The History of American Hebrew Teaching—How We Got Here

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Shandeh School and Talmud Torah

Joel Lurie GrishaverFrom the mid-twenties forward, there were three kinds of Jewish education for most American Jews. Two were dominant and most were somewhere in between. There was the Sunday School (immato et xians) started by Rebecca Graetz. There was the Talmud Torah, a three day a week after school and Sunday community school, championed by Samson S. Benderly. And there were increasing compromises between the two made because of suburban needs. Remember the suburbs always win.

Over simply, Reform kids went once a week, and got “religion” in what Benderly called the “Shandeh” School. Conservative kids went three to five times a week and graduated after Bar and the occasional Bat Mitzvah into Hebrew High Schools. The Talmud Torah schools (the communal ones) also had a network of community camps—both camps and schools were focused on Zionism. Reform and Conservative camps came along, too. So did their focus on Zionism.

The Benderly Boys


Benderly taught Jewish education at JTS and was a friend of John Dewey. He gathered a hoard of disciples called “the Benderly boys”  (there were a few women) and set about professionalizing Jewish education. One Benderly Boy was Emanuel S. Gamoran  who was called to the Reform Movement as its first director of Education and whose first innovation was the creation of a Reform Hebrew Language three day a week school (that was only two days a week by the time it made it to the suburbs of San Francisco and LA).

And so it went. In the 1950s, in Brookline, Massachusetts, I went to a Reform three day a week Hebrew and Sunday school—which post Bar Mitzvah pushed on to confirmation. Most of my friends went to a five day a week—plus Junior Congregation—Conservative school through Bar Mitzvah, and then graduated to a five day a week community school (Talmud Torah) at the Hebrew College. Hebrew Colleges (Colleges of Jewish Studies) were another aspect of Jewish communal learning.

Because Russia had sputnik and America had to catch up, as we entered the 1960s, education had a new fervor.

The Six Day War

In 1967 everything changed. Israel won the Six Day War and changed the identity of every American Jew. Hebrew school had pretty well settled into a three day a week (seven hour) format for both Reform and Conservative congregations. Talmud Torah was an urban reality. The three day a week Hebrew Schools, a suburban truth. Both schools taught Hebrew as a language. Reform schools tended to teach it as a dead language with a lot of grammar. Conservative Congregations (with a greater Israel connection) had a greater tendency to hier Israeli teachers to teach a modern Hebrew.

Come 1967 and everything changed. Ashkenazik Hebrew (Al shoshes devarim oylam omeyd) became Sephardik (Al shloshah d’varim olam omed (Pirke Avot 1.2)). And we wanted our kids to now speak the living language of Israel. The technology of Sputnik, in the guise of the phonograph, the tape recorder and the be-all and end-all—the filmstrip projector– were now used to make language study modern. Kakhol v’Levan became the colors of American Hebrew for about ten years. Then the suburbs regained their influence.

The Suburbs

By the mid 70s, Hebrew schools had all but abandoned communicative language and were now teaching a new piece of American alchemy, “siddur Hebrew.” Siddur Hebrew no longer communicated, but it did work for the b’nai mitzvah process in which women were now full partners. We entered a period of time-wars where the three day a week school (if it still was three days) was  pressured back into the corner of the cage with a stool and whip and often became the one or two day a week school. So the children of the boomers became gen-x and y and kametz + alef still equaled Awe.

A lot of things changed. Israel tarnished. Suburban life got busier. Intermarriage grew and forced its way into being a norm. Technology changed again and demanded attention. And so as millennial Jews came into force the synagogue lost almost all of its authority, fun became essential and hours were again shortened, with the demand for technology approaching “superbowl” volumes.


Jewish Educators of the past were trained with the vision of Alexandria, Egypt. The great tragedy of Alexandria was not the burning of the library, but the abandonment of the Hebrew Language. “Why did the mothers of Israel merit so much respect when we were slaves in Egypt? They were honored because they insisted on giving their children Hebrew names.” When Alexandrian Jews lost Hebrew, a large vibrant community disappeared. Today, Jewish Educators remember and all wear Eliezer Ben Yehuda underoos.

