Hebrew for What?: Hebrew at the Heart of Jewish Day Schools

By Yossi Prager

The AVI CHAI Foundation is delighted to release a new research report by Dr. Alex Pomson and Dr. Jack Wertheimer on the teaching of Hebrew language in Jewish day schools. As a foundation that has devoted significant energy and tens of millions of dollars toward Hebrew teaching and learning, we see a number of opportunities for future action emerging from the report. We hope that the reflections below will be helpful to others who share a passion for producing a new generation fluent in the texts and language of the Jewish people.

School communities could work together to develop the case (or cases) for schools prioritizing the study of classic and modern Hebrew language. Drs. Pomson and Wertheimer asked students, parents and teachers to rank the importance of 11 reasons for students to learn Hebrew. The responses differed among streams of schools, and, within streams, among students, parents and teachers. In some schools, a significant number of parents support Hebrew because “learning a second language contributes to my child’s brain development.” While this is supported by current educational research, brain development does not make the case for Hebrew as opposed to Mandarin Chinese or Spanish. Also, many parents – albeit a minority in all schools – dismissed the value of Hebrew language study. Taken together, the data show an urgent need to make a clear, eloquent and multi-faceted case(s) to students, parents and teachers from across disciplines for why day school students need to develop fluency in classical and modern Hebrew.

There is a need to define realistic outcomes in both classic and modern Hebrew. It is clear that different schools prioritize Hebrew for text study/prayer and Hebrew for modern communication differently. Whatever the prioritization, it would be useful for schools to make their decisions against a backdrop that would enable a school’s leadership to say, for example, “We want our graduates to be fluent at level three in classical Hebrew and level two in modern Hebrew.” In order for school leaders to make this kind of informed decision, there would need to be accessible benchmarks and assessment tools for the different levels of classical and modern Hebrew. At the high school level, schools could even empower students to thoughtfully choose the level of Hebrew they would like to achieve in classical and modern Hebrew. Empowering students could be one response to a key finding from the study, that the high satisfaction level of students, parents and teachers with Hebrew study in the elementary grades dips significantly by high school.

Hebrew language teachers should be trained in second language acquisition. The report finds that most of the Hebrew language teachers, whether from Israel or North America, are trained in pedagogy (good news!). However, few are trained in teaching Hebrew as a second language, which may be one reason that satisfaction levels drop as students move from an integrated Hebrew/Jewish studies class in elementary school to discipline-specific classes in middle school and beyond. Funders can help develop programs that will provide such training and can partner with local day school donors to support participation in these programs. Educational research has consistently found that the quality of teaching in the classroom is the most significant factor in student learning. It may be that different programs are needed: programs for native Hebrew speakers that focus on second-language pedagogy and the culture of North American day schools, and programs for non-native speakers that also raise the teachers’ level of fluency.

Schools are most successful when they raise the bar at the wholeschool level. The researchers identified six schools that were exceptions to the rule: in these schools, a larger share of older students expressed enthusiasm for their Hebrew language study. These schools do not share a curricular or pedagogic approach, nor do they all employ similar numbers of Israeli shlichim. Rather, what they have in common is strong and visible leadership who ensure and communicate that Hebrew matters and who invest resources in staff development. These schools have a clarity of mission and a culture that supports implementation of the mission. This kind of school culture cannot be developed by sending teachers or leaders to outside programs. However, funders can develop programs that support school leaders (lay and professional) within schools to shape a holistic commitment to Hebrew with the help of consultants and content experts. An AVI CHAI-supported program in Israel, Ma’arag (now operated by KIACH) is an example of such a program (focused on a different subject area – excellence in Jewish, Zionist and civic education).

The new report from Drs. Pomson and Wertheimer encourages us that much is right about Hebrew language education in America. However, the report also provides troubling data that serve as a call to action, coupled with the beginnings of a roadmap for that action. The four ideas we have outlined require differing levels of investment, in time and money. As a spend-down foundation, AVI CHAI cannot set all of these ideas into motion. We would be happy to serve as conveners of the conversation about “Why Hebrew?” and stand ready to assist and potentially partner with other philanthropists who seek to elevate and improve Hebrew teaching and learning at Jewish day schools. If these ideas interest you, please write to us (NLeibowitz@avichaina.org). We look forward to hearing from you!

Yossi Prager is the Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.