Hebrew schools are getting animated, and that doesn’t just mean the classes are getting livelier.
Students at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott and Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester are actually creating animated videos to learn more about Jewish stories. At Shirat Hayam, fourth and fifth grade Hebrew school students created stop motion animation videos to tell the Purim story. At Ahavat Achim, students learned to make animations of Midrash stories.
As the New Year approaches, some Jewish parents ask themselves how – and sometimes if – they should provide their children with a Jewish education. Despite hand-wringing in recent years over a supposed decline of Jewish education on the North Shore, there are actually many vibrant options for Jewish learning. Even smaller congregations have schools, and enrollments remain steady.
But to compete in a crowded marketplace, Hebrew schools have to offer meaningful Jewish educational experiences.
“Jewish education is becoming increasingly personalized,” said Janis Knight, the director of Shirat Hayam’s Hebrew school, also known as the Center for Jewish Education (CJE.) “We have confronted and accepted the empowering sense of personal choice and diversity of background and goals in our families.”
That can often translate to time and money. Now, Hebrew schools often cost less and meet less frequently than in the past. For example, at the recently reopened Hebrew school of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, students can meet twice a week (for $500 annually) or once a week (for $350 annually). Chabad of Peabody charges $850 a year for once a week sessions, while Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott charges $999 for once a week, and also offers a program called the Jewish Kids’ Club, which meets once a week for free, with a suggested donation of $10.
Some Hebrew schools have experimented with free education. After deciding to switch to voluntary dues last year, Shirat Hayam has made its Hebrew school free as well, except for nominal registration fees. Ner Tamid and Chabad of Peabody now offer a free “try it before you buy it” year, to use Chabad Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman’s terminology.
“For the people who are on the fence and if finance is the only obstacle – if anything is an obstacle, this gives them the ability to say, ‘Let me see how I feel about it,’” said Schusterman.
That fits with a larger philosophy that no child who wants a Jewish education should be turned away for any reason. Through various forms of financial aid, scholarships, and sliding scale pricing, local Hebrew schools find a way to cover the cost.
“We believe that educating our kids is a communal obligation, so philosophically, even those who don’t have kids in a religious school should help with the funding of our children’s education,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. “No child or family is kept out because of lack of funds. I meet with families confidentially and quietly to make sure that’s the case.”
Some school leaders think distance and convenience should not get in the way of a Jewish education, which is why Ner Tamid and Shirat Hayam offer an online option where students can now watch and participate from anywhere. Schusterman is also considering it.
Whether in the classroom or via webcam, students engage in a number of activities aimed at fostering a community where students, in the words of Meyer, “come out feeling Jewish, feeling part of the community, and understanding who they are.” While Hebrew school teachers borrow from various Jewish textbooks and curricula, many say that they are only there as guidance, and teachers are encouraged to create active, dynamic lessons.
“We do use prewritten curricular pieces, however they have been specifically chosen to allow leeway for individual teacher creativity and specialty to shine through,” said Knight, of Shirat Hayam. “We try to use few to no textbooks, preferring station activities, project-based learning, online access, reading directly from the Siddur or Torah, or using individual packets.”
Students are kept interested through projects and games. Students at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly staged a mock Jewish wedding; students at Chabad of the North Shore pressed olives into olive oil; students at Temple Ahavat Achim crafted mezuzot and sewed tallit; students at Ner Tamid made topographical maps of Israel; students at Shirat Hayam created video trailers about the Talmud and correspond with Israeli pen pals.
“The competition for kids’ attention has only gotten more and more fierce … which has forced everyone to step up their game to offer a more and more exciting and dynamic program,” said Schusterman.
North Shore parents also have the option of the Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead, a K-8 Jewish day school (annual tuition ranges from $18,700 to $23,600, although financial aid and scholarships are available). According to Principal Amy Gold, Epstein Hillel students spend approximately 65 percent of their time on general studies, and 35 percent on Judaism. Students learn Hebrew every day and take a Jewish studies course three times a week, but the school has adopted an interdisciplinary approach that aims to highlight Jewish themes and concepts even in places one might not initially expect.
“Every grade level has multiple integrated units that has Judaic and secular content together,” said Gold. “If sixth graders are looking at environmental science, we might be talking about what Judaism says about how we need to take care of the earth and the animals. When you get to Hanukkah, and you play dreidel, and the math connection is probability – there’s four sides to the dreidel, so what are the odds of ‘gimel’ coming up?”
Gold noted that connections to Israel are often highlighted and find their way everywhere, from learning about the Israeli space mission in math and science courses, to hosting Shinshinim – young Israelis who spend a year in America teaching Jews about Israel.
“There are as many ways to be authentically Jewish as there are Jews looking to be Jewish,” said Knight. “All Jewish people – adults and kids – need to find their own Jewish identity based on a sense of shared values and being part of an unbroken chain of memory stretching back through history and myth.”