Bringing Hebrew School Into The 21st Century
Tue, 01/08/2013
Associate Editor
A student at Tamid, a new synagogue in Lower Manhattan, uses the Online Learning Center’s digital Hebrew program. Photos courtes
A student at Tamid, a new synagogue in Lower Manhattan, uses the Online Learning Center’s digital Hebrew program. Photos courtes

When Rabbi Darren Levine started a once-a-week religious school this fall,he worried about the students having enough time to master Hebrew.

Midway through the year, however, he faces a problem he never expected: what to do with the kids who have already finished a year’s worth of Hebrew in just a few months?

“We’re having to rethink completely how we’re going to do our ongoing Hebrew education, because this has been so effective,” he said.

By “this,” he meant the digital Hebrew instruction offered through the Online Learning Center (OLC), a portal created by Behrman House, the Springfield, N.J.-based publisher of textbooks and materials for Hebrew schools.

Rabbi Levine’s Tamid, which is in Lower Manhattan, is one of 213 Hebrew, or supplemental, schools nationally (58 of them in the tri-state area) that are using the OLC, which first became available about a year ago. The password-protected Web platform enables teachers to set up class pages, where they can communicate with students and parents, and where the whole class can access course materials throughout the week from any location.

David Behrman, Behrman House’s president and publisher, said the OLC has three major goals: showing children “that Jewish content is moving into the 21st century,” extending the number of learning hours — particularly as many congregational schools are reducing the number of hours per week of class time — and getting parents more involved in their children’s Jewish studies.

Using the OLC is comparable in price to purchasing Behrman House’s printed books. In addition to hosting digital versions of its books, the site features approximately 2,000 downloadable materials, such as videos, lesson plans and worksheets. Some are free to OLC users, while others are available for purchase.

Behrman emphasizes that the site is a “work in progress,” with the publisher constantly acquiring new materials and adding new features, such as “voice-thread” software enabling students and teachers to easily record and share audio files — such as trope practice or Hebrew-reading practice.

For now, the publisher is investing far more money in the site than it is bringing in, but “profitability we hope will come with scale,” Behrman said.

Currently, about 15 to 20 percent of the schools that purchase books from Behrman House are using the OLC in some capacity.

While all the current users are Hebrew schools, Behrman noted that other Jewish educational groups, such as parent groups or adult-education classes, might also find the portal useful.

So far, the site’s digitized Hebrew textbooks, which allow students to learn and practice on their own, with self-paced exercises and games, have been the most popular feature.

“The kids don’t want to do just one lesson at home — they want to do six lessons at home,” Tamid’s Rabbi Levine said. “I had a kid who did 20 lessons.”

While most schools have students use the OLC only from home, Tamid gives students some in-class time on the computer as well — in part because the kids are constantly asking for it.

The OLC’s resources are not entirely new; much of the digital Hebrew material was already available on Behrman House CDs. However, many educators report that having it in the “cloud,” where it can’t be lost or damaged, makes for a better experience.

“We were using the CDs and had been for number of years, and they were very problematic,” said Ellen French, Hebrew technology coordinator at the 225-student religious school of Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El, which began using the OLC this fall for all its Hebrew teachers.

French, who also teaches, said, “We would have, over a period of time, 30 percent of the class having problems with the CDs — they would lose them, forget the password, or the CD would stop working toward the end of the year because of wear and tear at home. It created frustration on the part of kids and parents.”

By contrast, the OLC has worked more smoothly, French said, noting that the company’s technical support department has been helpful and responsive.

Nonetheless, introducing new technology into congregational schools, where teachers are generally part-time and parents are often distracted by other priorities, can be challenging.

“The problem initially was getting everyone on,” French said, noting that, despite frequent reminders, many parents took awhile to respond to the e-mail invitation needed for their children to register, while other e-mail invitations got lost in spam filters.

While computer-savvy teachers have quickly adapted to the OLC, others have required additional training and help.

“There are lots of opportunities for extending the classroom on this website, and some teachers are doing it, but some are a little afraid of it,” French said.

Janis Knight, director of religious education at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, N.J., said a lot of her teachers “are not necessarily digital natives, so I need to give them time to adjust.”

The Reform religious school, which has 450 students, began using the OLC in fourth through sixth grade this year.

“It’s a new tool, and if you’re not comfortable doing things online, it can be very overwhelming,” said Knight. She notes that even  though OLC is relatively straightforward, it is “not as idiot-proof” as widely used sites like Facebook or Amazon.

For the teachers who are comfortable with computers, the system is very helpful, she said; it enables them to more easily monitor their students’ progress.

One aspect of the OLC that has not been at all difficult is getting the students on board.

“Particularly the younger students are loving it,” Knight said, adding that they “react well to the games and being able to do a quiz online.”

“So many public schools are using a lot of these tools that it did seem silly that we in the Jewish education world weren’t using them,” she said. “If our students don’t see us using the same types of tools in their Jewish education as they do in public school, they unfortunately get the message that what we’re teaching them is also outmoded.”

Tamid’s Rabbi Levine said the OLC has changed his thinking about the utility of teaching Hebrew in a supplemental school.

“I was always very skeptical of teaching Hebrew unless you had multiple days a week of instruction,” he said.

Now, he sees digital Hebrew instruction as “the key.”

“For every educator across the country in a supplemental Hebrew school setting who’s struggling with getting kids to learn, using books and trying to teach in a classroom where kids are learning at different paces and with different aptitudes, this is the ingredient that’s going to shift that.”