Students highlight good, bad of teaching Hebrew school, why it’s worth it

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Sara Heckelman and her class pose inside a Sukkah. Photo courtesy of Sara Heckelman.

By Tori Bergel
Staff writer
@BergelTori

For most students, the weekend offers a much-needed break from the stress of class. Some, however, spend their time not in bed, but molding the minds of children, teaching them the basics of the Jewish tradition while making extra cash on the side.

From about 9 a.m. to just after noon every Sunday, many Jewish students on this campus help out at Hebrew schools in nearby communities. Most teach a specific class, though some larger programs also require the help of “floaters,” individuals not assigned to a specific class who help wherever they are needed.

Sara Heckelman, a junior marketing and supply chain management major, is in her second year working at Hebrew school. She currently teaches second and third graders through Arts Alive, a program based out of the Bender JCC of Greater Washington. Having gone to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp before college, Heckelman came into the program with an extensive amount of Jewish knowledge that she has integrated into each week’s lesson plan.

Said lesson plans are formulated during the week and submitted by Thursday. They can include anything from “lessons on Jewish identity to Hebrew language, to holidays, Torah study, and it’s an arts-focused program, so every session includes some form of art,” said Heckelman.

Activities can range from painting and sculpting to creating plays and dances, learning songs and cooking. 

Heckelman and class do an activity inside the Sukkah. Photo courtesy of Sara Heckelman.

Much of the curriculum in Hebrew schools caters to children with weaker Jewish education backgrounds by featuring more basic level lesson plans on topics like Holidays and Jewish tradition. That’s not to say, however, that the teachers themselves aren’t learning as well when they walk through the door.

“I definitely have grown in my knowledge,” said Amanda Steinberg, a junior psychology major who also teaches at Hebrew school. “Beforehand, I had a pretty minimal understanding of a lot of the concepts…in order to understand it, I do have to go through a lot of research.”

Steinberg works with Heckelman at Arts Alive, switching off between teaching kindergarten and fourth graders. She added that working with her close friend has been one of the best parts of the experience.

“She [Heckelman] was the one who gave me this opportunity, so to have this opportunity with her, and like, get to share these really silly stories of kids being silly has been a really nice experience,” Steinberg said. “I think it would be really hard for me to do this every week if I didn’t get to like, share it with her.”

Other students have had slightly less conventional experiences working in various programs. Junior finance and information systems major Noah Broth has worked at Adas Israel in Washington for well over a year now, but finds his experience a little different from those of Heckelman and Steinberg.

As a floater, Broth says his responsibilities can range anywhere from “taking little four-year-olds out to a playground to teaching a legitimate curriculum to sixth graders.” 

“My job personally is not very rewarding as I don’t really ever see results because I’m with a different class every week, but it’s also a lot less work, so, you win some you lose some,” he said.

Challenges can be expected when working with kids who would rather not spend their weekends in school.

Two children in Heckelman’s class show off their Rosh Hashana projects. Photo courtesy of Sara Heckelman.

According to Heckelman, there are two main elements that could lead to hardships while teaching: ensuring parent satisfaction and dealing with student behavioral issues.

“The older the kids get, the harder they are to deal with as a sub, because they respect you less,” added Broth, “whereas the younger kids like to see anyone who’s old as authority.”

The true difficulty in working at Hebrew school, however, lies in how teachers find the time to work, on top of classes and other activities they take part in as full-time college students.

“It’s hard, but I manage it the way I manage my work and everything else,” said Steinberg.

Despite these challenges, there are rewards that come with being a part in helping to shape young minds.

“I think one of the best things I have received from this experience would be just like hearing the children regurgitate information that I have given them, in their own way, has been really special,” said Steinberg.

“As long as you, like, engage with them in a unique and interactive way, they are just sponges,” added Heckelman. “They, like, learn things really fast and they’re cute.”

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