Hebrew Language as a Communal Priority: Achshav

By Arnee Winshall

Recent articles in Forward and Tablet portend a fragile future for the language of our people. Aviya Kushner, in Why No One’s Studying Hebrew Anymore, calls attention to the decline of Hebrew language enrollment and proficiency among college students. The statistics she shares are startling with a 17.6% drop in enrollment between 2013 and 2016. James Loeffler, in Should American Jews Speak Hebrew?, explores the irony of a Jewish community living with a common language that is split by that same language because American Jews – half the globe’s Jewish population – have little understanding of even the basics of modern Hebrew.

The crucial role of Hebrew in our Jewish lives is obvious. Hebrew proficiency gives Jews the opportunity to engage deeply and meaningfully in prayer and ritual. Hebrew connects us to Israel and to one another around the globe. It opens the door to a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of our text. In short, Hebrew language serves as a “connective tissue” of our people and is at the core of our culture as Jews.

Loeffler’s article reminds us that Ben-Gurion’s original vision at the founding of the state of Israel was to embrace the Hebrew language as a crucial pillar in binding together American Jewry with Israel. He submits that political expediency and pragmatism pushed the focus away from language as our bond and left Ben Gurion’s “Jewish revolution” incomplete.

It is time for donors, leaders, educators, and those committed to the Jewish future to continue that revolution and join together to ensure that Hebrew proficiency is a priority. Together, we can reassess how we can strategically invest philanthropic dollars where they make the strongest impact.

For years, there has been a focus on curriculum to inspire and instill our students with Hebrew skills, but this focus misses a key driver of student achievement – the teachers. We have learned from the success of communal initiatives such as the Jewish New Teachers Project and the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators that professional development and mentoring of teachers leads to student progress and success in the classrooms! We must support and invest in our Hebrew language professionals to equip them with the tools they need to optimize student learning.

Learning Hebrew is dependent on two major inputs: providing students with Hebrew teachers who know how to teach the language and setting aside adequate time for students to learn it. While Jewish day schools allocate the time, many of those teaching Hebrew do not have the preparation or expertise that would empower them to be the most effective teachers. And after-school programs, that are now reduced to a couple of hours a week, have the problem of both lack of time and effective teachers. Our university programs have historically had few professors whose particular expertise has been in teaching Hebrew; rather, universities often turn to professors of Hebrew literature and linguistics to teach language as part of their teaching portfolio. Jewish camps are prime potential venues for experiential practice of Hebrew, but camps do not have the training and support to develop immersive experiences, even with many Israeli counselors on staff.

Change has occurred on the ground in distinct pockets of our community. For the past 10 years, Hebrew at the Center has been committed to shifting student outcomes. We have seen marked success where schools and communities have invested in deep multi-year professional development and assessment tools to measure student growth. In these cases, not only have we seen proficiency levels of learners demonstrably improve, but we have also found that students’ passion for Hebrew grows. Where investments have been made in professional Hebrew teacher and camp counselor development, children exhibit increased motivation to use and strengthen their Hebrew. Equally important, Hebrew language educators express that their personal motivation as professionals is heightened as a result of their enhanced professional development.

What is clear from our work is that an intentional investment in professional development for teachers, school and camp leaders, and others who are at the ready to champion the field of Hebrew language, reaps results. We have incubated this idea long enough and now know that the impact is significant. Let’s join together as a philanthropic community, as leaders, and as educators and, together, invest in the Jewish future to propel change by making Hebrew language proficiency a communal priority.

Arnee Winshall is CEO and President of Hebrew at the Center, Inc.

This article was adapted from a Letter to the Editor that appeared in the Forward in response to Aviya Kushner’s article, Why No One’s Studying Hebrew Anymore.