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.”