When Miriam Greenberg arrived in Solon in 1991 with her husband, she learned adults in the community had generally negative memories of Hebrew school.
Greenberg compared notes with a friend in California, Bassie Marcus, who with her husband was assigned to a Chabad in Mission Viejo. Chani Marcus, her sister-in-law and a tae kwon do fan, taught in her Hebrew School and saw how students hated learning Hebrew, and she had the idea of using a color-coded system. Chani moved on and created Alephchamp.com, while Bassie and Greenberg and their friend in New Jersey helped pilot this program in their respective Chabad centers.
Long distance, in 2003, each worked on developing a handmade textbook that assigned levels of Hebrew by color.
“We made our own little samples, books, and I remember cutting and pasting because we didn’t have computers in 2004 that could cut and paste digitally, at least I didn’t,” said Greenberg, family educator at Solon Chabad in Solon. “And we tried it and it was so exciting.”
Greenberg said there was instant success.
Children grasped decoding and enjoyed Hebrew from the start, Greenberg said.
Marcus published a textbook series based on the model the three developed for their Hebrew schools, and today, the Aleph Champ method features medallions, T-shirts and a game box, as well as a textbook series.
Greenberg said at Solon Chabad, the color-coded series is still popular with students, partly because of a tool she’s added in teaching decoding Hebrew: tutorials.
Greenberg hires high school and college students as well as adults to work one-on-one with students at Solon Chabad to master the Hebrew alphabet and decode words and prayers.
“I don’t want people to hesitate to come to get an education because they’re uncomfortable with their Hebrew level,” Greenberg said. “So we have a whole team of tutors who come, high school kids, college adults, who come every Sunday. Every class gets their Aleph Champ time. Every child gets 15 minutes, 20 minutes private tutoring.”
Greenberg said the model allows students to progress as Hebrew readers at their own rate and reserves group class time for group activities.
“A few things are accomplished,” she said. “No. 1, no one has to read aloud in the classroom, go around and be uncomfortable, the teacher’s going to call me. All the classroom instruction is always hands-on, fun-loving Judaism, loving being Jewish. The Hebrew’s done one-on-one.”
The second advantage is that students who miss class can pick up where they left off since tutors keep records of where every child is, she said.
“My goal is that people should be able to walk into a synagogue and be comfortable,” said Greenberg. “There’s so many people today who don’t participate because they don’t have that comfort level. Being able to give kids a gift of just that comfort level with the Hebrew, so they can walk into a service anywhere in the world at any time and say, I’m home.”
She said some former students in Solon Chabad’s kindergarten through seventh-grade Hebrew school tell her years later that they can help their parents find the right page when they go to services.
Greenberg also said she does not try to teach conversational Hebrew in class, partly because with less than five hours a week just two days a week, it’s not a realistic goal.
“We teach songs, prayers, and we teach the skill of reading decoding, reading well,” she said. Students often do a culinary activity or learn using a computer game on Wednesday afternoons and teachers plan activities that keep the students engaged on Sunday mornings, she said.
Solon Chabad’s school has 150 students, 10 teachers, as well as assistants and helpers – and six tutors.
“It’s the future that we’re looking for,” Greenberg said. “I need them to be proud of it and love it.”