to be open to try new things, techniques, and teaching styles.”

This year, the school is using “La-bri’ut: To Our Health and Wellness, a new values-based curriculum created during the pandemic by the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, based on five value-based modules: sukkat shalom (a shelter of peace), ometz lev (inner strength), g’vurah (courage), k’hillah (community), and hesed (loving kindness). It includes both a weekly class mifgash (get-together) and home-based student activities.

The Beth El religious school has seen improved attendance at its virtual classes during the pandemic, because kids have fewer competing extracurricular activities. The teachers can also give students more individualized attention due to smaller classes, and classroom management can be easier because teachers can “mute” unruly students.

But virtual Hebrew school also poses new challenges. Initially, some teachers were uncomfortable learning technology and new skills. During the summer, teachers were trained on the new curriculum and new ways to engage students virtually. Because of anticipated Zoom fatigue, class time was reduced from three to two hours on Sunday and from two to one hour midweek.

“I have learned that anything is possible,” said Marshall, who also offers a hybrid learning option during the spring and fall (one day of in-person classes and one day online). “My advice is to embrace the challenge. We are in a whole new world now.”

Yet it’s also important to set expectations, advises Robin Kahn, director of education and teen engagement for the Ida and Charles Gilvarg Religious School at Temple Israel of Natick, Massachusetts. At the beginning of the school year, Kahn wrote parents a letter that defined the school’s role and expectations for parents. “Online learning is different. You can’t compare in-person and online,” she said.

One key issue: While computers have become essential to online learning, children now spend extensive time in front of a screen. During the pandemic, they have become more connected than ever, raising concerns about the long-term impact. So instead of staring at screens, students at Temple Israel now use textbooks during class. “It was important for me that the kids see each other and have a book in their hand,” said Kahn. “The kids know exactly what they are learning. When the world is so upside down, it is reassuring to have a textbook in their hand.”

To keep students engaged over Zoom, classes are now smaller. The three-hour Sunday session now meets for 90 minutes (two 45-minute classes), and the midweek session for second to seventh graders is 70 minutes instead of two hours. This year, to provide younger students with a solid foundation, there is also a midweek 45-minute class for pre-K to first graders. 

For teachers, Zoom means more preparation without breaks between classes. It’s also more challenging to develop one-on-one relationships with students over a screen despite “check-in” time at the beginning of class when students share news about their lives.

But the pandemic has also brought new opportunities. As part of their American Jewish history curriculum, Temple Israel fourth and fifth graders learned about the American Jewish immigrant experience during a private virtual tour of the Tenement Museum in New York City. A four-week private virtual tour of Israel with M² The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education brought Israel to life for the entire school. And on Shavuot, the Bible Players, a Torah comedy team, played improvisation games with both children and adults.

“The pandemic has let us take risks and change the perception of what Jewish education is,” said Rachel Mersky Woda, director of youth and family engagement for the Rabbi Leslie Yale Gutterman Religious School at Temple Beth-El, a Reform synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island.

Beth-El’s goal is to show how Judaism can be a source of joy and enrichment—even during a time of social isolation. For example, a “Gratitude Journal” provides students and families with collaborative activities and self-reflection exercises that embody core Jewish values related to the Jewish calendar such as justice for the stranger on Passover.

“We are always looking to engage families on how to bring Judaism in their homes,” said Mersky Woda, noting that Beth-El families have become more involved in Jewish life. “The secret to our success is relationships and connections. I told my teachers to connect with families and make sure that you care. We have tapped into a level of relational Judaism that we haven’t been able to do before.”

Teachers communicate regularly with parents. Even so, it’s not easy keeping students connected after a year stuck on Zoom. One Temple Beth-El teacher has sent activity packets to a student who is not attending school because of extreme Zoom fatigue—and although the child has not returned to class, this gesture is keeping the child and family involved.

Indeed, when students learn from home, there’s potential disconnect and a challenge for teachers and families, but the screen is also an invitation into homes, says Rabbi Kerrith Solomon, director of education at Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. “That is an incredible gift because we are so invested in our children and our families beyond the classroom experience.”

“We have been really touched by the role that our school community plays in our students’ lives,” said Solomon. “We know that more than ever this sense of community plays into their emotional health … We have been blown away by their strength and resilience ... as educators, it has pushed us to be creative and nimble in figuring out how to support and educate them.”

During this yearlong pandemic, synagogue educators have managed to creatively engage students and families in Jewish learning. Even though congregational membership has dropped off nationwide, school directors interviewed by Tablet report relatively insignificant drops in their enrollment figures this year.

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz, senior director and director of curriculum resources at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, explained, “For the first time in all my years in Jewish education, I am learning how Jewish education is impacting life beyond and how we can help kids get more from Judaism.”

This past year, virtual Hebrew schools have creatively used technology to bring new resources and online programming into the classroom. Because the internet transcends geographical boundaries, some schools have managed to retain teachers who have moved out of town. Attendance has improved since students are no longer commuting to class, and, significantly, families have become more involved in Jewish learning. “Family engagement is critical to Jewish family life,” emphasized Mersky Woda. “We think that the pandemic has enabled us to move in that direction where there are more opportunities for families to learn and do things together.”

In planning for the coming year, educators are now beginning to evaluate the merits of retaining some type of online presence. Yet, they also fervently hope for a return to the classroom where students develop the strong interpersonal relationships that in-person learning affords.

As for the future, that remains uncertain. “The pandemic has made us think harder about what we are teaching and how we are teaching,” said Kahn. “I wonder though whether one year of online religious school is enough to change Jewish education drastically. This year everything is new and different, but once we can go back in person, will we default to what was once normal?”

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.