This week, Hebrew schools from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Pasadena, Calif., geared up for the start of a new academic year, implementing curricula designed to instill in students both a solid foundation of Judaic knowledge and a strong sense of Jewish identity.

“We try to give the students a love for Judaism,” says Chanie Pinson, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Pasadena’s Hebrew School, which kicks off its 2011-12 classes on Sept. 14 and will meet weekly on future Wednesday afternoons. “With our unique educational approach, our students are able to explore and discover the beauty of their heritage in an atmosphere of joy and warmth.”

The Pasadena school, which caters to children ages 6 to 13, incorporates the Aleph Champ method of Hebrew language instruction in its educational curriculum. The program, which adopts the same color system used in karate to motivate students to read the text of prayers and Torah passages, is currently implemented in more than 450 Chabad-Lubavitch run schools worldwide, including Heights Hebrew School in Washington Heights, N.Y., and Chabad of Greater Los Feliz Hebrew School in Los Angeles.

“We want the kids to experience Judaism in a way that’s fun and exciting,” says Dvonye Korf, director of Chabad of Greater Los Feliz Hebrew School, located just east of the Hollywood Hills. “This year our theme is making the world a better place. We’re calling the program ‘Hebrew School Under Construction’ and handing out special coupon prizes to each student whose behavior helps create a better world.”

Classes at the Los Feliz school, like many other institutions across the country, began on Sept. 11, a date that coincidentally corresponded to the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the United States. (Many Chabad houses held prayer services and events commemorating 9/11 later in the day.)

“In two hours we give the students so much,” notes Korf of the Los Feliz school, which meets weekly on Sunday mornings for two hours. “We take the concept of ahavat yisrael, which means to love one another, and apply it to every grade level. We play aleph-bet games to learn about good Jewish values that begin with each letter, we make cookies in the shape of a heart, and we play games to learn about the creation of the world.”

For the older students, there’s an activity called Torah-pedia in which each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a certain theological concept of Judaism.

“At the end of the two hours many of the students will say, ‘It’s over already?’” says Korf. “They can’t believe it’s gone by so fast and they’ve learned so much in such a short period of time.”

One parent called the Los Feliz school “the city’s best kept secret.”
One parent called the Los Feliz school “the city’s best kept secret.”

Building the Future

In communities not served by Jewish day schools, or for parents who send their children to public or non-Jewish private schools, Hebrew schools provide a concrete link between students and their heritage that can supplement and inform synagogue and holiday experiences. Gerry Corn, a middle-school math, science and history teacher working for the Los Angeles Unified School District, calls the Los Feliz Hebrew school “the city’s best kept secret.”

“Rabbi Leibel and Dvonye Korf, co-directors of the Chabad of Los Feliz, are like an oasis of Jewish values and kindness,” says Corn, whose two sons have attended the Hebrew school since 2009. “They are very open and non-judgmental and embody the true spirit of Judaism. They really bring the Jewish holidays to life, celebrating them in a way that’s geared towards the child.”

While Corn’s children attend secular public schools during the week, he’s confident that they are receiving a top-notch Jewish education at Chabad.

“It’s an amazing place,” declares Corn. “From learning about kosher cooking and the blessings over food to games in the Purim carnival and giving the kids goldfish when they were learning about the creation of the world, the school gives each student a very good feeling about Judaism.”

Rabbi Yankie Denberg, co-director of Chabad of Southwest Coral Springs in Coral Springs, Fla., is looking to inspire that same sense of joy in the students attending the center’s brand new Hebrew school, which opened its doors on Aug. 31.

“We’d done well with our adult education classes and thought it was time to build up the younger facet of the community,” explains Denburg, whose wife Chana is co-director of the Hebrew school. “We’re looking to bring in younger families and to create the future of the synagogue. So far we’ve had only positive feedback. We thought we’d have 10 students enrolled and we now have 12. We’ve already exceeded our goal. It’s an excellent beginning.”

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For each student, proffers Korf, Hebrew school marks the start of what will hopefully become a lifelong journey of self-discovery, cultural pride and Jewish education.

“We’re always looking ahead,” declares Korf. “We are building the future of our Jewish nation.”