Whatever Happened to Hebrew Day Schools?

Jonathan Woocher

Since the end of the summer, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in two day-long meetings dealing with Hebrew in day schools and other parts of our Jewish educational system. Both meetings, though forward-looking in their focus, reflected what seemed to be a shared sense among participants that Hebrew language learning and teaching—despite some notable bright spots—generally faces an uphill struggle in our schools. The problem is not one of lack of good curricula or pedagogic knowledge, though there certainly are concerns about finding and preparing an adequate supply of capable teachers. Rather, again and again, participants in the conversations pointed to a “crisis of confidence and commitment”: the lack of a clear sense of purpose and growing questioning from parents, students and even school leadership as to whether the time and energy devoted to teaching Hebrew could be better spent elsewhere.

These concerns should not be casually set aside. Hebrew education is a problematic endeavor today for many reasons. At the top of the list are the multiple rationales for learning and teaching Hebrew—each of which has different implications for what “Hebrew” is taught and how. Should our goal be proficiency in contemporary Hebrew so that our students can feel competent and comfortable interacting with Israel and Israelis? Do we want students to know Hebrew so that they can read central texts of our tradition in the original (forget for the moment that the Hebrew these core texts employ in different periods and genres is itself far from uniform)? Is the goal to equip students with a vocabulary of critical, often untranslatable, terms that constitute the core value structure of Jewish life? Do we teach Hebrew so that our students can pray with greater fluency and kavannah? All of the above and more are legitimate purposes for Hebrew in our schools, but their very multiplicity can lead to confusion and difference of opinion about what to emphasize and what constitutes “success.”

This is the second big issue that clouds the Hebrew horizon today: the sense that for all of our efforts, our achievements are modest. The Pew study among others confirmed that day school graduates on average know Hebrew better than those who have not gone to day school. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence indicates that the number of day school graduates who are equipped to carry on daily life in Israel in Hebrew, or easily read Hebrew texts in the original, is much smaller than Hebrew educators would like. So the question naturally arises among parents and students alike: why are we spending so much time and effort to so little apparent effect?

Happily, the response among those at the meetings to this state of affairs was not to pull back from a commitment to Hebrew education. And I would argue, for all the challenges they face, day schools remain our best hope for serious Hebrew learning and teaching in North America. Summer camps and other intensive programs, early childhood immersion, study in Israel, and even supplementary education all have contributions to make. But only day schools offer the opportunity for serious Hebrew learning that extends over many months and years and that can be applied immediately to diverse arenas of activity from tefillah and text study, to the arts, to conversation in the classroom and in the hallways. This is not the time for day schools to back off from their commitment to Hebrew, but they will have to address a number of issues that go beyond which curriculum to use and how much time to spend.

First, day schools need to remake the case for Hebrew to parents, students and their own leadership. Recent research on the cognitive and behavioral benefits of second language learning and multilingualism can certainly help in this endeavor. Equally important, though, is articulating clearly the rationale for Hebrew in terms of the core values and culture of the school. This articulation will differ from school to school, but there is a sound basis for connecting Hebrew to whatever vision a school holds for itself, its students and its educational process. Hebrew is central to Jewish wisdom, Jewish history and peoplehood, Jewish spirituality. Whatever mix of values and aspirations with regard to knowledge, skills, personal development and social responsibility a school’s mission embodies, there can and ought to be a place for Hebrew in realizing these.

At the same time, schools must be realistic in defining and communicating the outcomes they can achieve, and perhaps in differentiating outcomes for different students. When expectations are unrealistic, it leads to cynicism and devaluation of the endeavor as a whole. Most students probably will not achieve Hebrew fluency in day school; they won’t be able to enter directly into Israel’s life and culture with ease, and they won’t be able to tackle many important Hebrew texts—biblical, rabbinic, medieval and modern—unaided.

However, this does not mean that they will not be acquiring real and meaningful knowledge and skills, as well as, hopefully, an appreciation of and affection for Hebrew as both a classical and a living language. Today, there are many opportunities to extend one’s Hebrew learning beyond what can be done in day school. There are summer programs, college courses, adult ulpanim and, of course, extended periods in Israel. Just as in any other academic area, day schools do not have to complete the task, but neither are they free to desist from it.

And, having said this, day schools need to believe that they can succeed. Fortunately, there is an expanding array of supports for Hebrew learning and teaching, both homegrown and from Israel. There are new academic centers, advocacy organizations, curricula and teacher training programs. There are new models, like the Hebrew charter schools, to look at and learn from. New initiatives to elevate Hebrew’s visibility and prestige are in the works. As the Jewish educational landscape blossoms with new programs in so many arenas, the opportunities for Hebrew literacy to become functional and relevant will only grow. Day schools can be the engine for providing many Jews, not limited to their current students, with that modicum of Hebrew literacy that makes every other Jewish experience incomparably richer and more meaningful.

I will confess that I came to those meetings on Hebrew with some skepticism and cynicism myself. I heard no easy answers, discovered no magic bullets. But to my surprise, what I came away with was a new sense that the status quo truly can and must be changed. We need a renewal of Hebrew education in America, and we need day schools to take the lead.

Dr. Jonahthan Woocher works in a senior capacity with the Lippman Kanfer family on its philanthropic and educational initiatives. jon@lippmankanfer.org

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HaYidion Money Matters Winter 2014
Money Matters
Winter 2014