If your only memories of Hebrew classes are hiding in the toilets, you will be pleasantly surprised by what has happened to chedars, writes Caron Kemp
You would be forgiven for thinking that chedarim are a thing of the past; a part of our own childhood that many of us wish to forget. But quietly, often unnoticed, they are in fact thriving, providing a valuable educational service to the next generation of British Jewry.
Like many parents who have opted for a non-Jewish school environment for their children, the decision to send them to a cheder was relatively easy for Pinner mum Karen Kinsley.
“Despite opting out of full-time Jewish education, we wanted out children to learn Hebrew, make Jewish friends, immerse themselves in their religion and develop a love for it and all that it encompasses,” explains Karen, whose sons Gabriel and Leon attend the recently amalgamated Aleph Learning Centre NW at Bushey Synagogue.
“The children come home enthusiastic and engaged in their religion having learnt so much in a fun and interactive way.”
It is a far cry from her own experience.
“The whole cheder system has dramatically improved since I attended,” she notes.
“The children are happy to go, they go on outings that further their studies and the lessons are dynamic. I am immensely grateful for its existence as it helps to cement the Jewish life they have at home.”
But the challenge of ensuring that children enjoy this optional Jewish study rather than view it as a chore remains.
“Children need to be taught meaningful and relevant knowledge and skills using up to date materials and engaging methods,” admits David Collins, Director of Young People and Young Families at Tribe United Synagogue.
“Cheder needs to be appealing for children in the 21st century digital generation.”
Change has been forthcoming though, with some communities switching to a midweek classroom option and a new reading programme rolled out across the United Synagogue chedarim which offers motivation and reward in abundance. Plus an annual national teachers’ conference has raised the bar of teaching standards across the board.
One of the finest examples of such dynamism and change is the Aleph Learning Centre in Hampstead, created in 2011 to offer a new and exciting approach to the traditional Sunday morning learning for the modern age.
And with almost 240 children on the register and a waiting list to boot, the ALC is bigger than some Jewish primary schools.
“We felt that Sunday morning Jewish learning needed to be taken more seriously by both the teachers in terms of preparation and creativity and parents in terms of attendance,” explains ALC Director Chayli Fehler.
“We wanted to offer a high-end professional provision just like the excellent secular learning they were receiving at their schools.”
And the team’s determination to stand out from the crowd has most certainly paid off.
“Aside from the hands-on curriculum and in-depth syllabus and resources, the ALC offers many extra curricular activities that accompany the classroom learning, such as the exciting Funday Sundays which are adapted each year and various concerts and trips,
“The ALC has high expectations from teachers but also provides resources, training and support on a weekly basis.
“Another important aspect is the social side and children have the opportunity to create friendships with a large number of children in their age group.”
When HaMakom Sunday School was set up three years ago at Middlesex New Synagogue in Harrow, it became the first and only pluralist cheder. Its success is measured not only by the 65 children who attend each week, but in the 15 teenage teaching assistants who are trained and enthused to support the educational structure, while remaining involved in communal life.
“We recognise the importance of helping our children feel part of a Jewish community while seeing others enjoying their Jewish life,” explains HaMakom Heateacher Jacky Martin.
“Often parents feel their children do not need to attend a cheder because they get everything from a Jewish school,” she adds.
“But they will then grow up with little sense of the synagogue as a community which offers much more than just Shabbat services.
“Here we make it our aim to turn people on to religion so that they want to carry on their learning once they are adults.”
And the future remains bright for chedarim, according to David Collins.
“There will always be children who go to non-Jewish schools and require supplementary Jewish learning,” he concludes.
“We hope to continue supporting Chedarim in the US communities, providing up to date and innovative resources, programmes and teacher training opportunities.”