For generations of Jewish kids, Hebrew school has meant three or four, often boring, afternoons a week of classroom lectures and laborious language learning in a set curriculum. But thanks to a radical new pilot program starting this fall in New York City, students from third to seventh grades can learn about Jewish history, religion and social activism through classes like Bible Raps, Hebrew Detective Society and Midrash Manicures.
The program, called the Jewish Journey Project, aims to engage students with course material in nontraditional ways by incorporating studies with their existing hobbies and interests. A brainchild of Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, the JJP has taken shape with collaboration from seven New York City synagogues, the 14th Street Y and other city Jewish institutions.
“For many families, the traditional Hebrew school model just wasn’t serving them well,” said Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, director of the JJP and a 24-year veteran of Jewish education. “We want to meet a child where they are, with something that’s flexible, inspiring, and collaborative instead of just ‘top-down’ learning.”
The project’s educational model centers around each student’s “journey,” which they can create themselves by choosing courses in five different subject areas, or “pathways”: Torah, God & Spirituality, Hebrew, Jewish Peoplehood and Tikkun Olam. Classes are offered within each of these subjects at various times during the week, which makes life easier for parents as well as students.
Each class provides a student with a stamp for a “passport,” which, along with an online “travel journal,” allows the participants to keep a detailed personal record of what they’ve learned. There are no mandated requirements; students are able to select courses individually according to what interests them, and can even request to take classes with friends.
“The first thing we do with a student is ask them what their interests are. We want to give them a way to express their Jewish identity and show them that it’s not either/or with their other pursuits,” said Jessica Minnen, assistant director of JJP. “The last thing you want to tell a kid is ‘no, you can’t take dance because you have to go to Hebrew school.’”
For New York attorney Laura Gottlieb Feldman and her two children, the flexible schedule was a major boon.
“I have two kids’ schedules to juggle, but I want them to learn to read Hebrew and be with other Jewish kids,” said Gottlieb Feldman.