Focus on education

Can reality TV help Chicago-area teens learn Hebrew?

It can, and it did.

Last December, nearly 600 students studying Hebrew in public high schools throughout the city and suburbs practiced their skills with contestants from Israel’s version of the hit TV show The Voice. The free concert and cultural exchange luncheon, coordinated by Shorashim and the iCenter, gave them a chance to hear songs sung live in Hebrew and to converse with the Israeli performers.

"I like to experience the language outside of the classroom,” said Elliot Gross, an Evanston Township High School student. “Hearing Israeli music makes the language come alive."

The concert, part of a much broader effort to promote Hebrew-language classes in public high schools, was one of many projects funded last year by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Community Foundation for Jewish Education. JUF and CFJE provide millions of dollars annually to support a wide range of Jewish educational programming at all levels.

This year, beyond the broader funding, JUF/Federation is awarding $250,000 in expanded grants to boost participation and inspire excellence in targeted priority areas.

Eleven Chicago-area groups will get grants of $3,800 to $65,000. Programs funded range from dynamic Israeli cultural excursions for Hebrew students – like the concert above – to expanded staff support for middle-school youth group programming, to peer-led educational outreach to Jewish 20-somethings.

“We hope these grants will stimulate innovation and focus our priorities in the areas of early childhood, supplementary education, teen programming and adult education,” said Andrea Yablon, JUF/Federation board member and chair of the Community Foundation for Jewish Education’s Board of Directors.

Beneficiary organizations say grants like these help them ramp up efforts to provide unique and engaging programming.

“We’re grateful that, through this grant, we can try things and see what works,” said Abby Ashkenazi, a Jewish educator at JCC Chicago, which received special funding to launch its “Say it in Hebrew” adult education program last year.

This year’s funded projects include:

Temple Anshe Sholom of Olympia Fields will create a new Southern Suburbs Community Religious School, which also will serve students from Congregation Am Echad and Temple B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood.

BBYO Connect, the 6th-8th grade program of pluralistic youth movement BBYO, will hire a professional to create high-quality informal Jewish education experiences for Jewish middle schoolers.

BEYACHAD, a combined community Jewish high school for the northwest suburbs coordinated by Temple Chai, Beth Judea, and Beth Am – will expand curriculum offerings and outreach for 8th-12th grade students.

Program support will continue for the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago’s Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, a nondenominational adult education program serving congregation members across Chicagoland.

The iCenter will continue to widen and deepen the impact of local public high school Hebrew programs through its Public High School Engagement program.

Jewish Child & Family Services’Response Center will create a professional training curriculum for individuals who work with adolescents, through its pilot Helping Professionals Help Teens program, part of the Chicago Teen Professionals Kehillah.

The Jewish Community Center of Chicago will continue offering its popular Say It in Hebrew community ulpan program of adult Hebrew language classes.

The Jewish Community Center of Chicago and CFJE’s Ta’am Yisrael program will develop plans for a Teen Hebrew Immersion Weekend for 8th graders at Camp Chi’s Perlstein Resort.

Moishe House will expand efforts to connect Jewish 20-somethings in Chicago to the Jewish community through peer-led outreach and home-based events.

Moving Traditions aims to run its Rosh Hodesh and Shevet Achim Jewish learning and discussion programs for teens with over 20 Chicago institutions by 2017-18.

Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago will sponsor another Midwest JEDCamp to convene congregation and day school educators throughout the region.

For more information, contact Michelle Lawner, JUF’s assistant vice president for planning and allocations, at 312-357-4875 or


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