Rabbi Daniel Gordis, one of the most perceptive and passionate commentators on today's Israeli-Jewish world, recently wrote a column explaining why American and Israeli Jews appear to be "drifting apart".
In a list of problems, he included
across-the-board neglect of Hebrew-language literacy as a communal priority."
Many would nod in agreement, and voice sad and frustrating anecdotal evidence of adults and students (even those who have supposedly received full Jewish education...) whose level of reading, speaking, comprehension and general Hebrew literacy is abysmal.
Hebrew - and I include both Modern and Classical - is a highly problematic area in Day Schools, especially Anglophone schools. There are only a handful of schools in North America who have a high level of Ivrit, who teach in Ivrit, and most of whose graduates are fluent. Among others, the subject struggles, and more than one educator has told me that their school has 'more or less abandoned the effort.'
It proves to be a very difficult subject to manage.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Second-language acquisition has altogether fallen dramatically in English-speaking schools over the last 30-40 years. There is no longer any cultural expectation that a literate person speaks more than one language.
- Systematic grammar teaching fell out of fashion in the school system some decades ago. If you have no knowledge of basic grammar, it is baffling to learn a foreign language - especially one so grammatically structured as Hebrew.
- Teacher shortage is critical, and is particularly acute the further you get from major Jewish population centers. Schools rely on Israelis, hardly any of whom are trained in Hebrew language; and in small communities, are often not teachers at all. Online possibilities, including online teaching, offer new solutions to alleviate this.
- Equally critical is the lack of textbooks. Many schools (but no longer all - see below) rely on material that is decades old
- Teacher training, research and a professional infrastructure for Ivrit teaching is almost (not entirely) non-existent. To the best of my knowledge, apart from a (relatively small) program at Brandeis, there is no University/College course anywhere which specializes in training teachers to teach Ivrit as a second language. That is astonishing, and I'd be happy to be corrected......
- There is also an ideological factor - in fact, two. In many more Orthodox schools, there is a conscious avoidance and rejection of Ivrit in any form. But in the same schools, this extends to a rejection of systematic teaching of even 'Classical' Hebrew (let alone Aramaic). I have met Yeshivah graduates who are ignorant of the most basic elements of Hebrew - singular, plural, masculine, feminine, past, present, future, shorashim. Teaching grammar has the rayach of haskalah (= "the whiff of Enlightenment!")
- As the years go on, all of the above become compounded, so that schools find it more difficult to find teachers - for Ivrit/Hebrew itself, and for general Jewish Studies - who are fluent and knowledgeable in Hebrew. The spoken Hebrew of many teachers, acquired while studying or living in Israel, leaves a lot to be desired. Many Israeli teachers do not know nikkud (vowelling) or grammar.
And finally -
- Ivrit / Hebrew used to be an "erech" - a "value" in Jewish society. It no longer is.
But there is movement!
While these are not the only programs offered to schools, there are several major initiatives in the Day School world which have tackled 'Ivrit'. They are worth exploring. (I don't know of any initiatives to revitalize the teaching of Classical Hebrew.)
- The first is the outstanding Tal-Am program, (and its associate Tal-Sela), currently producing materials for Grades 1 -6, covering Ivrit and Jewish values. This long-established program, based in Montreal and founded by Dr. Tova Shimon, is a complete curriculum package with full supporting materials and teacher training. It is based on deep theories of both language acquisition and general theories of knowledge acquisition and learning. It requires a strong commitment from schools and teachers. According to their website, Tal Am / Tal Sela are currently used by about 350 schools and 30,000 students all over the world.
- The Neta-CET program, based in Boston and now partnered with the Israeli Center for Educational Technology, serves Grades 6 - 12, and provides programs more focused on Ivrit and Israeli culture. It also requires a serious commitment from schools, and provides comprehensive materials and training for teachers in their methodology. It currently serves 130 schools and 15,000 students worldwide.
- In a slightly different category is the work of Dr. Vardit Ringvald, for many years at Brandeis, and now at the Hebrew language division of The Middlebury Colleges (a Vermont-base liberal arts college which specializes in language teaching). Dr Ringvald has adapted the standards and methods of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) to the teaching of Ivrit, on which her widely used textbook is based. She is a co-founder of 'Hebrew at the Center' which consults and supports schools in applying sophisticated methodology and tools in teaching Ivrit using the ACTFL 'proficiency' approach. Schools which adopt this method report excellent feedback from students and staff.
- Online teaching from Israel is available from several sources. One of the most experienced is JETS, ed-tech pioneers, who now run a variety of blended learning courses - including a very lively Ivrit course - to over sixty Day Schools in North America and beyond. They also offer a successful twinning program with Israeli schools of all types. JETS is led by experienced Diaspora educators who are Olim, and who totally understand the Diaspora day school system.
- Another initiative is of course the Hebrew Charter School movement. This non-denominational movement is important and interesting in connection with Ivrit - but is outside the Jewish Day School movement. [Whether Hebrew Charter Schools will prove to be important to the future of Jewish education is a different discussion to which we may well return.]
Literacy in Ivrit / Hebrew is indispensable to the educated and informed Jew. Serious Jewish study and learning is impossible without it.
Ivrit is also the worldwide language of communication among Jews from different communities. Both at the level of scholarship and at the level of
peoplehood, we need to teach our students Hebrew.
Jewish school which does not have a reasonably effective Hebrew program needs to do some thinking.
Our schools should be at the forefront of Ivrit/Classical Hebrew teaching. It needs investment in time and resources and, most of all,
needs leadership and support from the top.
- Perhaps we should designate 5778 or 5779 (2018 - 2019) as 'Shnat ha'Ivrit' in the Day School system worldwide, and have a concerted effort to make it the year in which we give a significant boost to the standard of Hebrew?
1. Have you recently assessed the effectiveness and quality of Hebrew/Ivrit in your school? Do you have student benchmarks / 'passing standards' of skills and knowledge for each grade?
2. If you have a Grade 9 entry - do you require a minimum Hebrew skill at entry? Do your feeder schools know your requirements?
3. Are you sure that ALL of your students can READ Hebrew accurately? When did you last check?
4. Do you express expectations regarding the Ivrit / Hebrew standard of your teachers? Do you encourage them to improve their own Ivrit skill?
5. If you are not happy - form a small working group of staff to devise an action plan.
6. If your school aims at Ivrit competence - have you explored any of the programs discussed in the newsletter above?
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A Chag kasher v'sameach to all readers!
Next newsletter -- May 8th!