Hebrew Students Earn Credit

By Josh Yaffa

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Katie Melchior received her diploma this summer from San Diego’s Westview High School, her transcript showed that she had fulfilled the foreign-language requirement for her local school district by taking three years of Hebrew.

Westview, however, doesn’t offer Hebrew classes; its foreign-language courses are limited to Spanish and French. Instead, Melchior studied the language on afternoons and weekends at her local Reform synagogue, Temple Adat Shalom — which, like a growing number of Jewish community centers and supplementary schools around the country, offers Hebrew instruction for credit at local public high schools.

ºI had to learn a foreign language,” Melchior explained. “I thought Hebrew would be a more interesting alternative –– it was a fun challenge and a really unique connection to Judaism.”

San Diego’s public schools have granted credit for Hebrew instruction at Adat Shalom since 2001, contingent on a minimum number of instructional hours, homework assignments and in-class exams. Citing “a newer comfort level and awareness of Hebrew” among young Jews, the congregation’s Rabbi Deborah Prinz told the Forward that the program has more than doubled its enrollment to several dozen students since its inception.

Similar agreements between public schools and Jewish institutions exist in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Bill Cohen, the principal of Los Angeles Hebrew High, which offers Hebrew for credit as one part of its broader supplementary Jewish curriculum, suggested a number of factors to explain the increased interest in modern Hebrew study. “What students want is threefold: a vibrant sense of community, Judaism that is relevant to their lives and, yes, they want high-school credit for it,” he explained. In the Los Angeles unified school district, students can study languages from Korean to Armenian through supplementary programs, as long as the courses meet district standards and teachers provide signed, sealed certificates with students’ grades and attendance records.

With the longest-running and largest such program in the country, L.A. Hebrew High offers Hebrew instruction for approximately 350 students a year, the vast majority from public schools. “We don’t exist solely to give people credit, but it’s a great benefit — a carrot for both students and parents,” Cohen added.

Melchior, who hopes to continue her Hebrew education at college in the fall, acknowledged the importance of receiving school credit: “I probably wouldn’t have been able to take Hebrew if I wasn’t receiving credit,” she said. “The class was a lot of fun, but high school is already a pretty busy time.”

Jewish educators, aware of the growing responsibilities and commitments of high-school students, are moving to accommodate time-strapped teenagers curious to study the language. “Children have a great sense of practicality,” explained Nili Rabinowitz, Hebrew-language coordinator at the Jewish Community High School at Gratz College, in Philadelphia. “They understand that every class is time and money, and appreciate that they get something in return.”

Rabinowitz recently developed a standardized exam in Hebrew. Starting this fall, students who pass the oral and written test will be granted credits for foreign-language study in Philadelphia public schools.

“I think it will be a real motivation for the students,” Rabinowitz told the Forward. “It’s a great statement, that an outside authority will value and recognize Hebrew as a living language worthy of evaluation in the same manner as French, German or Chinese.” “It works from a school-district perspective, too,” added Jewish Community High School director Ari Goldberg. “The district can demonstrate that it’s open to innovative teaching methods. What we are doing has applicability to other languages and disciplines.” But Hebrew –– unlike other subjects –– is inexorably linked to questions of cultural identity and religious observance, making questions of Old Testament liturgy potentially as relevant in the classroom as how to order dinner in a Tel Aviv restaurant.

“Our program is accredited by a number of local districts, so we have to be careful” about religious content, Prinz told the Forward. But even as schools avoid weighty theological discussions during Hebrew-language courses, some connections are allowed. The vocabulary and sentence structure of the Torah are components of L.A. Hebrew High’s language program, for instance, while at Adat Shalom students occasionally sit in on the congregation’s daily minyan.

Some educators caution, however, that such a variegated, multi-purpose teaching approach is less than ideal, especially if the goal of the program is second-language acquisition. Amnon Ophir, director of suburban Cleveland’s Akiva High School — like L.A. Hebrew High, a supplementary school — advocates asking students and families exactly “what kind” of Hebrew they are interested in studying: “Do you want to sit in synagogue? Travel around Israel? Or are you looking for a spiritual connection to the Jewish people? Each of these answers can lead to a completely different language program.”

“Hebrew is unique –– it’s more than just a foreign language,” Ophir added. “It is a symbol.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.