A cheder where the fire still burns bright


Ten-year-old Jack Lucas stands before the open Torah. He has just been challenged by South Hampstead Associate Rabbi Eli Levine to pick out any word he can from the forbidding rows of vowel-less black letters.

For a child who has never read blind from a Sefer, it is a tall order and would defeat many a United Synagogue parent. But Jack makes a pretty good stab at some words from a verse in Numbers.

He may be a good pupil but his ability reflects the effort that South Hampstead has invested in teaching its young to read. With around 135 children attending classes every Sunday, it operates one of the largest chedarim in the US network.

As more and more parents opt to send their children to Jewish day schools, Sunday morning cheder is an institution that has rapidly declined in recent years. The US now has only around 1,400 children in 25 centres. Since some non-US members attend US classes, the US doesn't have a precise breakdown but probably only one in four primary-aged, US children now go to cheder rather than Jewish day school.

The most populous US congregation, Stanmore, closed its cheder last year, joining with Pinner to form the new Aleph Centre at Bushey, now run by the US's youth division, Tribe. The surviving chedarim are based either in small communities out of the main day school belt like Welwyn Garden City or synagogues, like South Hampstead, where a large number of children go to non-Jewish, often independent, schools.

Children's Hebrew reading ability has increased dramatically

Cheder may be the poor relation of the day school but South Hampstead takes it seriously. It is fortunate enough to be headed by a trained teacher, Daniella Broder, who teaches at the Naima Jewish Preparatory School.

Based on her experience at Naima, she imported the American Aleph-Champ Hebrew reading programme into the cheder a few years ago.

"Fifteen years ago, standards of reading weren't good," said the cheder's head governor Alan Traub. "We've seen the progress - the children's Hebrew ability has increased dramatically."

Aleph-Champ is now used more widely and a couple of years ago Tribe bought the licence to produce a UK edition for other chedarim.

"There are no pictures, it's very plain," Mrs Broder explained. "But it's based on very simple units - small achievable goals If you use a big book and you're only half way through, it can seem a long journey for children. It's been phenomenal both in schools and chedarim."

Each the time the children achieve a certain level, they are given a new wristband to mark their progress. "It's like karate, we go through the colours," Mrs Broder explained.

"I want to get to my orange," said a fair-haired girl in a pink anorak in year two, who is currently on red. She was going through an exercise sheet last week, tutored by a student assistant.

"For 20 minutes every week, they have a one-to-one session with a reading teacher," said Mr Traub, "We have 18 reading teachers. Most cheders can't do this because it's very expensive but it will be of great benefit. We like the kids to do some reading homework and some of the teachers have phoned children and conducted lessons on the phone because parents, as a result of poor education, can't teach them."

Not only has South Hampstead put money into improving reading but it has also supported the writing of a full cheder curriculum. Mrs Broder has a detailed plan for every lesson for every year - an indispensable blueprint when you have to rely mostly on university students to teach rather professionals.

The curriculum puts a strong emphasis on practical skills. "The main aim is to focus on the areas of Judaism that are going to affect their lives," Mrs Broder explained. "We are looking at learning key Jewish rituals - they'll all make kiddush at some time of their lives or light Chanucah candles.

"What I'd like is that when children walk into a shul, they don't think it a foreign environment. They'll be familiar with the tunes and feel they belong.

"We give the children baigels every week so they can learn to bensch, for example. In year one, they'll do the first paragraph of bensching, in year two they'll add the second paragraph, so by year six they should be able to do the whole thing. "

They will learn about the key biblical characters and some insights from the weekly Torah portion but no slogging through rote translations of biblical passages as previous generations did.

For children with more advanced knowledge, there are special sessions such as a Chumash club or deeper exploration of prayer. Classes for parents will start shortly in conjunction with Project Seed, while the synagogue has recorded a CD of songs and blessings for home use. In the "Challenge" year, pre-bar and batmitzvah boys and girls do in-depth projects on Israel, Jewish roots and Jewish ethics.

Parents seem appreciative. "It has become more professional with a lot more structure and a clearer development path for children," said Graeme Foux, the youngest of whose three sons attends South Hampstead.

Contrasting it with his own childhood, he said, "Cheder used to be quite austere and serious. There is more focus on trying to engage the children. There is a good balance between giving them an education and making sure they enjoy it."

Jack's mother Dina, who also brings her two youngest along each week to the local secondary school where the cheder meets, said. "It's a great cheder, friendly, flexbile, it's fun and they have learned a lot. They never complain about coming."

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