By Leah Nadich Meir
Looking back at the 19 years I’ve worked at AVI CHAI, I am thankful beyond measure that so much of my project oversight intersected so perfectly with my values and priorities. One prime example is my work on Hebrew language education. I’d like to share with you how Hebrew language came to mean so much to me and why I believe it can still function as a powerful bond connecting the Jewish people worldwide. Then, I’ll describe a ground-breaking Hebrew language education program, now 20 years old, which I have overseen at AVI CHAI. And finally, I want to acknowledge the entire landscape of Hebrew language learning initiatives that sometimes go under-acknowledged. All of this leaves me feeling more upbeat than I did 19 years ago about the future of Hebrew language in North America. I hope that this overview will contribute to the lively and thoughtful exchange taking place now about the importance of Hebrew language.
Hebrew language is so high on my personal priority list because I received a precious gift from my American-born parents z”l as soon as I was born: they spoke only Hebrew to me and to my two younger sisters. My grandfather was a leader in the revival of the Hebrew language in North America, serving as the editor for 30 years of Hadoar, the only Hebrew weekly in America, and as president of the Histadrut Ivrit, the Council for Hebrew Language. When I was learning to talk, he would follow me around with a notebook and pen, proudly jotting down every new Hebrew word I mastered!
While most American Jews were trying their hardest to master a few phrases in Hebrew, my counter-cultural upbringing included Hebrew-speaking summer camps, day school education, undergraduate study in Hebrew, trips to Israel at a young age and living in Israel for five years.
This gift became part of my identity and my being. My earliest memories return to me in Hebrew; I conversed easily with Israeli cousins and friends in Hebrew; the study of Bible and other Jewish texts was so much easier because many of the words were the same or very similar to modern Hebrew words, and the joys of Hebrew literature were open to me. For me, being at home in Hebrew was an essential part of being at home in Judaism, Jewish texts and Israel.
Knowing that Hebrew fluency contributed tremendously to my identity and sense of Jewish “belonging,” I wondered whether there was a way to grant even a portion of this gift to young Jews growing up outside of Israel. I’m still astonished that my work at AVI CHAI has let me transform that wondering into action!
My professional engagement with the NETA program (now known as Bishvil Ha-Ivrit) began in my first years at AVI CHAI. NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit was initiated in 1999 at the urging of AVI CHAI Trustee Dr. Ruth Wisse, with early implementation by Senior Program Officer Rachel Mohl Abrahams. It created a comprehensive Hebrew language curriculum and offered ongoing professional development for Jewish day school teachers in grades 7-12. Founding Director Hilla Kobliner came with a stellar reputation as a consummate Hebrew language expert and master pedagogue. An expert and dedicated staff was stationed at NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit’s North American home at Hebrew College in Boston. The staff has planted and nurtured the seeds that have made the program flourish and bloom in the years since.
From its very beginnings, NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit was envisioned as both a curriculum and a teacher training program. Before the program’s introduction in Jewish day schools, Hebrew language instruction depended largely on cobbled-together and photocopied materials, and varied widely in content, quality and results, with very little professional development available to teachers. While the vast majority of the Hebrew language teachers in these grades were native Hebrew speakers, many with training and experience in education, few had specialized training in teaching Hebrew as a second language. NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit’s professional development was geared to help these teachers become professionals in teaching Hebrew as a second language.
The program has come a long way since starting off as a pilot in 13 North American schools in 2000. Currently it serves over 150 schools worldwide, where it is used by over 20,000 students. Programs like this need ongoing resources and investment to remain alive and well.
In 2012, AVI CHAI entered into an agreement with the Center for Educational Technology (CET) in Tel Aviv to transfer full responsibility for all aspects of the program to CET by 2019. This agreement was intended to ensure a permanent “home” for Bishvil Ha-Ivrit that would support its high standards, curricular revisions and professional development into a future that would take advantage of new pedagogical opportunities through educational technology. Since then, the curricular and teacher guide materials have been completely revamped, the program is fully digital and interactive (additionally, hard copy books are still printed for every student), and a lively online community of teachers exchanges ideas, materials and support. Currently, the program generates over $1 million in earned revenue annually. We are truly delighted that CET has confirmed its original commitment to continuing to develop and support Bishvil Ha-Ivrit after 2019.
How has Bishvil Ha-Ivrit raised the bar on Hebrew language in the last 20 years?
- It meets students at their Hebrew language level and groups them accordingly.
- It provides clear standards and benchmarks for student learning.
- Professionals in curriculum writing have developed intellectually challenging and engaging materials using authentic texts – all of which are consistent with principles of second language learning.
- It uses current and accessible technology that benefits both students and teachers.
- It includes reliable assessment.
- It offers expert professional development to teachers of all levels, face-to-face and online.
- It provides ongoing support via mentoring, webinars and online resources.
- It identifies, trains and supports the “next generation” of Hebrew educators.
The content includes Biblical and Rabbinic texts in addition to Modern Hebrew, so that the students can become “fluent” in these different forms of Hebrew language. The materials are graphically beautiful and creative, and are arranged thematically. For example, the newly revamped Book 3 for intermediate level students includes eight units, including one on color and form, one on symbols in Judaism and one on friendship. The texts, which can be both read and listened to, run the gamut from modern poetry to Bible and Midrash to film and song. All have been carefully selected to align with the students’ Hebrew language development while engaging them intellectually – not an easy task! Students can work on their own or in small groups with the online materials, and teachers can track student progress with the online class management tools.
Professional development for teachers has always been a hallmark of the program. Teachers who are new to Bishvil Ha-Ivrit attend a five-day in-person introductory seminar; additional in-person seminars for more experienced teachers are conducted every summer on topics such as project-based learning and students with special learning needs. Teachers also benefit from mentoring, customized to the needs of their schools. Webinars throughout the year add to the learning opportunities.
If this sounds like a lot … it is! Teachers appreciate the recognition of, and support for, their practice of the profession of Hebrew language pedagogy, and students have the benefit of more personalized learning through interactive games and activities.
In light of these accomplishments, AVI CHAI is very optimistic about the future of Bishvil Ha-Ivrit as a tremendous boost to Hebrew language learning. We also recognize that no single program or curriculum is the “magic bullet” to Hebrew language mastery. The programs, professional development and curricula that have developed in recent years, such as iTaLAM (grades 1-5), Delet L’Ivrit at Hebrew Union College/JIR, Hebrew at the Center and the Middlebury College graduate-level Hebrew Language program for teachers have all contributed to professionalizing Hebrew language learning in North America and around the world. The establishment of the Council for Hebrew Language and Culture and its affiliate, the National Association of Hebrew Teachers, under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization, is another welcome addition to the Hebrew language scene.
So I am upbeat about the reinvigoration of Hebrew learning and fluency outside of Israel. Even if oral and written Hebrew fluency is limited to the relatively small number of students in Jewish day schools, our history has taught us that even a small number can function as an energizing and inspirational force. After all, the entire movement leading to the creation of Modern Hebrew was begun by a very small number of passionate leaders who were “meshuga’im ladavar” – dedicated visionaries to the cause. We need more dedicated visionaries and their students who feel like Hebrew is “home.”
With the approach of AVI CHAI’s sunset at the end of 2019, I am personally grateful for the Foundation’s unwavering commitment to the Hebrew language, for its generous support for NETA/Bishvil Ha-Ivrit and for the opportunity for me to be so closely involved in its development. Enabling thousands of students to experience connection with their identity and people through Hebrew has been a fulfillment not only of my dreams, but those of my parents and grandparents as well.
Leah Nadich Meir is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.