Bit­ing Off Our Tongue

How He­brew schools teach He­brew.

Forward Magazine - - Education - By Madi­son Mar­golin Madi­son Mar­golin is a re­cent grad­u­ate of Coumbia Univer­sity’s Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism and an in­tern at the For­ward.

It’s com­mon for young Jews to study He­brew un­til the age of 13 — and then never in­ter­act with the lan­guage again. He­brew school stu­dents learn the al­pha­bet, but of­ten have lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of what the prayers mean. Hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion in mod­ern He­brew is a long shot.

This phe­nom­e­non raises ques­tions about the pri­or­i­ties of He­brew in­struc­tion across the coun­try. Should learn­ing He­brew more thor­oughly — speak­ing some mod­ern He­brew and com­pre­hend­ing prayer — be part of a ba­sic Jewish ed­u­ca­tion?

Naomi Still­man calls it “the bar mitz­vah syn­drome.” The as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of NETA, a na­tion­ally dis­trib­uted He­brew cur­ricu­lum, Still­man re­grets that He­brew ed­u­ca­tion in the Amer­i­can di­as­pora has not been widely suc­cess­ful. And she isn’t alone. Rabbi Dr. Sh­muly Yan­klowitz, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Val­ley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, says that ei­ther He­brew school feels like a sec­ond school about which stu­dents are un­en­thu­si­as­tic, or its fun-and-games ap­proach de­tracts from sub­stan­tial learn­ing. Both pro­duce dis­mal re­sults.

Learn­ing spo­ken He­brew and un­der­stand­ing the mean­ing be­hind prayer have mer­its — be­yond bar or bat mitz­vah prep. “I think we need to demon­strate both the root­ed­ness and the evo­lu­tion of the lan­guage,” said Yan­klowitz, “both the sense that there’s a deep power to ac­cess­ing the words that gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion have found mean­ing­ful, and that this is a liv­ing, evolv­ing lan­guage that a home state con­tin­ues to use, and bring progress to the lan­guage.”

Learn­ing a lan­guage in­volves read­ing, writ­ing, com­pre­hen­sion and speak­ing. Yan­klowitz ar­gues that learn­ing He­brew should also be in­te­grated with Jewish val­ues to make the lan­guage more mean­ing­ful or rel­e­vant. But with only a lim­ited num­ber of hours per week ded­i­cated to the He­brew lan­guage, He­brew schools must choose the ex­tent to which they pri­or­i­tize each of these com­po­nents.

The re­al­ity is that many stu­dents do not learn enough He­brew to func­tion in prac­ti­cal sit­u­a­tions.

“I can only read He­brew very slowly, and I def­i­nitely need vow­els. Some words I rec­og­nize with­out vow­els,” said Gary Parizher, a med­i­cal stu­dent who at­tended Con­ser­va­tive He­brew school full-time un­til high school. Parizher’s school aimed to teach both prayer-book and mod­ern He­brew. His ex­pe­ri­ence par­al­leled those of the sub­jects in­ter­viewed in this piece.

A 2013 Pew re­search sur­vey of Amer­i­can Jews found that 52% of all Jews know the He­brew al­pha­bet, but only 13% un­der­stand what they can read. Over 80% of all Jews — in­clud­ing 79% of “Jews by re­li­gion” and 96% of “Jews of no re­li­gion” — are un­able to have a con­ver­sa­tion in He­brew. Sta­tis­tics tell us that Amer­i­can He­brew ed­u­ca­tion has pri­or­i­tized read­ing the He­brew al­pha­bet.

Rabbi Bruce Raff, head of the Re­li­gious School at Wil­shire Boule­vard Tem­ple, a Re­form con­gre­ga­tion in Los An­ge­les, said the goal is for stu­dents to be “prayer- book func­tional” so they can read, chant, and rec­og­nize key­words in prayers.

“We want our kids to be Jews, life­long Jews — and part of be­ing a Jew is be­ing able to func­tion in syn­a­gogue,” Raff said.

For those like Parizher, learn­ing He­brew con­nected him to Ju­daism, but he says the con­nec­tion has faded.

