Sense of belonging

The critical role Hebrew language learning plays in identity development

In Short

Hebrew is the essential connective thread to Jewish civilization, Jewish peoplehood, Israel and its people and to most Jewish literature.

Last month I participated on a panel at Hebrew at the Center’s annual Hitkadmut Hebrew Educators Conference. The group’s focus was on “systemic strategies for integrating Hebrew through schools” and on the head’s role in this work.

As I prepared for the discussion, I found myself initially thinking a lot about supporting teachers and programs, and about the research on language learning for students. All of the heads on the panel were from schools working with Hebrew at the Center and, while at different stages in their school’s Hebrew program development, each employs a research-based teaching methodology recommended by the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) with a focus on speaking and comprehension. 

Numerous studies indicate that students experience cognitive benefits as a result of second language learning, particularly when the target language is so different from the native language with a different alphabet and directionality. Research shows that learning a second language improves your performance in other academic areas, enhances your memory and other brain functions, and can help increase your understanding of the languages you already speak. 

All of these are excellent reasons for studying Hebrew. At the same time, these benefits are available from learning other languages, so why is learning Hebrew so important for a Jewish education and why should schools, families and funders be investing significantly in the teaching and learning of Hebrew? 

Hebrew is the essential connective thread to Jewish civilization, Jewish peoplehood, Israel and its people and to most Jewish literature. Hebrew provides a sense of belonging and familial connection, and offers access to the historical references and meanings conveyed in classical Jewish ideas, texts, constructs and memories. Hebrew competency is an essential element in understanding modern Israel and its people and culture.

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry, wrote over a century ago that “reading a poem in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil.” With apologies for his analogy, Bialik was expressing that every language conveys feelings, nuances and the emotional domain that are unique to itself. It is impossible to have a full appreciation for Hebrew texts and literature in translation.

Only the Hebrew language links us to the past, present and future of the Jewish people, and to a specific land. No other language — and Jews have spoken many Jewish languages throughout our history — bonds us to the soul of our history, textual tradition, people and the land of Israel than Hebrew does.

There are very compelling educational reasons for teaching Hebrew that relate to 21st century learning skills and brain research, but at the end of the day, Hebrew alone holds the potential to cement the union between Jews around the world with each other and our heritage, no matter our geography or our religious outlook. Hebrew enables students to be part of our over 4,000 year history as a Jewish people.

For these reasons and their application to identity development, it is vital for schools, families and funders to commit themselves to supporting research-based methods of Hebrew instruction and evaluation. (And it does not hurt that students will be advancing their academics and brain functioning too!)

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus is head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington D.C.