New York — (JTA) — For the first 3 1/2 weeks of the summer, one group of 5-year-olds at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, N.Y., was “very quiet” as the children went about the typical camp activities, according to Amy Skopp Cooper, the camp’s director.
But in the fourth week, the talking started – in Israeli-accented Hebrew.
By the end of the summer, evaluations revealed that most of the 20 children – all of whom had started out as Hebrew novices – “had gone up multiple levels” in their Hebrew proficiency, Cooper said.
The campers were participants in a pilot Hebrew immersion program at the Jewish day camp 25 miles north of Manhattan. And if leaders of a new group promoting Hebrew literacy have their way, those campers will soon be joined by many others.
The Hebrew Language Council of North America, which held its inaugural conference last month in New Jersey, aims to make Hebrew a more central part of American Jewish culture. Established by a partnership among several organizations including the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Ministry of Education, the council is launching as growing numbers of Jewish educational programs are rethinking their approach to teaching Hebrew and as signs emerge of low Hebrew literacy among American Jews.
“Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a people,” said Arnee Winshall, CEO of Hebrew at the Center, one of the groups involved in starting the council. “We talk a lot about ‘am Yisrael’ [the people of Israel], and a language is part of what distinguishes a people.”
Many Jewish educators consider Hebrew a core feature of Jewish identity building. But according to the Pew Research Center’s recent study of American Jewry, just 52 percent of American Jews know the Hebrew alphabet and only 10 percent can carry on a conversation in Hebrew. Even among those who attended yeshiva or Jewish day school, the numbers are scarcely better, with only one-third saying they can converse in Hebrew. The number rises to 64 percent for those with 10 years or more of day school education.
Experts variously attribute the low numbers to poor teaching, lack of clarity about why Hebrew language acquisition is important and the few opportunities to speak Hebrew in American Jewish life.
“We know many if not most day schools claim to be interested in [conversational] Hebrew proficiency, but the reality is they face limited time and unless you’re really committed, it’s not easy,” said Jonathan Woocher, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and a longtime CEO of the now-shuttered Jewish Education Service of North America.
Day school directors face a “dilemma about where to put the emphasis and resources and how to deal with the fact that except for Israelis, there isn’t a community of active Hebrew speakers in America,” Woocher said.
The emergence in the past six years of publicly funded Hebrew charter schools may help change the equation. There are now 10 such schools in the United States teaching Hebrew language and Jewish culture, but like all public schools they are prohibited from teaching Jewish religion.