August 22, 2019

Teaching Torah with videos to appeal to younger students

Rabbi David Fohrman has a passion for teaching Torah to the Jewish people. He has taught at Johns Hopkins University, written a book about narratives in the book of Genesis, and was a lead writer and editor for ArtScroll’s Talmud translation project.

But after a while, he realized he wasn’t going to reach the younger generation if he didn’t meet them on their level, so he started creating videos on biblical topics.

Fohrman taught himself how to create animated, narrated videos, and in 2011 formed Aleph Beta Academy, through which he released the videos. The academy, which is sponsored by the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, today has 1,300 individual paid subscribers, along with more than 200 schools worldwide that watch his videos, learn through his lesson plans and teach his methodology of exploring the sacred text.

“I think the Jewish community has always embraced new efforts [and] new technology in its efforts to convey Torah to a new generation,” Fohrman said. “We did it with the printing press centuries ago. Commentators didn’t shy away from publishing books, insisting instead on sticking with quills and ink. … I suppose you could always cry foul, and suggest that ancient wisdom should not be dressed in new clothes. But I don’t buy into that notion.”

Aleph Beta’s video curriculum is used by schools in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and other Jewish communities around the globe. It’s composed of videos that teach about the holidays, the weekly parasha (Torah portion), the Ten Commandments, prayer, and other biblical themes and stories.

For example, a video lesson on Tisha b’Av uses the holiday and the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza to illustrate, among other things, the concept of “baseless hatred.” The video has multiple sections, with study points for each, and is accompanied by a 32-page teachers guide as well as student worksheets. 

The final part of the lesson is designed to promote students’ self-reflection on the topic, by advising teachers to ask students when and how they get mad and what they can do to control that anger.

At L.A.’s Yeshiva High Tech School, which was founded in 2012 as a blended-learning high school that individuates learning primarily through the use of technology, teacher Samantha Hauptman utilizes Aleph Beta for her ninth- and 10th-grade girls. She finds that it gives students a chance to dive into Torah study differently than they have before.

“A lot of times, kids have learned these biblical stories [but] they haven’t gone that deep,” Hauptman said. “This curriculum allows them to make connections they haven’t made in the past. It enriches their understanding of Humash [the Five Books of Moses]. … It opens up doors that have never been opened before.”

Hauptman said her students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the videos. “I probably learned as much as my students last year because of [the video lessons],” she said.

Ruthie Matanky, Judaic Studies teacher at Shalhevet School, has been following Forhman’s teachings for the past 3 1/2 years. Once she heard about Aleph Beta, she starting using it for her ninth-, 10th- and 12th-graders. She either watches the videos at home, and then formulates lesson plans and quizzes around them, or shows the weekly parasha videos in class. The lessons are “a really accessible way to learn really deep concepts. When I watch the videos, I can take notes at the same time. It’s a little faster than reading a book,” she said.

Compared to using textbooks, Matanky said the videos are “something that students can connect to a lot more. [They’re] for different types of learners, too. Some students are really great visual learners. … It’s another option that can widen the spectrum of how we learn and teach in the classroom.”

“The people, the Jewish People, are meant to have a romance with the book,” Fohrman said. “We’re not supposed to be able to stop thinking about it, like a lover doesn’t stop thinking of his or her beloved. We are supposed to have a passionate relationship to Torah. But all romances need to guard themselves from going stale. We are trying to bring new passion into the romance between the people and the book.”