The recent article in The Forward by Aviya Kushner “No One’s Studying Hebrew Anymore — That’s A Big Problem should not be taken lightly. Ms. Kushner calls attention to a serious failure of our Jewish education system — Hebrew language proficiency at both higher and more elementary levels of learning.
She is right; there is a failure, and the solution lies in strategically investing philanthropic dollars in the education of school and camp leadership and professional development for Hebrew language educators. While millions of dollars have been spent through the years in developing and disseminating Hebrew curriculum, an inadequate amount has been invested in ensuring that we have engaging, effective, expert Hebrew language teachers, setting clear goals, and measuring the outcomes.
Learning Hebrew is dependent on two major inputs: providing students with Hebrew teachers who know how to teach languages, and setting aside adequate time for students to learn the language. While Jewish day schools allocate the time, most of those teaching Hebrew do not have the preparation or expertise that would empower them to be effective teachers. Jewish camps provide an ideal context for Hebrew immersion and for leveraging Israeli personnel, but camps too often avoid incorporating Hebrew learning into the camp experience due to a lack of expertise and understanding of how to do it. And after school programs, that are now reduced to a couple of hours a week, have the problem of both time and a dearth of effective teachers. Our university programs have historically had few professors whose particular expertise has been in teaching and learning language, but rather often have professors who have extensive backgrounds in Hebrew literature and linguistics and are expected to teach language as part of their teaching assignments.
We can sit here and bemoan the facts presented or we can mobilize in the face of this urgency and allocate philanthropic resources to address the problem with solutions that are known to work.
Arnee R. Winshall is President and CEO of Hebrew at the Center, Inc.