Raising the Profile of Hebrew in North America: A New Initiative by the WZO

Ben YehudaThe launch of the Hebrew Language Council of North America will create a movement dedicated to advancing the Hebrew language and Israeli culture in North America.

by Darryl Egnal

The World Zionist Organization (WZO) will launch the Hebrew Language Council (HLC) of North America at HLC’s inaugural conference in Newark, NJ, opening today. The aim behind the new Council is to raise the profile of the Hebrew language and Israeli culture in North America and bring together organizations and institutions dealing with the Hebrew language and Jewish culture.

“Our aim is to lead a movement of Hebrew speakers and Hebrew lovers in the United States and Canada, a movement that will connect people to the Jewish culture, religion and language,” says Dr Simcha Leibovich, the WZO Executive’s representative in North America and founding member of the Hebrew Language Council.

“Judaism is not just a religion. It’s a rich culture with a beautiful, ancient language that not only lives in the Torah and our prayer books, but is also the language that connects Jews all over the world, and we want to bring together everyone connected to the Hebrew language,” he says.

The WZO has partnered with the Israeli Ministry of Education, the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem, Hebrew at the Center (HATC) in Massachusetts, the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and the Middlebury-HATC Institute for the Advancement of Hebrew in Vermont, to form the new Hebrew Language Council.

Four main initiatives have been planned for the Council. These include an annual, three-day Hebrew language and Israeli culture conference, which will bring together Hebrew teachers, professors, poets, musicians, authors, Hebrew lovers and learners, among others; the formation of the first professional organization for teachers and educators of Hebrew in North America; a database and website for the Council to publish its decisions, ideas and activities and provide a forum for members and interested parties to connect; and the formation of a nonprofit organization to raise money for the various initiatives.

When Dr Leibovich was sent to New York to run the WZO’s North American office in June 2012, he was tasked with finding creative ways to bring Hebrew to the two countries. “There was no way we could reach nearly 6.5 million Jews in the US and Canada with a program here and a small course there,” he says. “We had to find a way to catch everyone with a wide net and bring them together on a much larger scale. And the idea for the Council was born.”

“At the conference, we will discuss the Council’s goals and missions, plans, programs and interests, and will establish a committee that will spread, strengthen and expand the Hebrew language in North America,” says Leibovich.

Some of the people who were invited to participate in the conference include academics and educators from various institutions including the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Yeshiva University, New York; The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York; York University, Canada; Moadon Kol Chadash, Chicago; Hebrew at the Center, Boston; Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York; RAVSAK, the Jewish Community Day School Network and the Hebrew Charter School.

The opening ceremony is open to anyone who is interested in attending, but the conference is limited to the founding members of the council – about 40 people from all over North America and Israel.

Council members include representatives from schools, universities, colleges, Yeshivot, centers for Hebrew, religious institutions and rabbinical colleges, among others. The Council will serve academics, leaders and public officials, rabbis and educators from the entire religious spectrum, and others who are working to spread the use of Hebrew in North America.

“Theodor Herzl was a great visionary, but he made one mistake,” says Leibovich. “He thought German should be the common language of communication in Israel. He didn’t think it was possible for Hebrew to develop as a spoken language. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, didn’t agree and he found a way to revive the language. This is the miracle of Hebrew – it was brought alive against all odds in the 20th Century.

“We have a great responsibility to continue Ben-Yehuda’s legacy by protecting the Hebrew language and developing the level of Hebrew internationally. This Council is a great way for us to do that here in North America. We want people to come to us with new ideas and suggestions to help us and we encourage everyone and anyone to participate in our mission,” he concludes.