(JTA) — For the first 3 1/2 weeks of the summer, one group of 5-year-olds at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, N.Y., was “very quiet” as the children went about the typical camp activities, according to Amy Skopp Cooper, the camp’s director.
But in the fourth week, the talking started – in Israeli-accented Hebrew.
By the end of the summer, evaluations revealed that most of the 20 children – all of whom had started out as Hebrew novices – “had gone up multiple levels” in their Hebrew proficiency, Cooper said.
The campers were participants in a pilot Hebrew immersion program at the Jewish day camp 25 miles north of Manhattan. And if leaders of a new group promoting Hebrew literacy have their way, those campers will soon be joined by many others.
The Hebrew Language Council of North America, which held its inaugural conference last month in New Jersey, aims to make Hebrew a more central part of American Jewish culture. Established by a partnership among several organizations including the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Ministry of Education, the council is launching as growing numbers of Jewish educational programs are rethinking their approach to teaching Hebrew and as signs emerge of low Hebrew literacy among American Jews.
“Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a people,” said Arnee Winshall, CEO of Hebrew at the Center, one of the groups involved in starting the council. “We talk a lot about ‘am Yisrael’ [the people of Israel], and a language is part of what distinguishes a people.”
Many Jewish educators consider Hebrew a core feature of Jewish identity building. But according to the Pew Research Center’s recent study of American Jewry, just 52 percent of American Jews know the Hebrew alphabet and only 10 percent can carry on a conversation in Hebrew. Even among those who attended yeshiva or Jewish day school, the numbers are scarcely better, with only one-third saying they can converse in Hebrew. The number rises to 64 percent for those with 10 years or more of day school education.
Experts variously attribute the low numbers to poor teaching, lack of clarity about why Hebrew language acquisition is important and the few opportunities to speak Hebrew in American Jewish life.
“We know many if not most day schools claim to be interested in [conversational] Hebrew proficiency, but the reality is they face limited time and unless you’re really committed, it’s not easy,” said Jonathan Woocher, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and a longtime CEO of the now-shuttered Jewish Education Service of North America.
Day school directors face a “dilemma about where to put the emphasis and resources and how to deal with the fact that except for Israelis, there isn’t a community of active Hebrew speakers in America,” Woocher said.
The emergence in the past six years of publicly funded Hebrew charter schools may help change the equation. There are now 10 such schools in the United States teaching Hebrew language and Jewish culture, but like all public schools they are prohibited from teaching Jewish religion.
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.”