HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The Case for Hebrew Language in Our Day Schools

by Rabbi Joshua Elkin, Ed.D. Issue: Teaching Hebrew
TOPICS : Hebrew

Hebrew is the nerve center which unites and integrates Jewish people in time and in space. It serves as an intellectual bond among all Jews throughout all generations, and through all the lands of dispersion. Its granite syllables are personal links to the timeless message of Moses and Isaiah. And by means of the Hebrew Bible and prayer book, Jews of the remotest corners of the earth are bound together.”

These words of William Chomsky in his book Hebrew: The Eternal Language, ring out to us today. We are living through a paradoxical time. On the one hand, Hebrew has experienced a dramatic rebirth over the last century in Israel. One the other hand, we find ourselves in the largest diaspora community where we have witnessed a dramatic drop in the centrality of Hebrew language in all that we do. We often view Hebrew proficiency as unattainable. Prayer books, Bibles, Hagaddot, Israeli songs, literature, and virtually everything else originally in Hebrew are now routinely read and studied only in English, even if the Hebrew is right there on the page.

We offer many reasons and excuses for this sad state of affairs: lack of Hebraically-grounded teachers; lack of time; complexity of subject mater that requires one’s native tongue; and the difficulty of forming relationships with students using a foreign language. However, Hebrew is hardly “foreign;” it is foundational to our identity as a people. To paraphrase Rabbi Shalom Paul, Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University, Hebrew is the DNA of the Jewish people. We are playing a very dangerous game where the stakes are very high. What may seem necessary or expedient in the short run may prove to be very costly in the long run. As Mordecai Kaplan wrote in 1934, “once Hebrew becomes a foreign or an ancient tongue to the Jew, he or she ceases to experience any intimacy with Jewish life, and he/she begins to look for rational justifications for being a Jew, with the consequent self-delusions and ultimate frustrations.”

I want to advocate for Hebrew language as a major priority deserving of our highest attention. And the day school is the best setting for Hebrew to stage its needed comeback.

Why the Day School?

Day schools provide the most intensive setting for Hebrew language acquisition - a full school day and a full academic year. The fact that most day schools commence in kindergarten makes the case even more compelling; the very young have higher capacities to acquire a second language. Those day schools that sponsor an early childhood program have additional opportunities to provide an even earlier and richer exposure to Hebrew as a living language.

Renewed Effort?

Many reasons converge to make the present moment most ripe.

1. Relationship to Israel and the Jewish people worldwide - What better vehicle to forge a bond with Klal Yisrael and with the State of Israel than language. The language works on both a modern conversational level, as well as on a liturgical level. The 80,000 Birthright Israel alumni represent a vital link to Israel and its language, and that link will continue to grow deeper.

2. Language and brain development - The more we know about the brain, the more we recognize that learning a second language not only doesn’t adversely affect other learning, but in fact contributes to healthier brain growth all around. The earlier the exposure, the easier the learning and the deeper the impact on the brain’s structure and functioning.

3. Connecting more and more Jews to their Judaism - Hebrew language and culture provide avenues to reach out to the less affiliated through a cultural approach, rather than a purely religious orientation. We know that Hebrew song, dance, visual arts, and theatre have great capacity to build bridges to Jewish life even for the most unaffiliated.

4. Availability of marvelous Hebrew resources - The Montreal-based Tal Am Program is a valuable curricular resource for grades 1 - 7, while NETA focuses on middle school and high school (both funded by AVI CHAI). The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture is spearheading a Hebrew immersion effort in Bergen County NJ as a demonstration site focused on what is possible. CD’s of Israeli songs and DVD’s of Israeli TV shows and films abound, offering ready resources for our classrooms and for our parents. The widely popular elementary-age magazine BabagaNewz has recently added a Hebrew section as an additional resource, beyond the Hebraic texts found in the Teachers Guide.

5. Availability of Hebrew language classes - In most cities the classes are geared to individuals of different levels of proficiency. Almost every adult can make progress, thereby modeling for students both the value of Hebraic learning and the possibilities of making real strides in language fluency.

Increased Capacity

How Can a Day School Increase its Capacity to Deliver an Intensive and Ongoing Exposure to Hebrew by all Students?

1. Affirm the importance of Hebrew language in all statements of school mission and vision for the future. Get solid buy-in from all constituencies.

2. Focus on professional development for all staff who can potentially increase Hebrew exposure - Start with the administrators and work your way through faculty, assistant teachers, and anyone else. Create a Hebrew speaking faculty group to help improve Hebrew fluency among those staff who are feeling insecure. Underwrite the costs of faculty taking an Ulpan in Israel, or going to the 5-week summer Ivriyon - the intensive Hebrew summer program at JTS in New York City. Provide Hebrew tapes for faculty to increase exposure to Hebrew so that they can feel confident enough to conduct large segments of class in Hebrew.

3. Use and showcase Hebrew at all public events and activities and in public spaces - These include assemblies, milestone events, graduations, lobbies, letterhead, etc. Playing Hebrew background music at selected times (so as not to interfere with class time) is also a great way to infuse Israeli/Hebraic culture into our day schools.

A Charge

Shalom Spiegel wrote in his seminal work, Hebrew Reborn, in 1930: “The power of language can scarcely be gauged. Language is more than language. Within language lie the concealed magic forces of nature and history, a heritage of emotions, habits of thoughts, traditions of taste, inheritances of will - the imperative of the past. It is impossible to measure the power and influence of all this upon the soul, upon its consciousness and upon its subterranean strata.”

In this spirit, I challenge you to consider and implement strategies so that your school and the day school movement as a whole can tap those “magic forces of nature and history” toward a true Jewish and Hebraic renaissance. Our language is precious and challenging, but is also accessible and beckoning. Let’s seize the opportunities before us.

L’hatzlaha! Hoping for success!

* This article originally appeared in the November 2005 “Views from Josh Elkin” published by PEJE

Rabbi Joshua Elkin, Ed.D. is the Executive Director of PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Visit www.peje.org to read more about PEJE’s day school field-building activities and to subscribe to receive PEJE electronic communications.

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