The Making of A Chabad Hebrew School (a summary)

By Jack Wortheimer

       The Chabad Hebrew school, a family operated enterprise, is the anchor of its Jewish Center. The school’s directors are driven by a mission to create an outpost of Jewish life, a place for Jewish families to attain a strong love of Judaism and pride in being Jewish.
       Each child who attends Chabad Hebrew school is welcomed by name, with smiles and a high five, handshake, or hug. Creating a pressure-free atmosphere, the teachers always express their happiness to see the children regardless of when they come or how long they stay. The instructors are acutely aware that every moment they get with these Jewish children is valuable, and they are thoroughly trained to maximize the potential of this time. The talented staff accomplishes a remarkable amount and manages to pack in a substantial curriculum in two-hour weekday afternoon or three-hour Sunday morning sessions.
       A central part of the Hebrew school’s success, according to the Chabad rabbi, is teaching the children in a way that makes them enjoy the program. As one of the teachers explained, it is their aim to show students that Judaism is “timeless” and has a great deal to offer, inspiring them to connect to Judaism so that they will choose a Jewish lifestyle and environment when beginning to build their own lives. With this goal in mind, the teachers make it clear that Judaism is relevant to daily life, incorporating practical life lessons and acting as role models, getting to know the students on a personal level in order to help them grow to be mensches.
            The school’s teaching style emphasizes positive reinforcement, praising the children verbally when they act nicely or do a mitzvah, and rewarding them tangibly with prizes for answering questions correctly. This maintains the positive, enjoyable atmosphere of the school, but it is the goal of the instructors to make the classes so interesting that rewards are secondary.
          Succeeding markedly in this pursuit, the director explains they are constantly reinventing the program, developing cutting edge ideas to ensure that the kids are excited to attend Hebrew school. She explains that the Torah’s many levels allow for this approach, making it possible to address topics from different angles so that the children are consistently exposed to new information. The highly interactive design of the classes also maintain the children’s keen interest, using creative means such as raps and hands-on activities to directly involve them in learning and ensure retention of the material.
          Setting the Chabad Hebrew school apart are two classes, one a Jewish values and ethics course in which each grade addresses a different theme, and another that teaches Hebrew reading skills.  In the fourth grade Jewish home course, the kids learn the laws of many different mitzvot first hand, using doors created by the teachers to affix a mezuza, attempting to write the shema with a feather like a sofer, and salting an eggplant to dramatize kosher practices with respect to meat.
       The Aleph Champ course is the children’s favorite, a system that combines recognition of Hebrew letters and words with the mastery and self-motivation employed by karate. Each colored belt attained involves progression in proficiency of the Hebrew language, allowing students starting at any level to move at their own pace, encouraging them to grow, and providing the opportunity to cheer on their friends. The Hebrew level reached by students of the school in such limited time is unprecedented.
       What keeps these Chabad educators motivated to maintain such a rapid, intensive program? The rabbi relates they were taught dedication to the cause – that this is not a job for them – and anything is possible when modest success is seen as encouragement to do more. The center is run as a franchise, which the business-minded rabbi knows to be more successful. Savvier than most supplementary school educators on the west coast, they network with other Hebrew schools, Chabad, Reform, and Conservative. They maintain strong individuality, hiring professionals to construct sets, developing five and ten-year plans, bringing in real animals to an Israel fair, creating their own notebooks and handouts, and using graphic design for their fashionable website. Their system is based on programming, not membership, and is funded largely by donations. Focusing on the programs Chabad offers the larger community, the directors are consistently spurred to experiment and change, to develop activities that will draw more families to the center, leaving little room to doubt their intensity or dedication.
       Most distinguishing is the teaching of Jewish values as lived experiences, the educators striving to provide the children with life lessons. Sure and open about their positions, the educators define gender roles in the school, talk about the basic Jewish principle of Messianic resurrection, and teach detailed laws of kashrut many of the families do not observe. The families prioritize spirituality for their children and thus do not feel any conflicts of value with the school’s educators, completely at ease in the Chabad environment. The educational staff consistently exudes warmth and hospitality.  They are never judgmental and always flexible and patient, relying on their belief in positive reinforcement, for instance making the wearing of a kippah optional for boys, providing them at the front of the school, creating opportunities to decorate them in class, and praising those who do choose to wear them.
       Parents express desire for their children to be proud of who they are as Jews and are enthusiastic about the positive effects Chabad Hebrew school has had on them. The frequent refrain of parents was “kids love to come here.” They contended that their children were receiving a better Jewish education than anywhere else, one asserting “If you want the best education in the area for your Jewish child, you will send your child here.  They get the best immersion of Jewish identity and feeling good about being Jewish.”  The evidence speaks for itself, as the year the school was studied, 90% of the students stayed on after their Bar and Bat Mitzvah year.  The children are excited about participating in extracurricular programs the school offers, such as Shabbat meals, trips to amusement parks and Jewish sites, and opportunities for social action activities. Even the parents get more involved, taking a class with a rabbi while their children are in Hebrew school.  They are drawn into the Chabad approach that appeals to people searching for meaning and aspiring to uphold higher values. One can only conclude after observing this Chabad Hebrew school that its personnel are driven by a potent coupling of a strong business sense with a powerful mission to "ignite Jewish souls."        

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