No one knows what to do with Hebrew today. Some schools are abandoning it to tutors or short on-line classes. Some schools are hiring private companies to handle it (and escape the direct connection). Most schools are shortening it to below the threshold where anything that enters short term memory can possibly be remembered for any length of time. We are doing everything possible not to teach Hebrew except for not actually teaching something called Hebrew.

Maybe it is the connection between synagogue membership and Bar/t Mitzvah.

Maybe it is the memory of Alexandria.

Maybe is hypojupious—the part of the brain that deals with Jewish identity.

Maybe it is cognitive dissonance.

Maybe none of us wants to be the generation that…

We at a moment when we don’t want to teach Hebrew and we don’t want Hebrew not taught.

Hebrew Through Movement

Her name is Lifsa Schachter. She has been pushing the same approach to Hebrew for a long time. And her moment has come. If Jewish Education was a stock exchange, Hebrew Through Movement would be the winning investment.

A secular educator named Dr. James Asher made a break through in second language teaching. He discovered that movement is good for memory and founded a movement called TPR (Total Physical Response). This is good thinking, Good research. An Elegant Solution and Lifsa Shachter and her hoard (just like the Benderly boys) brought it to Jewish education. My concern is about absences—not methods. Here is your quick guide to Hebrew Through Movement. First: no books. No reading. No decoding til kids are eleven or twelve years old. Learn Hebrew naturally and acoustically, and especially kinesthetically. TPR is a really interesting wing of second language acquisition movement. It has solid research. It is fun. It is effective in a number of secular contexts and meets a number of contemporary Jewish needs. In neurolingistics (NLP) there us a construct called VAK (visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning). This is learning through the three dominant modalities. Kinesthetics is its own way of learning and remembering. It is the underused modality and can be harnessed with great results. This is very much natural language acquisition, and could perhaps be sarcastically called “Simon Says Hebrew.” Remember, I like this stuff and feel it has a major role to play. I believe that it is necessary. I am just not convinced that it is sufficient. I still believe that seven- and eight-year-old children should be able to read the “four questions” at seder and say the brakhot at Hanukkah as gateway experiences.

I want years spent at Hebrew school bonding with the words of the siddur. My friend and teacher Ira Wise ( ) always said, the answer is never “either/ or” but “yes, and…” What bothers me about Hebrew Through Movement is not how it teaches (that it does well) but, rather the alienation it creates between student and siddur. God knows (and I do believe that “God only knows”) how much harm we have done by the kind of drilling we have done with the siddur, but that is something I want to fix—not remove.

Visual Prayer

The next problem in this progression is visual prayer. For those not in the know, this is the projection of prayer texts (often with pictures) onto the synagogue walls preempting the need for opening of siddurim. The new worship experience, especially current in Reform Synagogues (like the use of musical instruments on Shabbat) is called visually prayer. The good part of this story is lots of chances to hug (because there are no siddurim in the way). There are a couple of bad parts (that for others may be good).

First it turns the synagogue experience into a concert. You decide if this is a good dynamic. Do you want to hold up your cel-phones and wave them during the Alenu. Second, because of the need to do outreach (and that is a real need) it puts up transliteration every time Hebrew is used. If you mesh four to six years of services before decoding (Hebrew reading) is taught, and transliteration always being present, I think you are taking Hebrew out of the service. That is very Alexandria.

What We Need?

Here is a simple three part solution.

  • Use Hebrew Through Movement and other natural language programs as the basis of the Hebrew we teach. Start it in pre-school. Let’s root our beings in as much living Hebrew as possible.
  • Start Decoding in third or fourth grade and do it small chunks using electronics. See Introducing PrayerTech. Have no fear, HebrewTech is coming.
  • Invest a lot of time and effort in quality worship and ritual experiences that use only Hebrew. (Even if you need to—make a separate set of sides).


Take a cel-phone picture of this. In Debi Rowe’s San Pedro religious school, the whole school has each Hebrew class reading Torah one week-day afternoon. Every class in turn reads Torah and makes the brakhot. Starting in Bet they read a few lines with the right trope. Alef kicks in as early in the year as they can. Tov! Yafeh M’od.

L’kfotz b’Makom (jump in place) (TPR) has something to contribute, so does the memory of reading Torah as a nine or ten year old once a month.

The right way is: “both, and…”