Makom Afterschool expands Hebrew immersion program

Kids at Makom Afterschool's Bathurst and St. Clair campus play Scrabble in Hebrew. MAKOM PHOTO

The tagline for the recently rebranded Makom Afterschool – a project of the grassroots downtown Toronto community Makom that’s set to open its third location this fall – is “Jewish learning reimagined.” 

It’s a description that reflects Makom’s intention to create a model of after-school Hebrew and Jewish education that’s innovative and accessible.

Makom’s Rabbi Aaron Levy initially started the school in 2011 with his partner Miriam Kramer and another parent to satisfy their preferences for their own children’s supplementary Jewish education.

“We wanted something that would check off a lot of boxes on our needs list, from really solid, immersive Hebrew education to a strong, pluralistic Jewish education that was affordable and would allow our kids to be integrated into their neighbourhood,” explained Rabbi Levy, the father of sons entering Grade 3 and junior kindergarten.

The result is Makom Afterschool (called the “Downtown Jewish Playschool” until this past spring): a play-based program that focuses on Hebrew immersion as well as Jewish learning, with one location near College Street and Spadina Avenue, a second near Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue and a third opening near Bathurst and Bloor streets this September.

The program runs from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. each weekday, and the campuses accommodate students from junior kindergarten through Grade 4, with the aim of expanding to Grade 6.

Enrolment has increased from an initial five JK students at the school’s first site to, at the time of writing, a collective enrolment of 59 students at two campuses, a fact Rabbi Levy attributes to a model he believes is compelling for kids and convenient for parents, because it also functions as after-school care for working families.

 Immersive Hebrew language is taught experientially through play – including art, sports, music, nature, yoga, science experiments and field trips – with a focus on speaking and understanding modern, conversational Hebrew.

As students progress, Hebrew literacy is practised with the help of texts and workbooks, though Rabbi Levy noted that little time is spent at desks, but rather, doing “movement and games.” 

“Most of the kids start out without knowing any Hebrew, but they pick it up very quickly because… rather than being told ‘this means that in English,’ which would keep them thinking in English, the immersive environment facilitates thinking in Hebrew,” Rabbi Levy said. 

At the school’s first two locations, four afternoons a week are devoted to Hebrew immersion, while one is given to learning Jewish studies – including the study of holidays, Jewish values, blessings and mitzvot – with parents given the option of sending their children for all five days, just for the day of Jewish learning or any combination thereof. 

The new Bathurst and Bloor branch will, in response to what Rabbi Levy said were the expressed needs of parents in the area, start out with two days of school per week featuring an integrative blend of Hebrew immersion and Jewish studies.

The cost for the five-day program is $5,100 per year. The two-day program is $2,500.

An additional attraction for parents, he said, is that transportation is provided to students coming from nearby schools.

Inclusivity, a core value of all Makom programming, is emphasized, with enrolment available to families from all denominations, including those who are unaffiliated.

“There’s a great diversity among our kids, who range from those whose families are interfaith to those that explicitly self-identify as secular to those who identify as modern Orthodox… We have Ashkenazi kids, Sephardic kids, kids with straight parents, gay parents and those from single-parent households,” Rabbi Levy said.

He emphasized that Judaism is taught in a way that affirms the choices of different Jewish parents and encourages thoughtful discussion about faith and practice, rather than saying “this is what you do.”

Israel, too, is discussed in the context of Hebrew language and culture but not in a way that “privileges any particular political position.”

“We’re not interested in defining who’s in and who’s out of the Jewish community. Our goal is for Jewish kids to learn Hebrew,” he said.