How to Help Kids Learn when Hebrew School’s Cancelled
Four strategies to help kids learn even when Hebrew School is cancelled.
The Hebrew school I teach in, like schools across the world, has announced they’re temporarily shutting their doors to minimize the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
While my students – and countless others – won’t be able to attend classes for a while, I know it’s crucial to many families to continue their Jewish education. Here are four tips to help you learn with your kids, drawing on twenty years of teaching Hebrew school.
1. Practice Skills
Teachers call it the “Summer Slump” – after a long summer off of school, students’ skills decline noticeably. One study found that students lose an average of one month of school learning while they’re off each summer. In my classroom, it’s always easy to tell which kids have been practicing reading Hebrew at home; their skills are great compared with their peers who are a little less diligent about completing their Hebrew school homework.
While kids are off of Hebrew school, try making time each day to read Jewish books and articles, say Jewish prayers and practice reading Hebrew. You can try reading from a prayer book or a Hebrew Bible, or look for simple stories, songs or practice sheets online. Regular practice will help them keep their skills sharp. With Passover coming up, you might want to practice reading a Passover Haggadah. One place to start, if your children don’t already know this passage, is the Four Questions. You can easily find people reading this and – other passages of the Haggadah – online so you can check your kids’ pronunciation as they practice.
2. Live the Holidays
One amazing benefit kids get from Hebrew school is being part of a vibrant Jewish environment. For some of my students, Hebrew school is the one place where they feel most Jewishly involved, surrounded by Jewish peers, taking part in Jewish activities, and studying Jewish subjects. Sadly, during this period, this crucial peer group will be missing for many students.
While Hebrew school is out, it’s up to us parents to supply the rich Jewish content our kids will be missing in school. My students were excited to start learning about Passover this week. They were looking forward to an upcoming community Shabbat dinner. They enjoyed their weekly “kumzitz” singing Jewish songs. In lieu of these activities, it’s up to their parents to make sure our kids still have these key Jewish experiences.
With our kids home from school, try brainstorming ways to “do Jewish’ this week. Prepare for a tasty family Shabbat dinner together. Try looking up Jewish songs online and learning the words. Experiment with Jewish arts and crafts; read Jewish stories and books. Let’s all up our game and incorporate more Jewish activities to make up for our kids’ lack of more structured Jewish activities right now.
3. Tap into Jewish Prayer
Before our school was cancelled, my Hebrew school students came to class anxious and worried. As I listened to them share their concerns for themselves and their families in the face of the coronavirus, I suggested that we spend some time praying for our family and our community. “But we don’t know how!” one of my students said, clearly upset. I told them that we can talk to God at any time and in any way, either using words of traditional prayers or in our own words. Then I shared a short personal prayer of my own with them and we spent a few minutes sitting quietly, each speaking with the Divine in our own way.
When we were finished, I was shocked to find that my students were suddenly much more calm and optimistic. Studies have shown that praying can lead to markedly higher levels of health and happiness and is associated with a greater sense of well-being. In this stressful time, we can help support our kids by encouraging them to turn to our timeless Jewish tradition to help us commune with the Divine. Doing so also sends the important message to our kids that Jewish prayer isn’t only something they do in Hebrew school, and they can access it anytime.
4. Create a Virtual Jewish Community
Jewish community is a key component of Hebrew school: coming together with other Jewish children sends the message that kids are part of a wider Jewish community. Some schools also have regular field trips to Jewish charities and nursing homes and other sites, which help kids realize they are part of a wider Jewish community.
When kids aren’t able to physically get together, there are ways to encourage them to connect with the wider Jewish community. Brainstorm ways to reach out to other Jews: connect with friends and relatives on the phone; write letters to nursing home residents who cannot receive visitors now; talk about donating funds to Jewish charities to help those in need. Make sure your kids realize they are a vital part of a wider Jewish community. Reaching out to help others can also help children cope by fostering a sense of purpose, leaving them feeling empowered during this difficult time.