Last year the Avi Chai Foundation published a watershed study on Hebrew school education. One of the most intriguing findings was the emergence of a new force in this arena: Chabad-Lubavitch. The report, authored by former Jewish Theological Seminary provost Dr. Jack Wertheimer said that Chabad has taken a bold new approach to Hebrew school. Committed teachers, creative curricula, and a new program are infused with excitement and vitality.
The report cites parents who related that, in the past, “every Sunday morning they had to drag their children to school. By contrast, [Chabad] had won the children over [and their children’s] enthusiasm for programs was infectious and a welcome change from their previous unhappiness at other schools.” The parents described how they were then drawn into the Chabad Center by their children.
While Hebrew schools around the country are shrinking, Chabad’s schools are growing, today numbering over 350 in the U.S. Many have opened only in the last decade.
The study dispels the notion that Chabad is dumbing down Hebrew school. Instead, Chabad “serves as a model of a one day a week program that strives to compress into short, well-designed classes a maximum of teaching and also positive Jewish experiences,” according to the report. Claims to the contrary are sour grapes to those who remain locked into an educational method that may have been arguably successful decades ago, but today desperately needs innovation.
In generations past, families would join a synagogue as a matter of course. Young parents today are more detached from Jewish life, many choosing not to affiliate. Studies by Synagogue 2000 point to “barriers of engagement” that synagogues have erected that frontload membership, building and other fees before families can send their kids to Hebrew school or join. New ideas are clearly essential to create easy access for young Jewish families to connect with the community.
Chabad’s first priority is always to engage Jews in Jewish life. So, to reach these families, Lubavitch educators, working closely with parents and children countrywide, created an approach that includes engaging academics, inspiring teachers and a non-judgmental acceptance — all fused to shape a welcoming gateway to Jewish life. The model focuses also on enabling families to send their children without spending thousands of dollars, thus removing historical barriers to Jewish involvement for many. Programs are also designed to extend the educational interaction beyond the classroom to the entire family unit.
The Hebrew school curriculum was transformed to a program that is hands-on and interactive. Kids learn Hebrew with the innovative Aleph Champ program, steadily moving up a ladder of achievement. Holiday workshops — like an olive press on Chanukah and pre-Passover matzah bakeries — make learning experiential. In our school we brought animals to help the kids experience the story of Noah and sent the kids on a scavenger hunt to a supermarket in search of kosher products.
We have also taken a hard look at school operations. Some Chabad-run schools have improved on the traditional two-day a week program. Others have modified to a more intensive program on Sundays only, and for logical reason. In my community I resisted the change for years, fearing it would lower academic standards. But the reverse has proven to be true. A Sunday morning of intensive learning has had a greater impact than the two days a week after school. Kids arrive fresh and ready to learn on Sundays, compared to weekdays when they come in drained from school and activities. I’ve discovered that we can accomplish more in three hours on Sunday with no breaks, than in four hours split between two weekday afternoons, where time is wasted on getting started, focusing the kids, and providing a necessary recess.
But the greatest advantage of Chabad schools is the passion and energy of the teachers. The rabbis, rebbetzins and teachers live Judaism in an intense, personal way. They serve as powerful role models for the children, who become inspired by their infectious joy. The children bring this home and parents and siblings often join the Jewish experience, too.
One couple whose family had been unaffiliated for generations only reluctantly followed their child’s exhortations to join her friend on Sunday mornings, and is now hosting Shabbat dinners for their peers.
On Sundays, my center offers parallel adult education programs for parents. Instead of experiencing curbside Judaism, parents can choose to expand their knowledge base along with their kids. Beyond the inherent value of role modeling, this often leads to greater engagement with the community (and, often, also to charitable giving).
We share a sacred partnership with parents and children to continually improve our programs, and are always open to hearing suggestions and critique.
Successful business people know that in a time of changing demographics and attitudes, success comes from being nimble and innovative. Just as retailers need to constantly fine-tune their strategies to changing markets (without diluting their core product), so do Jewish institutions.
Seeing the Hebrew school model designed anew after decades of stagnation, Jewish families are voting with their feet. They see clearly how the Chabad-type program has created a new excitement in Hebrew schools, inspiring their children with love, knowledge and commitment to Judaism. n
Rabbi David Eliezrie heads the North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda, Calif. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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