Seniors Learning Hebrew

Teaching Hebrew to Seniors – Materials, Methods and Positive Results

Not long ago five women were called to the Torah, each as a Bat Mitzvah.  Not unusual except for the fact that the women on the bimah were all senior citizens, and, most significant of all, the students ranged in age from 82 through 97 years of age.  

The women gathered once a week for one hour, to study the Hebrew language.  They learned basic Hebrew and eventually each one was able to read three verses directly from the Torah scroll. As their teacher, I was pleased and happy as well as proud and astounded, all at the same time.  In the process I learned that there are specific materials and techniques that can guarantee success when working with elderly students. 

The Survey – Creating a Climate for Success

There are many factors that determine why a senior would consider studying Hebrew, as well as many reasons why she/he might feel reluctant to do so. I’ve learned not to assume but to help students identify their motivation as well as their fears. So before designing the lessons, I asked students to respond to questions about their Personal Hebrew History, a survey I developed that consists of 15 statements. Students check any and all items that apply, such as::

My parents sent me to Hebrew school but I don’t remember much.”

“I know the names of each Hebrew letter.”

“I listened in when my brother studied with the rabbi. I learned the verses better than he did!”

From the specific information about what the students may have studied years ago, the survey questions also focused on the emotional in order to determine those issues that might become roadblocks to success.  

Significantly, more than 90 percent of my senior students agreed with the following:

“I had a difficult time in Hebrew school.  The teacher often embarrassed the students.”

“I’m a bit nervous about class.  I don’t want to look bad in front of the group.”

Past experience matters and negative experiences contribute to a fear of failure.  Because long-term memories sharpen as we age, long ago embarrassments are so fresh that a senior may be reluctant to begin again. As a result, the first and most important challenge for the teacher is to acknowledge old wounds and then, to create a climate where students are free from competition and are rewarded for helping and supporting one another. 

Materials that Work

The challenge for any teacher who works with seniors, is to select those materials that are basic yet not baby-ish. Materials designed for children can evoke early memories of past failures.  In addition, these materials can be less interesting to adult students. The National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) offers a variety of materials that are not age-specific, but offer large print texs that are easy to use. The most effective lessons present Hebrew letters, not by their names, but by the sounds they make. By Lesson Three students are reading and translating basic Hebrew words.  

Sure Fire Methods

But even the best textbook cannot guarantee student success. The trick is to use the text in tandem with additional participatory activities  – this combination is key to designing lessons that complement the special learning needs of senior students. 

To organize the class sessions I found that I was most successful when I introduced three separate activities in a one-hour class and combined these activities with a short introductory review. 

Class began with a short meditation, to clear our minds and focus on the positive. For example,  “Think of our last class.  Remember something that you did well. A word you read well, a word you translated.  Think of how you helped another student. Remind yourself that you can do it. You ARE doing it. You are learning Hebrew.” 

Next, I ask the students to open their textbook to our previous lesson and take a moment to find sentences that they can read smoothly. In this way class begins on a positive note and someone who has missed the previous class, can return to the last page studied and participate along with all the others. 

Class includes text reading, presentation of new lessons and hands-on activities to reinforce reading and translating skill. For example, many seniors have learned specific Hebrew phrases, such as the “Sh’ma”, by heart. Mastering Hebrew basics requires that students read each word. We accomplish this by placing each word on individual index cards and arranging the phrase in order, so that students can read, pronounce and translate  the phrase word by word.  

Positive Results

Often Hebrew study results in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony, however that has not been my only goal. The result of the study program has been the delight of older adults who discover that the Hebrew language is not illusive, but vibrant, alive and accessible to everyone.

Resources:

The Hebrew Reading Crash Course – National Jewish Outreach Program, www.njop.org

The Hebrew Alphabet – A Mystical Journey, by Edward Hoffman, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 1998

The Personal Hebrew History Survey – Rabbi Barbara Aiello – rabbi@rabbibarbara.com 

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