Every day at 12:30 p.m. in the Beth El Early Childhood Center in Voorhees, N.J., a total of eight children, all 3 and 4 years old , file into a room. They are all talking simultaneously, as children do, about the usual pressing kiddie topics: dinosaurs, lunch, the playground.
What is unusual about their conversation? They are all speaking in Hebrew.
Contrary to what one might think, these children are not expatriate Israelis. Some of them have a Hebrew-speaking parent, but for the most part they are American Jewish kids whose parents have decided to sign them up for Hebrew immersion. Every afternoon, their preschool class is taught exclusively in Hebrew.
You might call it “mibereshit” — Hebrew from the beginning.
The students in Voorhees are among more than 1,000 American Jewish children being taught Hebrew in a preschool setting. Most of these schools with immersion programs (though not Beth El’s) are affiliated with a program called Ma’alah, created by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Melton Research Center for Jewish Education.
JTS started Ma’alah as a program for all denominations of Judaism, with the intention of getting American Jewish preschoolers to speak Hebrew and to identify more with Judaism and Israel as a long-range result.
According to Ma’alah’s educational consultant, Frieda Robins, there are more than 103,000 preschool age children being educated in Jewish early childhood centers in the United States. This fact, combined with scientific research showing that it is easiest to acquire a second language at a young age, led to the establishment of Ma’alah.
“It would have been a missed opportunity not to do it,” Robins said.
In most American Jewish academic settings, Robins said, children are taught Hebrew by inserting single Hebrew words into English sentences: “Yeladim [children], come to the shulchan [table].”
“That’s the type of teaching Hebrew that has been done — Hebrew by rote,” Robins said. “It’s very limited and limiting. Kids can’t really express themselves in the language. They may understand a word here or there, but they don’t understand the language.”
In contrast, Ma’alah’s optimal model of Hebrew-immersion education is to teach the classes five days a week for three hours a day with two Israeli teachers. It is a model that non-Ma’alah programs, like Beth El’s, have adopted, as well, to positive results.
“Parents tell me that when two of the kids in the class get together, they often play speaking Hebrew,” Robins said.
Research has shown that there are tremendous cognitive advantages to being taught a second language at a young age. In terms of Jewish education, Robins said, the advantages are not only to the brain but also to a child’s sense of Jewish identity. If a child learns to speak Hebrew early on, he or she can develop an understanding of and identification with Israel and Judaism that is not as readily accessible to the non-Hebrew speaker.
“We saw that Jewish education in the Hebrew school setting suffers tremendously, because children are learning how to read by decoding the language: They don’t understand a thing, and therefore they aren’t making any kind of connection to it,” Robins said. “We want to give them a base on which they can build their Jewish education later on, be that in a day school or a congregational school setting.”
Ma’alah began as a pilot program for children of Camp Ramah New England staffers in the summer of 1999. It is now in full operation at 26 schools all over the country, with Beth El as one of the institutions emulating its model.
At this point, Ma’alah is searching for more funding to expand it so that more schools are able to participate in the program.
“We’re applying to various funders and are hoping to grow beyond what the program is now, to the point where it will become a national organization that supports early childhood Hebrew educators,” Robins said.
Jordana Horn Marinoff is a lawyer and writer living outside Philadelphia. She is at work on her first novel.