What are we saying?

It’s time for teshuva – for Hebrew education

In Short

Now more than ever American Jews need to learn Hebrew to connect us to world Jewry, particularly Israel

With Rosh Hashanah behind us and Yom Kippur ahead, we will soon gather once again to read, sing and make heartfelt declarations in Hebrew. 

And for far too many of us, there will still be little to no understanding of the words coming out of our mouths.  

Whether sharing a simple “Shana Tova,” or chanting aloud from the machzor throughout the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days are both a time when we look to the future, and also the period when most North American Jews encounter and use Hebrew as the language of their people. Like the blast of the shofar, the use of our sacred tongue between family and friends or within a congregation creates the soundscape of these holy days as our people wrestle with powerful word concepts such as teshuva (repentance).

In an important essay last week in eJewishPhilanthropy, Hebrew learning in synagogues: A call for change, educator Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz rightly challenges our congregations and our community to rethink how we introduce children to their sacred language, drawing both from historical approaches and research-based insights on how someone learns to read and engage with a language. She is correct to critique a tradition that is ineffective and counterproductive, knowing that this leads to too many turning away from finding the beauty and spirituality in Jewish worship. Breaking one’s teeth over a language that can elevate and penetrate is bad for young Jews, for the Jewish future, and most definitely for Hebrew. And if we are failing in congregational schools, the first step in most young people’s Jewish educational journey, we are bequeathing to the next generation nothing but a future of more Jews reciting Hebrew words they do not understand.

Fifteen years ago, Hebrew at the Center was founded in reaction to a call to action similar to Moskowitz’s in the Jewish day school world where, as one of our long-time supporters quipped: “In no place is more time and money spent not teaching Hebrew than in Jewish day schools.” We understood we needed to be disruptive in our approach, drawing from language learning science, a deep commitment to training Hebrew speakers to become Hebrew language instructors, and the establishment of proficiency standards and assessment systems that could ensure data-driven instruction. However, as important as pedagogic and programmatic interventions are, we know that fundamental work must be done in creating a culture of seriousness and commitment to Hebrew learning on the part of parents, school leaders and the community. Given the high percentage of Jewish communal leaders that come out of the day school world, it would be a tragedy to continue wasting the hours being spent on Hebrew language instruction without ensuring that we were seeing a true return on this investment of time. 

Hebrew is a shared inheritance and tool that transcends the diversity of theological and ideological differences during a time of growing fractures. Hebrew is a living bridge that connects global Jewry and opens access to our sacred text and contemporary Israeli film, television and literature. And in this particular moment, when Israelis are wrestling the fundamental dilemmas of building a Jewish and democratic state, Hebrew language provides opportunity for the rest of the Jewish family to be able to have an insider’s understanding of what is taking place, rather than remaining dependent upon translated op-eds, news articles and demonstration placards.

On Rosh Hashanah, a new year begins and the opportunity for us to individually and collectively be written in the Book of Life is renewed again, creating the opportunity for us to both improve ourselves and ensure our future. We believe that the revolution that Nachama is calling for in congregational and part-time schools, along with our efforts in day schools and summer camps, demand communal attention. By finding ways to unleash the power of Hebrew in North America, together we can ensure that the largest Jewish community outside of Israel does not give up its commitment, ownership and love of the Jewish language.

While we can forgive and be forgiven throughout the year, something we will be reminded about during these upcoming days, we will not deserve forgiveness if we do not take this message about Hebrew seriously, later bemoaning ongoing Hebrew illiteracy in the future. We can make a difference in the level of Jewish literacy, offer a point of unity to a fractured people and reverse the expanding gap between Israel and us. 

Our tradition teaches that shaarei teshuva, the gates of repentance, are always open. Let us use this moment to reflect on what we can do to better Hebrew language education and repent our misguided way, collectively stepping through the gates of Hebrew. Let us pick up Nachama’s gauntlet and launch a strategic and collective effort to strengthen the ability of the members of our community to feel truly at home in Hebrew. As we use Hebrew words to pray for ourselves and our community, let us pray for true understanding and then take a big step towards change.

Rabbi Andrew Ergas is the Chief Executive Officer of Hebrew at the Center, which works to revolutionize Hebrew language education and engagement as it advocates for Hebrew as a more prominent and intentional feature of Jewish life.