New Initiative Promotes Hebrew Literacy Among American Jews

Only 10% Can Carry Out a Conversation in Hebrew


By Julie Wiener

Published December 03, 2013.
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The schools are “forcing us to up our game,” said Rabbi Andrew Davids, head of Beit Rabban, a small, nondenominational Jewish day school in Manhattan now revamping its Hebrew curriculum.

Davids said four Beit Rabban families transferred their children to a new Hebrew charter school in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood this year. And while he recognizes his school can never compete with the free tuition of a charter school, Davids said he wants to make sure his school can offer a Hebrew program as good as the charter school.

“We don’t want Hebrew to be the reason they leave,” Davids said.

The new council joins a number of Hebrew teaching efforts that have been percolating for the past decade.

In addition to Ramah Nyack, several other Jewish camps have experimented with Hebrew immersion. In Chicago, a program called Moadon Kol Chadash (New Voice Lounge) offers Hebrew-immersion Jewish preschool. And seven suburban public high schools, with support from the Jewish nonprofit Shorashim, are offering Hebrew-language courses.

Hebrew at the Center (HATC), a 6-year-old organization that recently partnered with Middlebury College in Vermont to create the Middlebury-HATC Institute for the Advancement of Hebrew Language, has helped train teachers for many of the programs. The Middlebury-HATC Institute is launching master’s and doctoral programs to train Hebrew teachers and support scholarly research.

Until now, Winshall said, most Hebrew teachers in the United States have had little formal training and many Jewish day schools recruit local Israelis with little expertise in teaching language.

The Hebrew Language Council is planning to sponsor an annual three-day Hebrew language and Israeli culture conference; form a professional association for Hebrew teachers in North America; convene an online forum for sharing information about various Hebrew programs; and raise money for Hebrew education initiatives.

“We have to bring under one umbrella all the people who care about Hebrew,” said Simcha Leibovich, the World Zionist Organization representative in North America.

While Winshall knows of no studies showing the impact of Hebrew literacy on Jewish identity, she said there is significant research on how language mastery influences a sense of connection to the culture in which that language is spoken.

“When I spent a year-and-a-half in Israel, I had a different experience than my other American friends there who couldn’t speak Hebrew or could only function at the lowest level,” Winshall said. “I was invited to different things because people said they didn’t want to always worry about speaking English.”


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