Hagigah Ivrit: A Celebration of the Hebrew Language


[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]

By Naava Frank

The second annual Hagigah Ivrit of metropolitan New York, March 6-20, 2016 concluded with a sense of a new tradition in the making. Hagigah Ivrit, “Festival of Hebrew,” is a two-week celebration of local events and activities aimed at celebrating the Hebrew language and its culture. The festival in New York was part of an annual national Hebrew language celebration that took place in March in cities throughout North America.

Once considered a cornerstone of culture and civilization, for centuries Hebrew was removed from active conversational use and relegated to religious study. The process of revival of Hebrew began in the 19th Century and expanded rapidly with the establishment of the State of Israel. Hebrew was renewed as an old-new language fusing the energy, creativity and unique cultural achievement of modern Israel with the language’s rich biblical, rabbinic and oral historical language traditions and genres. Now Hebrew is ready for its next incarnation: a global language that links cultures and communities across the world. One step in this approach involves initiatives like Hebrew Language Charter Schools, teaching Hebrew to students of diverse religious and socioeconomic backgrounds using the gold standard in language acquisition, the Proficiency approach. Another step is public festivals that engage participants in the Hebrew language as a living, breathing organism in a wide range of social, cultural and academic media. Hagigah Ivrit is one such endeavor.

frank-2“Hagigah Ivrit 2016” in metropolitan New York featured a broad range of events for scholars, students, culture vultures, and families that included film, food, songs, and fun. Building on its successful debut last year, the festival doubled its events and participating organizations to include 40 events in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Long Island and New Jersey. Events were for enthusiasts of all backgrounds and levels of familiarity with Hebrew, from seniors to young children and their families and from fluent speakers to those with no prior Hebrew knowledge. All offerings engaged the audience in the beauty and history of the Hebrew language and provided opportunities to connect with Israeli culture and talent.

The opening event of this year’s Hagigah Ivrit honored the legendary Israeli writer, playwright, and Oscar-nominated movie director Ephraim Kishon (1924-2005) in commemoration of ten years since his passing. Another featured event was the second annual Hebrew Song Celebration, which brought together children’s choirs from nine local schools to perform Hebrew songs celebrating the early years of Israel’s history. Throughout the Hagigah, community-building events coordinated by the Israeli-American Council, such as the Friday night IAC Shishi Israeli, were available across the boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

Hagigah Ivrit has brought together individuals who are deeply passionate about the Hebrew language and eager to share their passion with others in synagogues, schools, JCCs, senior centers, camps and youth groups. Their excitement about Hebrew is contagious.

The Hagigah has taken a grassroots approach, seeking to engage organizations and individuals for whom Hebrew and/or an audience passionate about Hebrew are already a central concern, and encouraging them to create opportunities to engage others. Organizations utilized their own resources, sometimes charging entrance fees for events, sometimes steering existing events toward a focus on Hebrew. Sponsors have been very pleased with the positive momentum and significant growth potential of Hagigah Ivrit over the past two years.

frank-3In order to participate in Hagigah Ivrit in metropolitan New York, each organization completed an application that was carefully reviewed by the festival’s organizers to ensure each event met the criteria for high-quality, Hebrew-language programming. All accepted events were promoted as featured events of the festival through an extensive marketing campaign that included online and print advertising and social media. Thus, Hagigah Ivrit amplified the work of individuals and organizations by connecting them to each other to create a community passionate about Hebrew that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Hagigah of metropolitan New York’s website includes a list of local Hebrew-language and cultural resources as well as lists of events from the past two years that can serve as resources and inspiration for organizations to plan future events.

The Hagigah Ivrit festival is an important opportunity for both full-time and part-time schools to raise the profile of their commitment to Hebrew by calling attention to programs for students and teachers such as Hebrew-language choirs, Hebrew-language celebration weeks, Hebrew-language pen-pal programs, the study of Israeli literature, Hebrew-language school plays or teacher professional development. Promoting these activities allows parents and school supporters as well as other schools and students to see the importance and fun associated with the Hebrew language.

frank-4This year Hagigah Ivrit was also celebrated in Miami, Atlanta, San Diego, San Francisco and the Bay Area (Palo Alto, Los Gatos and Berkeley) as well as in Los Angeles and Chicago. Hagigah events in each of the cities were designed and produced by local leading organizations and in some places, in collaboration with members of the newly established National Association of Teachers of Hebrew, who brought Hagigah Ivrit into schools.

Hagigah Ivrit is a national initiative of The Council for Hebrew Language and Culture in North America. The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, the New York Israeli-American Council and the World Zionist Organization sponsored Hagigah Ivrit in metropolitan New York the past two years. This year strategic partners including the Jewish Education Project, RAVSAK, The Schechter Day School Network and the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan helped recruit hosts and participants for Hagigah Ivrit events.

Hagigah Ivrit is an exciting new initiative to promote literacy in the Hebrew language on a local level and to build interest and support for Hebrew from the ground up. In metropolitan New York, the festival aspires to expand in coming years, increasing the number of events, host organizations and participants. On the national level, it continues to spread to other metropolitan areas across North America, engaging local donors and strategic partners in each community as it has done in New York. In this way, Hagigah Ivrit can play a part in engaging people throughout North America in the love and appreciation for the Hebrew language and its culture.

Naava Frank, Ed.D., is Senior Program Officer at The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.