By Paula Jacobs
While my baby-boomer peers were protesting the Vietnam War, I was attending Hebrew school. Decades later I may not be able to share personal stories of civil disobedience but what I acquired has become a legacy for future generations.
From early adolescence through my college years, I attended classes at Hebrew College of Boston (then Hebrew Teachers College or HTC) for 12 hours a week in addition to full-time studies at public schools and area universities. Our brilliant European-born professors taught every class exclusively in Hebrew, including Bible, Jewish history, Hebrew language and literature, Talmud, and Jewish thought.
The lifelong impact of this experience has been on my mind for months since a nostalgia-filled class reunion this past summer in Boston. Classmates who had not seen each other for decades attended from across the U.S. and Canada, including one attendee via Skype from Jerusalem.
Now as my hevre and I regularly stay in touch via email, phone, texts, and social media, I continue to reflect on the broader impact of our Jewish education: Why did this experience leave such an indelible mark on our lives? And what lessons are still applicable in the 21st century?
For us, it was Hebrew College that reinforced our Jewish identity, nurtured our commitment to Judaism and Am Yisrael, taught us menschlekeit, and fostered a lifelong passion for the Hebrew language – including the fine points of Hebrew grammar which I still obsess about to this day.
Hebrew was our lingua franca, the exclusive language of class lectures, discussions, readings, exams, and term papers. School assemblies and cultural activities were in Hebrew as was our year book that featured student poetry, essays, and stories.
This curricular emphasis on the Ivrit b’Ivrit or Hebrew-in-Hebrew method reflected the influence of the early 20th century Tarbut Ivrit movement inspired by the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-Am. The goal was to preserve Hebrew language and culture in America by establishing Hebrew-speaking camps and Hebrew teacher training schools such as Hebrew College.
Looking back, our Hebrew College education has enabled my classmates and me to bequeath a lasting legacy to the American-Jewish community and to future generations. We (and in many cases, also our children) have served as Jewish educators, university scholars, rabbis and cantors, synagogue volunteers, and community lay leaders. We are strongly attached to Israel and regularly support Jewish-related causes. Even though most of us also hold advanced graduate degrees from leading secular universities, we readily admit that it is our Hebrew College diploma that we especially cherish.
A half-century later, as we know, the American-Jewish community has changed: Synagogue membership is down, intermarriage is up, and the Israel-Diaspora relationship is in jeopardy. But I believe that our 20th century education still offers some key lessons for the contemporary Jewish community.
Indeed, there’s now a wealth of creative programs aimed at fostering Jewish identity, teaching Jewish values, and developing a relationship to Israel among Jewish teenagers and young adults. Israel programs and Jewish studies at colleges and universities abound, as well as service learning opportunities.
Yet Hebrew literacy among American Jews is shamefully low. A mere 52 percent of American Jews know the Hebrew alphabet, only 13 percent understand what they are reading, and just one in 10 can carry on a conversation in Hebrew, according to a 2013 Pew Research study.
Nor is the situation about to change. There’s a sharp drop in Hebrew enrollment at the university level, reports the latest Modern Language Association findings (Fall 2016): a 23.9 percent decrease in the study of Biblical Hebrew and a 17.6 percent drop in Modern Hebrew. With religious school instruction now reduced to one or two days for a couple of hours, little time remains for Hebrew language instruction.
Despite the growth of day schools (255,000 students in 861 day schools, according to the AVI CHAI Foundation 2014 census), many of these are Orthodox with minimal Modern Hebrew instruction. Supplementary Hebrew high schools such as the Prozdor of Hebrew College, the Ivry Prozdor of JTS, and the Community High School of Gratz College continue to offer Hebrew language classes but they only reach a fraction of Jewish teens – despite the availability of online learning in some cases.
Today when young Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel, it’s imperative to make a strong case for teaching Hebrew. As the language of the Jewish people, Hebrew is inscribed in our DNA. It was Hebrew that connected me to Israel, and I still recall the joy during my first trip to Israel of speaking Hebrew and walking down streets named after the Hebrew poets and Zionist thinkers whom I had studied.
It’s also critical to break down the silos that divide us today by creating more opportunities for Jewish teens from significantly different backgrounds to interact ((other than the minority attending pluralistic day schools). I am grateful that my Jewish education provided me the opportunity to learn and socialize with classmates from different backgrounds, and that we still share a deep camaraderie despite our divergent levels of observance and political views.
As my experience teaches, Jewish education during the formative early teen and young adult years is a critical blueprint for a Jewish future. But in the 21st century young people face a range of pressures and competing time demands that did not impact my generation. As we struggle to engage our youth, are there lessons we can learn from the past?
Paula Jacobs writes from Greater Boston.