“I’m not re­ally sure [He­brew] would be all that use­ful to me. I speak Rus­sian, and I find that to come in handy more fre­quently than He­brew would,” Parizher said, adding that even Rus­sian isn’t as use­ful as Span­ish.

In many cases, stu­dents don’t see the point of mas­ter­ing He­brew. Not only is Amer­ica widely mono­lin­gual, Naomi Still­man pointed out, but learn­ing He­brew is also “low on the get­ting- into- col­lege totem pole.” Only 25% of Amer­i­cans speak a lan­guage other than English. Span­ish is the num­ber one sec­ond lan­guage in schools, though re­cently the per­ceived ne­ces­sity of learn­ing Chi­nese has grown. Be­tween 2005 and 2010, the num­ber of those who took the Chi­nese Pro­fi­ciency Test in­creased by over 26%. Peo­ple see prac­ti­cal worth in learn­ing Span­ish and Chi­nese, but be­ing Jewish doesn’t ne­ces­si­tate learn­ing He­brew.

With­out se­ri­ous em­pha­sis placed on the lan­guage, He­brew ed­u­ca­tion has suf­fered. The only qual­i­fi­ca­tion for a ma­jor­ity of He­brew teach­ers is that they be na­tive speak­ers.

“Sadly, that isn’t enough. They know noth­ing about teach­ing a sec­ond lan­guage,” Still­man said. Be­ing Is­raeli isn’t al­ways enough to qual­ify some­one to teach He­brew.

Schools also tend to lack stan­dard bench­marks for what a stu­dent should know by the end of a learn­ing pe­riod, Still­man added. With a shift away from rig­or­ous aca­demic cour­ses that in­clude tests and home­work, Still­man said, progress in He­brew has slowed.

While He­brew may not be ev­ery stu­dent’s pri­or­ity, many still find learn­ing it im­por­tant. Ben Bel­grad, a glass artist, stud­ied He­brew in He­brew school, sum­mer camp and vol­un­tar­ily in high school.

“Learn­ing He­brew con­nected me to Ju­daism be­cause I was able to ex­plore cul­tural el­e­ments of Is­rael such as mu­sic, food and dance with an un­der­stand­ing rooted in the lan­guage. I also un­der­stand the prayers when I pray, which pro­vides more mean­ing for me than just re­peat­ing words I was trained to mem­o­rize,” Bel­grad said. With fam­ily and friends in Is­rael, Bel­grad also found prac­ti­cal rel­e­vance in learn­ing the lan­guage.

“He­brew is im­por­tant be­cause, although Jewish peo­ple have had many ver­nac­u­lars, it is the pri­mary ver­nac­u­lar of our text. It re­mains the in­ter­na­tional lan­guage of the Jewish peo­ple,” said Me­lanie Weiss, di­rec­tor of the Re­li­gious School at Kadima Beth El, a Con­ser­va­tive con­gre­ga­tion in Port­land, Maine. “I want our kids to feel like they have ac­cess. I don’t want them learn­ing things with­out un­der­stand­ing what they mean.”

In her time at Kadima Beth El, Weiss has in­tro­duced more con­ver­sa­tional He­brew into the cur­ricu­lum. While He­brew school twice a week isn’t enough for stu­dents to be­come flu­ent, Weiss said they read chil­dren’s books in mod­ern He­brew, and have at least a ba­sic vo­cab­u­lary, in ad­di­tion to bar/ bat mitz­vah prayer.

“The goals of our school are to cre­ate Jewishly lit­er­ate, Jewishly con­nected young adults who si­mul­ta­ne­ously have a strong sense of their Jewish iden­tity and Jewish knowl­edge,” she said.

Whether He­brew school should in­cor­po­rate more mod­ern He­brew or prayer com­pre­hen­sion into the cur­ricu­lum re­mains de­bat­able. With ob­vi­ous time con­straints, schools are lim­ited in what they can teach and must pri­or­i­tize a cur­ricu­lum ad­her­ing to their goals.

“I want [stu­dents] to en­ter the adult world and be­come adult learn­ers,” Weiss said. “They’re not done when they’re done with their time here. If they think they’re done, then I haven’t done my job.”

The only qual­i­fi­ca­tion for a ma­jor­ity of He­brew teach­ers is that they be na­tive speak­ers

IS­TOCK­PHOTO

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