(Editor’s note: this article was updated at 1:00 p.m. on Jan. 28)
Todd Kliman can describe his Hebrew school experience in one word: unengaging. So when given the chance, he set out to give students the kind of religious school experience his younger self would have wanted.
Kliman, of Hyattsville, is an author, journalist and has taught literature and writing at Howard University in Washington. Over the summer, he became director of the Karp Family Hebrew School at Mishkan Torah Synagogue, a Conservative- and Reconstructionist-affiliated congregation in Greenbelt. The school has 12 students ranging in ages from 5 to 13.
Bowing to the pandemic, the program has gone entirely virtual, adopting the name “Mishkan Torah Kids Online.” Kliman wanted to build classes around the kinds of questions his 9- and 12-year-old sons would ask.
“I knew I wanted to make changes to have a really stimulating academic culture, and at the same time be responsive to the needs of the moment,” Kliman said. “I feel it’s really important that kids are part of the education. And it’s not just this top-down thing. They’re involved in the process. And so we wanted to build that.”
Previously, students at Mishkan Torah attended two-hour sessions on Wednesdays and Sundays. But the new program uses a “college approach,” where students are offered a handful of livestreamed classes and pick two to attend. This is in addition to a Hebrew class taught by Rabbi Saul Oresky.
Classes are taught by Kliman and teacher Bev Parisi, who helped design the program, and focus on a point of interest. For example, the class “Jewish Superheroes, from the Golem to Marvel” has students explore Jewish culture and folklore through comic books, movies and costumes. Another class, “Hungry in a Hut,” teaches students about traditional Ashkenazi dishes and Jewish holiday cuisine.
Classes are held throughout the week. Each lesson lasts no longer than 25 minutes. Kliman said this is to limit students’ time online.
“I really wanted to limit their time on Zoom because I see what’s happened with kids spending six hours a day staring into a screen. It’s utterly zombified. It’s really hard for them to learn,” Kliman said. “I wanted to limit the amount of time, keep it brisk, keep it really lively. More activities during the week, but occupying fewer chunks of the day.”
Jodi Cohen of University Park has her two daughters, Hadassah, 13, and Alia, 10, enrolled in the school. She is impressed by the new curriculum
One of Hadassah’s assignments was to analyze a campaign ad attacking now-Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) that appeared to make his nose longer, an anti-Semitic trope.
“There’s this sense that each of the kids are important and integral to the program,” Cohen said. “Each of my kids feels like it matters that they’re there, that their thoughts matter, and I think that’s because of the program that they’re creating.”
Along with the classes, Kliman said the school has started other initiatives. Each week, families are mailed a Shabbat kit, envelopes containing historical trivia, activities and literature. Kliman said the kits are meant to encourage people to participate in Shabbat in some form.
“I think most people right now are hungering for some kind of ritual,” Kliman said. “The pandemic has really stripped away a lot of the things that we depend on. And so Shabbat is the one building ritual that we all know in Jewish life. So let’s see what we can do to enhance that.”
Another school program is the Shabbat Salon. They’re virtual Friday evening events where students deliver oral reports on things they’ve learned in school.
Kliman said he plans to adjust and tweak classes as the school year progresses. Once COVID is no longer a threat, he’d like to reconvene in person. For now, Kliman is preparing students to learn in the world as it is.
“This [curriculum] was what we thought was the best approach to take. The best way to adapt and have a vibrant program that engages the kids, challenges them, makes them think and feel, meets them in their time of crisis and anxiety, and equips them to understand more of this moment and of the world,” Kliman said. “In a different time, who knows what the program might look like.”
(Correction: The article previously stated Todd Kliman has two daughters instead of correctly stating he has two sons. The article has been corrected and WJW regrets the error.)