The Venue for Teaching Hebrew that’s Hiding in Plain View

A Skokie public high school Hebrew class just before leaving for Israel in 2017. The group traveled on an exchange trip to Israel, the only public school in the country engaged in a sustained exchange program.

By Jay Tcath

Arnee Winshall’s response (“Hebrew Language as a Communal Priority: Achshav,” eJP, September 8, 2019) to Aviya Kushner’ “Why No One’s Studying Hebrew Anymore” (Forward, July 19, 2019) in turn merits its own response.

Like Winshall’s to Kushner’s, this one is also of the “amen, but don’t forget about….” variety.

Decrying the decline in college students and others taking Hebrew classes, Winshall appropriately focuses on two challenges:

  1. The training and excellence of Hebrew teachers. No one should question the urgent need for increased investments to recruit and retain the highest quality teachers or the need to equip them with the best curriculum and other tools to excel.
  1. Securing sufficient classroom (or even online) time to learn a challenging foreign language. The typical venues – summer camps, synagogues, after school programs and even day schools – are not designed to provide the sustained, necessary time for instruction.

Yet there is another, untapped, often overlooked venue to provide Hebrew instruction: public schools.

The “good news” is that there are already some 1,500 public high school students taking Hebrew nationally. The bad news is 1,500 is woefully low and that 40% of that number are concentrated in nine Chicago area schools.

This high school Hebrew enrollment challenge is a function of several factors: few non-Jewish students enroll; most freshmen have already invested three years (grades 6-8) studying another foreign language and are disinclined to “throw those years away” and start anew with another language, and; the belief that sticking with the other languages (mostly Spanish, French and Chinese) will be of greater utility in the students’ lives and careers.

Even high schools offering Hebrew confront chronic enrollment problems. Ten years ago the school board in the suburban Chicago town of Deerfield allowed an extraordinary one-time policy exception permitting committed parents to contribute financially to keep their under-subscribed Hebrew classes open.

With only 50 students across grades 9-12 in 2009, that Hebrew program was literally running on fumes.

Today, via an energetic new teacher, some marketing, collaborations with rabbis, youth groups and summer camps and communal and parental encouragement, the Deerfield program is now staffed by two teachers instructing (and inspiring) 180 students.

While that turnaround may seem like a unicorn, there are several environmental factors across the country working in favor of increasing Hebrew enrollment in the public high schools: 1) the population density of many Jewish communities; 2) that about 90% of Jews attend public schools; 3) the general responsiveness of local school boards to parents and especially motivated groups of parents; 4) the presumed readiness of other Jewish institutions to assist, and; 5) that only modest philanthropic investments are required.

More pointedly, there is one sure-fire way to quickly, exponentially catapult those high school Hebrew enrollment numbers: offering Hebrew in the middle schools that feed into those high schools.

Offering Hebrew as a middle school option just as Jewish students begin more intensely preparing for their bar and bat mitzvah is a natural synchronization, one that can be leveraged for maximum enrollment and educational impact.

This new academic year brings even more exciting news about Hebrew in Deerfield: it is now being offered in the two middle schools that feed into their high school. That strong Hebrew program now has a “farm league” that will matriculate many more, and better prepared Hebrew learners into an already booming program. Today’s 180 Hebrew learners is posed to grow even faster.

There is no secret sauce to starting and growing a public middle or high school Hebrew program. If any of the 5 environmental ingredients listed above are present, then simply add a pedagogically trained Hebrew teacher, and the rest is as easy as Aleph Bet.

Philanthropic support allows special supplemental educational opportunities for the Hebrew learners: A special Hebrew track on community teen trips, subsidies to attend concerts by Israeli performers, peer interactions – in person and via videoconference – with Israeli counterparts, sessions with visiting Israeli VIPs, and many, many more possibilities.

In the Chicago area, much of the enrollment progress and those supplemental opportunities are being supported by a Federation initiative called “SAFA: The Foundation for Promotion of Hebrew Language and Israel Culture in Public Schools.”

SAFA, the Hebrew word for “language,” was launched in 2015 as the country’s first foundation promoting the study of Hebrew and Israeli culture in the public schools. By bringing together organizations, teachers, rabbis, youth group professionals, students, and parents involved in existing Hebrew programs, advocating for expanding Hebrew to more high school and middle schools, and marshalling financial resources to support these efforts, SAFA has already achieved much. This year’s introduction of Hebrew into Deerfield’s middle schools is a signature achievement with more to come.

What has happened in the Chicago area is magical, but not of the voodoo, sorcery variety.

When baseball’s Wee Willie Keeler was asked his secret to batting success, he simply answered, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.”

Well, when it comes to significantly increasing Hebrew learners, the “secret” is to go to where the students are: public schools.

Jay Tcath is Executive Vice President of the the Jewish United Fund of Chicago.