Hebrew Choice and Possibilities: Separating the Language from Prayer Skills

It’s a fifth grade Hebrew class at Temple Shalom in Dallas, and a teacher announces, “Put a marker on the word ‘father.’” The students scan the Hebrew on their bingo cards, translating in their heads to see if their card has the Hebrew word abba. Then the teacher calls out a word in Hebrew and students again scan their cards to see if they recognize the word.

This is a typical activity in the school (with 700 families, it’s considered the “small” school in Dallas), which over the past three years has moved to distinguish Hebrew learning from prayer learning.

Hebrew is Hebrew,” says Rabbi Ariel Boxman, the education director at Temple Shalom. “If I can read modern Hebrew, I can read prayers as well.”

Boxman and her colleagues zeroed in on their goals for Hebrew learning: that students decode and read.

They do this by focusing on basic reading skills, by “using a different format to make the experience more relatable by using words that have meaning to students,” Boxman says. “We make it really, really fun.”

In third grade, they teach the alef bet, focusing only on mastering letter recognition. Each student gets a personal pack of flash cards. When students master a letter, they get a sticker on their card as a physical way to see where they are in learning.  Teachers also use Bananagrams in Hebrew in a variety of ways. A teacher might direct everyone in the class to grab an alef. Or tell students to put together an alef and a bet.

Each class has a teacher plus two strong teenage assistants, which provides enough support for the teacher to use stations and small groups for supplemental work on ipads.

Fourth grade consists of finishing decoding and putting letters together to create words. Those basic reading skills use mostly modern Hebrew words, not prayer words.

Fifth and sixth graders use Let’s Talk! and Let’s Talk Now!, modern Hebrew resources that immerse students in daily life and culture of modern Israel through ulpan-style conversation.

To turn it into curriculum Boxman created supplements such as activities, games, and flashcards of new vocabulary words for each chapter. That’s where the bingo comes in. “It’s for word recognition and comprehension, and the kids absolutely love it,” Boxman says.

“If kids are engaged with the content it comes faster,” she says. She fondly recalls learning Hebrew as a child by playing Twister to learn colors and sharing phone numbers with classmates. “I felt so cool talking to my friends in modern Hebrew.”

Separating Hebrew from prayer has been “a very positive change for our school,” she says. T’filah time is modeled after camp, where learning comes naturally from listening. Prayerbooks are offered but not required, because some students like to follow along.

“Now that they’re not being forced to follow along in class, I’ve found they have more participation and interest in tefillah,” Boxman reports. The sixth graders lead the midweek t’filah entirely, after spending the first semester learning from Boxman. “It gives them great practice and they like being leaders.”

Prayer comprehension comes informally. This year, all students in grades 3-6 spend one month on a different prayer. 

Over four sessions, they discuss the meaning of the prayer and learn the traditional and alternative melodies (after which kids vote on their favorite).

T’filah time lets us focus on the prayer and delve into what it’s about,” Boxman says. “And we believe that learning to read Hebrew is a basic building block of educating the next generation of Jews. Hebrew is about much more than just prayer.”

Click here for the bingo sheet and flashcards Rabbi Boxman created for Chapter 1 of Let’s Talk.

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