Growing Jewish Education in Armenia, El Salvador

image: Students in Armenia, El Salvador (Photo courtesy of A. Rehberg)

Students in Armenia, El Salvador.
(Photo courtesy of A. Rehberg)

In the Spring of 2011, I made my first month-long trip to Armenia, El Salvador with the purpose of creating a Hebrew school for its children and strengthening adult education efforts. During my visit, I met Yosef and Yishai Avalos who had previously learned to read Hebrew and were leading prayer services. It was clear the brothers had the raw talent to teach other community members and just needed some mentoring to refine and strengthen their skills and techniques. I spent many hours during my visit working with them.

In the first week, they observed how I taught classes. As I am still improving my rusty Spanish, I was fortunate to have help from Anna Wilson, a Kulanu volunteer from England, who served as my translator. The next three weeks, I encouraged and guided Yosef and Yishai to lead their own classes while they helped me to relearn Spanish. With funds raised by Kulanu, we bought a computer for the community and paid for one year of internet service. Once I returned home to Israel, I continued instructing Yosef and Yishai, who faithfully logged into Skype every Sunday for our lessons.

At first we focused on Hebrew with one to two hours of weekly instruction in grammar and vocabulary. At the same time, I was also able to improve my Spanish through this exchange. I knew that the rapport we would build over the next few months would be critical in expanding the knowledge and capabilities of the entire community during my next visit.

In preparation for my return, Yosef and Yishai sought out other people in their community who wanted to study in the evenings. They mentored three of these in leading prayers. They also organized a group of ten men and two women who were willing to dedicate an entire month to intensive Hebrew and Judaic learning during my next visit. My goal was to prepare the foundation for a wider, more encompassing community-learning program, a Beit Midrash (house of learning).

I planned my second trip for the fall of 2011, which would include the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. This trip brought with it a new challenge for the community: Torah reading. Inspired by the dedication of Yosef and Yishai at learning Hebrew and teaching liturgy to their fellows, I brought with me a Torah scroll to leave in their care.

On the first Shabbat (Sabbath) of my visit, I had to read everything. But by the time I left, three plus weeks later, the success of the Beit Midrash program was astounding: five of the 12 participants were able to chant a complete aliyah from the Torah; Noah Pineda was able to assume the role of congregation Hazan (cantor); and the two brothers learned how to perform kosher slaughtering, providing El Salvador with a regular supply of kosher poultry for the first time. Sarah Avalos (Yosef's wife) is now formulating a plan to raise chickens, which would then be slaughtered and offered for sale.

The Beit Midrash is the two millennia-old traditional format of adult Jewish education that combines formal structured study with informal paired study, called hevruta. With Kulanu's support, the men and women who gave up a month of their time received stipends to make up for lost income. During the month, other individuals from both Armenia and San Salvador joined in for a day of learning when they could.

Each morning began with prayers. After breakfast, which most of us ate together in the dining hall, we would reconvene for a full morning of learning. I would assign a portion of Mishna (Talmud) for hevruta study, providing them with a list of the most difficult words. For the next hour and a half they would study with their hevruta partner with assistance from me and Aryeh Torres, a former community member who has completed his conversion at Machon Meir in Jerusalem and now lives in Israel. Aryeh helped participants use the newly purchased dictionaries to look up words and coached them through the nuances of the Hebrew language. Once they had a foundation of the vocabulary and concepts, we would all come together again for a shiur (lesson) to review and discuss the portion in greater depth. The shiur in Mishna was followed by a shiur in Gemmara (another portion of Talmud), then break for lunch.

The first half of the afternoon was designed for individual learning in a variety of subjects. Students could either learn on their own or in hevrutot and would review prayers, holiday observances, the weekly Torah portion and other subjects. Drawing on the vocabulary learned that day, we finished the afternoon with a Hebrew grammar lesson and review.

image: Young Student in Armenia, El Salvador (Photo courtesy of A. Rehberg)

Young Student in Armenia, El Salvador.
(Photo courtesy of A. Rehberg)

In addition to the Beit Midrash, we had a special children's program initiated and beautifully led by Dr. Elizabeth Ritchie, a volunteer from San Antonio, which focused on the story of Jonah. Since her departure, 25 children regularly engage in weekly classes offered by Armenia's Hebrew School staff. Yosef and Ishai alternate between preparing young men for Bar Mitzvah (many are already over 13) and instructing the younger boys in Alef Bet, holidays, and Jewish stories, while Leah Hernandez and Sarah Avalos teach these subjects to the young girls and mothers. Adult classes led by Beit Midrash participants continue throughout the week: on Sundays I give an online class on Pirkei Avot(Ethics of the Fathers) and answer questions on Halachic (legal) and community matters.

Online classes help strengthen and continue the work achieved in my previous visits. As community members grow in knowledge and commitment they seek more and ask me when I am returning to run future programs. They believe the Beit Midrash program has been their greatest success in working towards their goals of Hebrew literacy and knowledge of Jewish ritual and practice. They would like to see more visits similarly focused to continue their opportunities for learning and to inspire their youth to work towards a stronger Jewish identity.