Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“What the world needs now are good Jewish educators” --A Holiday Reminiscence

As the season of holidays culminates with Simchat Torah this week, I cannot help but reminisce about my days in "Junior Congregation" with master educator, Leo Reich, z"l, who untangled the mystery of the Hebrew prayers and made the synagogue experience come to life in vivid technicolor. 

His dedicated leadership and obvious love of both subject and student created a strong foundation upon which I am building my own career in Jewish Education. During one of our last conversations, Mr. Reich emphasized that the world needs good, committed, Jewish educators.  His words ring in the background of my thoughts whenever I contemplate my choice of profession.

Mr. Reich was everyone’s adopted father, grandfather, and friend in the Baltimore Jewish community.  As principal of the Hebrew school and director of children’s programming for the Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue, his soft-spoken, compelling personality drew children from all over the neighborhood specifically to hear his stories and participate in Junior Congregation.  “Uncle Leo” made each one of us feel important as members of the Jewish community and took even the most troublesome youngsters under his wing.

He also made the prayers come alive.  

Every week, Mr. Reich would conduct a search for the biggest, brightest “Ashrei smile” and give the winner a boost to show off his or her grin.  He would tell us to touch our dress clothes before we said the blessing “Malbish Arumim” (...who clothes the naked) and close our eyes to appreciate the blessing of sight before reciting “Pokeach Ivrim” (...who gives sight to the blind).  

Prayer had meaning that connected directly with my life--it encouraged me to consider gifts I never really noticed before: the ability to stand up straight, to be free and not imprisoned, to place my feet on steady, dry land.  And with Mr. Reich pointing out the meaning of a different phrase within the liturgy every Shabbat, prayer was not an exercise in rote memorization.  

We children never rushed to leave, knowing as we did that the service would be followed by sugar cookies and stories that we would treasure for years to come.  My favorite stories are those from Mr. Reich’s own army days, in which he shared memories of trying to keep Kosher while serving in a wartime army and tales of the people he met while peeling potatoes during KP duty, people whose lives he surely touched.   

Looking at Mr. Reich’s legacy, I would venture to say that the good Jewish educators the world needs are people like him, whose dedication to the calling and compassion for every person are so deeply felt by everyone nearby.

The field of education is unique in that it requires the engagement of both head and heart, intellect and emotion, and Jewish education is no exception.  The teacher’s job is to inspire and motivate the learner to further investigation and growth.  It requires sensitivity to the students' feelings and a knack for knowing when to push them to a new level of understanding and when to remain a patient and constant support.

More than personnel, it’s personality that will make the biggest difference in students’ lives, affecting the way they experience and remember the material. It is up to us, as educators, to prepare them with both the tools and the desire to continue learning even after they leave our care.  

Amy Fechter is Founder and Curriculum Strategist at Strategic Hebrew, Inc., which is creating a dynamic new approach to Hebrew language instruction through activity-based learning.  Many of the guiding principles of the *Strategic* approach derive from Leo Reich's compelling example of how to engage and inspire a commitment to Jewish learning and Hebrew language.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Strategic Hebrew Leaders' Fellowship

This August, a group of talented high school students formed the first cohort of the Strategic Hebrew Leaders Fellowship.  For five days, they toured NYC attractions speaking only in Hebrew and learning about language acquisition.

The fellows came from Long Island, New Rochelle, Connecticut and as far away as Maryland to participate in this cutting edge program that encouraged them to develop strategies for improving Hebrew skills in an immersion environment.  All are leaders in their own school communities and are committed to the goal of revitalizing Hebrew language in fun settings.  

During the week, the fellows learned how to plan lessons for teaching Hebrew as a second language through sports events, museum tours and interactive games.  They became quite resourceful about using their knowledge base to express increasingly complex ideas and can now quickly assess each situation to determine what they already know and what additional tools are necessary.   As they return to school this fall, we hope their performance in all subjects will benefit from the language strategies and cognitive skills they acquired during this week. 

We were very pleased to watch the fellows gain confidence in speaking Hebrew throughout the fellowship and are proud of their dedication and commitment to making the program a success. 

Here is a brief recap of our week and what the fellows had to say about their experiences:

DAY ONE: Getting Acquainted
Ice breakers in Central Park
How do you say Gelato in Hebrew? 
 "I was proud that I could understand most of what people said to me." 

"I learned it is important to try... and to make mistakes."

DAY TWO: Movement and Daily Life
בעיטה... סיבוב... 1...2...3..
Dancing in the Park
"I learned that it helps to keep repeating new words throughout the day." 

"I learned how to say chills and goosebumps."

The ladies are at home to receive visitors... at the Merchant House Museum. 

"To learn a new language, you have to be relaxed." 

"I got used to speaking in Hebrew and not answering in English." 

"I liked the opportunity to be a tour guide at the museum." 

DAY THREE: Communication and Identity

We have a match!
Hmn... how can I explain this in Hebrew?
 "The drawing game forced me to be specific in my descriptions... or find other words to make myself understood."

"I liked speaking in Hebrew because I used new words."

Photo Scavenger Hunt in Conservatory Garden.  We have a winner!

Tracing our roots at the Jewish Museum

"It was a treat to hear a whole tour in Hebrew.  I learned lots of words I didn't know before."

"One strategy I used was listening for the context.  Then I could figure out what the main idea was." 

"It was my goal to speak more Hebrew today and I'm proud that I managed for almost the whole day."

DAY FOUR: Nature and Adaptability

Guided tour of the penguin exhibit by one of our own fellows!

The petting zoo was a rousing success.

"At the zoo, I learned how to describe animals and the names of animals I didn't know before. "

"I learned that it is important for a teacher to be flexible... and that language learning can happen anywhere."

DAY FIVE: Sustainability and Summary

Our tour of Spanish Portuguese
Synagogue was easy to understand
and a fun way to learn about Jewish
Book club in Rockerfeller Center...
Harry Potter, A Little Prince, Peter Pan,
The Wizard of Oz... what strategies
do we need to understand these classics?
"Today was a great way to sum up the program in an interactive way (especially when we ordered in Hebrew--it allowed us to see how applicable Hebrew speaking is, even where we'd least expect to use it (in a restaurant))"

And a few general reflections:

"I learned that it is better to be immersed in a language than to just study it."

"I liked the opportunity to be physically active while practicing and learning Hebrew in a fun and relaxed way."

"I learned to speak creatively in order to get my point across!"

"I learned more words in this fun, interactive way.  It's easier to remember the words because you want to learn it, not because you're in a classroom setting."