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Preschoolers Get a Head Start in Hebrew

Los Angeles – Jewish day-school educators have long been flummoxed by the fact that, despite their best efforts to teach Hebrew, the vast majority of students graduate with little grasp of the language. In this city, that story is finally changing.

Some four years since the launch of a pilot program to teach Hebrew at the preschool level using language immersion, children in Los Angeles are showing signs that the retooled approach is producing results.

The introduction of Hebrew to 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds began with Ma’alah, a program based at the Davidson Graduate School of Education at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Judaism’s flagship institution. Funded by a grant from the Covenant Foundation, a New York-based Jewish educational foundation, the program aimed to teach part of a child’s school day entirely in Hebrew.

Looking to seed the nascent project, Ma’alah’s lead educator, Frieda Robbins, reached out to other educators in a select group of American cities. The program took hold in Detroit, Washington, Atlanta and Los Angeles, among other urban areas. On the west coast, the conditions were right not only for it to take hold but also to expand.

Aviva Kadosh, a 28-year veteran of L.A.’s Jewish-education bureau, had already spent several years trying to pinpoint exactly what was malfunctioning in Hebrew-language instruction at day schools and how it could be improved. Kadosh, who has a background as a language-acquisition specialist, examined how other languages were taught. So when Robbins proposed the Hebrew-immersion program, she said, “it was a natural.”

Two L.A. schools were selected to pilot early Hebrew immersion. At the Jacob Pressman Academy, a Conservative day school affiliated with Temple Beth Am, a large West L.A. synagogue, the program started out in the school’s early-childhood center. Pressman Academy’s education director, Mitchel Malkus, said that in previous years Hebrew was taught largely through songs, and that only a few basic words were introduced at the preschool level. “Now,” he said, “you can walk into our classrooms and children are speaking fluent Hebrew at age 4 and have complete comprehension.”

Not all students at Pressman Academy opt for Hebrew immersion, which costs approximately an extra $400 a year. Some parents are concerned that their children’s English education will suffer. About 28 preschoolers currently have half their day conducted in Hebrew, while some 48 do not. Still, said Malkus, the program is seen as a success, and is expanding as a result. Every year, the school adds another year of Hebrew instruction — reaching as high as fourth grade in the current academic year.

“It’s become a distinctive element of our curriculum and it’s created a lot of excitement in general at the school,” said Malkus. Not only are 3- and 4-year-olds making giant leaps in their Hebrew, he said, but the older students are also benefiting as language teachers at the day school and the religious school have upped the quality of their instruction. “It shifted the culture of the schools, so the other teachers started doing more.”

Pressman Academy has even started offering more Hebrew classes for parents. A tiny minority of kids enrolled in the program have Israeli parents who are already fluent; most parents are English-speaking and have little, if any, knowledge of Hebrew.

L.A.’s own version of Ma’alah, renamed L’Shoneinu, Hebrew for “our tongue,” now reaches 12 day schools in some capacity. Kadosh attributes the rapid growth of early Hebrew immersion in L.A. schools to the bureau’s laissez-faire approach. Schools are given the freedom to adopt as much or as little of early immersion into their day as they wish. Some schools offer only half an hour of Hebrew a day, while others, like Pressman Academy, offer it for a half-day.

While the amount of time that preschool kids spend learning in Hebrew varies from school to school, the unifying idea is always the same. The underpinning of the Ma’alah approach is to teach children their own curriculum in Hebrew, in place of teaching the language as a distinct facet of their education.

Using grant money from local foundations, including the Jewish Community Foundation and the Valley Alliance, the bureau takes pains to train teachers in the nontraditional approach to language instruction. For the first time, many of the educators are teaching real content in Hebrew.

That approach gives the students a context, says Kadosh. “You don’t ask kids something they already know,” she said, citing the example of asking a child’s name. Instead, she explained, the teacher is taught to ask children about something that they care about, such as their pets. “It’s a real context,” she said, “not an artificial context.”

But with 3-year-olds being taught in Hebrew, might parents grow concerned that their progeny’s English development will suffer as a result? Yes, says Kadosh. Many parents, she explained, have difficulty grasping the idea that their child’s early bilingual education will not hurt their English capacity. “I visit every group of parents to relax them and say this is helpful for when it’s time for your kids to take the SATs,” said Kadosh. “And that’s what they want to hear.”


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