Cascadia: Strengthening Hebrew Instruction Through Regional Relationships

Not long ago, Hebrew at the Center (HATC) leadership conducted a series of conversations with Hebrew teachers, Judaic studies coordinators and heads of schools at several schools in the Pacific Northwest, and then shared what was heard with community leaders and funders. Out of those conversations, and the relationships and idea-sharing that resulted from those meetings, a new idea emerged that can become a revolutionary model inspiring the advancement of Hebrew language learning in Jewish day schools across North America: Think regionally, leverage resources communally, and act locally.

On average, just 13% of day school staff are Hebrew teachers, and four hours a week are spent on Hebrew language instruction. Many of these teachers have limited access to high-quality professional learning and may not have the academic credentials or training in the 10 competency areas needed to be an effective Hebrew language instructor. This is particularly true for smaller schools or schools located outside of major Jewish communities, centers more likely to host academic or communal institutions that can provide this type of training or support in Hebrew language instruction.

Despite being committed to their students and the students’ learning, Hebrew teachers often report feelings of isolation and aren’t certain to whom they can turn. School leaders echo this feeling, knowing where to send teachers of math or social science for professional learning and mentoring, but being less certain how to support Hebrew instructors. Central to professional growth of Hebrew teachers and, in turn, to improved student outcomes in Hebrew, is being a part of a meaningful community of practice, the ability to grow their instructional expertise, and a well-articulated pathway for personal and professional advancement. The absence of these fundamental frameworks of support lead to teacher attrition at a time when talent pipeline issues are already critically challenging.


Forging a Regional Hebrew Hub

When HATC leadership visited the communities of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver as part of a regional “listening tour,” teachers and school leaders repeatedly surfaced that the Hebrew faculty often are underserved when it comes to advancing their pedagogic expertise or elevating student outcomes. School leaders also raised significant concerns related to the talent pipeline for Hebrew educators in these communities, mirroring concerns throughout the field. However, each school and each community understood the limits to solving this issue on their own, whether the solution was finding Hebrew speakers and training them to become Hebrew teachers, or supporting existing staff with local professional learning opportunities to encourage growth and strong teacher retention.

In response, arising from requests made by Hebrew teachers themselves, a regional professional learning was envisioned that would serve the day schools of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Titled Cascadia in recognition of the mountain range running through the region, the goal of the project is to strengthen Hebrew programs and advance student outcomes and teacher professionalization through a partnership among the participating Jewish day schools and local funders. This initiative also will create dynamic connections across the community of teachers and, by extension, the way in which their students and families see themselves as part of a greater whole. 

Having day school teachers and leaders from each of these three cities working both together and in parallel reinforces a sense of belonging to a more robust, dynamic community. As shared by Marc Blattner, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, “We believe this effort will not only help us locally, but also bring the Pacific Northwest Jewish educational initiatives closer together for the first time.” In total, a dozen schools from an array of religious and communal affiliations have joined the initiative, including Seattle’s Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, MMSC Day School, Northwest Yeshiva High School, Seattle Hebrew Academy and Seattle Jewish Community School; Portland’s Maayan Torah Day School, Portland Jewish Academy and the Tamim Academy of Portland; and Vancouver’s King David High School, Richmond Jewish Day School, Vancouver Hebrew Academy and Vancouver Talmud Torah.

Thanks to grant requests organized in partnership with Hebrew at the Center and submitted by these schools, more than $365,000 has been pledged for the two-year initiative through funding from the Samis Foundation, Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, professional learning grants from Hebrew at the Center and financial contributions from each of the schools.


Project Launch


In late April/early May, teachers and representatives from participating schools joined together in Seattle for the initiative’s launch event, filled with relationship building, professional learning and discussions about the future of the field of Hebrew education and the important role that each educator plays. Participants were introduced to leading approaches to second language acquisition, new methods of language assessment, ways to understand individual learners’ needs, and the role of language learning and child development. Breakout groups on subjects such as brain development and language learning allowed educators working with elementary-age students, middle schoolers or high schoolers to meet together to consider their target populations. 

Other sessions were organized around the arc of the professional’s trajectory, with teachers newer to the field or more veteran teachers approaching the difference between proficiency and performance from these different perspectives, while Hebrew department directors met separately to consider the implications from a systems perspective. Most of the schools also sent their head, principal or director of Jewish studies and Hebrew, allowing for parallel sessions over the two days on articulating a school’s why—Lamah Ivrit?—resourcing the Hebrew vision, and engaging other key stakeholders from both within and outside of the school building in this two-year initiative. The professional learning program was organized by Dr. Esty Gross, HATC chief of staff and director of education, senior educators recruited for this initiative and representatives from each of the three communities. 

The two-day seminar exposed the school staff to all 10 areas of expertise needed for effective Hebrew language instruction in the Jewish day school space, with opportunities in the schedule for reflection, community and school planning, and beginning development of a cross-regional community of practice. They left this launch event excited about planned community visits, where a designated senior educator from HATC will do onsite school visits, generate baseline assessments for each school and the community as a whole, and then return later in the year for a communal day of learning. Each school will receive online training focused on the specific school priorities and have access to 20 hours of one-on-one coaching per year. The initiative also provides regionwide online courses and HATC membership. As important, the participants left with a shared language across schools and a common commitment to excellence in this key area of Jewish day school education.


Initial Steps


Although the initiative is in its infancy, we already are seeing positive signs. As Merrill Hendin, principal at Portland Jewish Academy, shared, “Giving educators opportunities to dig into rich Hebrew language methodologies and practices with colleagues from other Jewish day schools in the region gives all of us opportunities to learn together and deepen relationships with colleagues at Jewish day schools in neighboring cities. This benefits our students, who are always at the center of every learning opportunity.”

The schools participating in the Cascadia initiative are diverse, and so are the strategies for success. While all the schools are guided by the shared value that Hebrew is fundamental to Jewish literacy and identity, their individual vision for a successful Hebrew program may prioritize different elements of Hebrew language education. Each of the participating schools also faces unique staffing challenges, cultural contexts and educational goals; the development of this initiative in collaboration with local leadership facilitates a more customized strategy for each community and school. Through this ongoing effort, we continue our historic commitment to revolutionize the effectiveness of teaching and learning Hebrew in all educational settings. 

Hebrew is a historic connector in the Jewish community, linking our people across geographic and temporal boundaries. This is no less true today when we look for ways to bring the day school community together to advance the field of Jewish education. This Cascadia initiative builds on this historic role of the language, connecting teachers and school leadership across these three important communities in the Pacific Northwest, linking individual efforts to a broad and profound impact. 

Sabrina Bhojani, head of school at Richmond Jewish Day School near Vancouver, remarked, “This gathering was transformative. I used to think of Hebrew as simply a language. I have begun to develop a greater understanding of the role it plays in Jewish life and in preserving culture and memory. Thanks to this initiative put together by Hebrew at the Center, I have a newfound appreciation of Hebrew language learning.” Over the course of the next two years, it is hoped that this model of regional partnerships can serve as an example for other schools, communities and regions looking to leverage existing and new relationships to better serve teachers and, by extension, students.

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HaYidion Spring 2023: Relationships
Spring 2023