If you ask me (and, if I had to guess, many of my peers), there is nothing worse than Hebrew school. In the world of fun Jewish activities, with Yom Kippur fasting being a one and hooking up with Israeli soldiers on Birthright a 10, attending Hebrew school is a lowly three.
On Sundays, when all I wanted to do was sleep, I was dragged out of bed by my parents, stuffed into a minivan and sent off to learn a language that was so complicated and had so many funny looking letters that paying attention was a hopeless endeavor.
And it didn’t stop there. At least once a week, after a long day of secular school, I was carted off to synagogue to stare blankly at books for another two hours. I ran out of the classroom as fast as I could, unlikely to ever crack open our workbook. After seven years, all I could say was “I don’t know” in the male personal form. Suffice it to say that my comprehension of the Hebrew language was, and continues to be, minimal.
Luckily, it’s the dawn of a new era for bored and irritated Hebrew school students! Behrman House, a Jewish educational publisher in operation for 90 years, is trying to change those dreary (and ineffective) educational experiences by harnessing the power of the Internet. In early 2012 Behrman House became the first Jewish educational publisher to launch an Internet portal. Called the Online Learning Center, it provides digital lesson plans, articles and textbooks.
“We started with the idea of how can we make Hebrew exercises easier for students and families to use and provide greater flexibility,” said Vicki Weber, Behrman House director of communications and customer support. Offering a variety of games, the Online Learning Center seeks to increase the potential hours for learning outside the classroom, as well as motivate students to spend more time on their homework.
I remember my Hebrew school learning as a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. With in-class instruction just once or twice a week, every time I learned a new word or vowel, I forgot it by the next class. I was given the opportunity to try out one of the Online Learning Center games for second- and third-graders, “Ready, Set… Go Alef Bet!” and I could quickly see the appeal to children. Before I began the lessons, I created my own avatar, an experience akin to choosing a Mario Kart player. Though her bright orange skin and purple hair did not bear a strong resemblance to my own physical attributes, I thought her kicky newsboy cap conveyed my spunky eagerness to learn Hebrew. There were 20 lessons in total. Letter sounds and words from the previous sets were always interspersed in new sections. This was the continuity and reinforcement that my Sunday and Wednesday Hebrew lessons lacked.