Below is a story that appeared in the Jewish Week, the major Anglo-Jewish newspaper in New York City, about the Hebrew in America project initiated in Bergen County, New Jersey by the Memorial Foundation in conjunction with the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey
Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President
THE JEWISH WEEK January 9, 2008
The Hebrew in America pilot program has now reached more than 1,000 students in northern New Jersey, and it’s looking to expand. Can it make a dent in Hebrew illiteracy?
by Carolyn Slutsky Staff Writer
Mali Mizrahi leads her class at Yeshiva of North Jersey
“ Moochanim?” says Morah Mali. “Ready?”
It’s a brilliant fall day, and Mali Mizrachi stands in the middle of a circle of 5-year-olds at the Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. She points to her eyes, her hands, her back and the children follow; she reads a book about a house, she holds up various leaves while the children shout out their autumnal colors.
But throughout this half-hour lesson, no English is heard at all. The entire lesson unfolds in Hebrew, and though it is early in the school year, the children follow with full understanding and rapt attention.
The children at YNJ are part of a pilot program that has been tested in northern New Jersey over the past three years called Hebrew in America. Hebrew in America was initiated by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, an organization devoted to advancing Jewish culture, when the foundation became concerned about the radical decline of Hebrew among Jews living in the diaspora.
“Jews are starting to lose a common language,” says Jerry Hochbaum, executive vice-president of the foundation. “There isn’t a strong sense of Zionism in the U.S. but there is a strong interest in Jewish culture. We decided that Hebrew is the agency through which we can expose and interest people in Jewish culture.”
The Memorial Foundation identified Bergen County, in New Jersey, as an ideal community in which to test the program because of its high numbers of Israeli parents, its many students who study in Israel, its strong ties to Israel, its many varieties of Jewish education institutions and its relatively high rates of religious affiliation.In the early stages of the planning process for Hebrew in America, Bergen County hosted a community-wide meeting at which local leaders spoke about the necessity for the next generation to learn Hebrew.
At the forum, Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, said the assumption of American Jewry that “it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedence in Jewish history, and this illiteracy will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin.”
The program begins with children as young as 3. Since they cannot yet read, these children learn Hebrew through TPR or Total Physical Response, a way of teaching-by-doing where they follow commands and learn through the body in an immersive environment. By kindergarten, the children are already familiar enough with Hebrew to understand books and to tutor their older siblings and parents.
Currently in 18 settings including day and supplementary schools, and serving some 1,015 students in northern New Jersey, Hebrew in America is a project not just of teachers, students and schools, says Wallace Greene, director of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Education Service, but of the entire community.
“I could kick myself for not thinking of this 30 years ago,” says Greene of the transdenominational program, which he says serves as a portal to Jewish culture. “We’re on the cusp of something. Everyone’s been talking about it for 60 years but no one’s doing it in this country.”
The lifeblood of Hebrew in America is Shoshana Glatzer. A petite Israeli with an inexhaustible energy, Glatzer, who retired from a long career with the Board of Jewish Education in New York, trains teachers at each school, who then teach Hebrew to their students.
Glatzer believes that American Jews should be exposed to Hebrew language in order to fully understand their culture and heritage. “Reading Hebrew literature in translation,” she says, “is like kissing a bride through a veil.”
At Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, a kindergarten class is just finishing a baking project when their teacher sits them down for a Hebrew lesson. Some students jump up from their chairs to participate, while others stay back, quietly paying attention. For them and for all children exposed to the language at such an early age, says Glatzer, “Hebrew manifests later, it’s inside, they understand it and then one day it comes out.”
Although linguists vary in their opinions over the exact mechanisms of language acquisition, most agree with the “critical period hypothesis,” a theory stating that there is an ideal window for learning both a first and second language, peaking before puberty. Beginning a second language in middle school, therefore, is too late for many people to speak and understand with anything approaching native proficiency.
Glatzer agrees that teaching a new language is optimal when students are very young and when their brains “are almost like sponges.”
In addition to the intensive exposure to Hebrew during the school year, Hebrew in America also held a summer camp at a Reform synagogue in Teaneck last August, where teachers wore signs with an American flag if they were willing to speak English and an Israeli flag when they would only speak Hebrew. Next summer organizers hope to be able to accommodate more students for the summer intensive program.
At the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, in a classroom where Hebrew letters line the wall along with English ones, Gila shows a picture of a turtle and asks the kindergartener boys and girls, “atah tzav? At tzavah?” (“Are you a turtle?”)
The children answer. “Lo, ani yeled,” say the boys (“No, I am a boy”), or “ani yeldah,” say the girls (“I am a girl”), except mischievous Jacob, who replies, “ken,” (“yes”), causing everyone to laugh.
“If I don’t hear the ending sound, yeladim, I can’t go on,” says Gila.
Ruth Gafni, principal of the elementary school there, welcomes Hebrew in America and the chance to communicate in Hebrew in her school. “Before the program each teacher taught in their own way. It really gave us a common language to
teach Hebrew.”The program has been revolutionary not only for students at schools in north Jersey, but also for their teachers. Many who attended day schools did not learn fluent Hebrew and are now getting the chance to reacquaint themselves with the language, becoming confident and comfortable enough to teach it to their students.
Fran Mermelstein, director of the preschool at YNJ, says her students are taking their lessons home, speaking Hebrew to their parents and using the language when they travel to Israel or make aliyah, which many do each year.
“We feel the earlier we expose them, the better grasp they’ll have,” says Mermelstein. “And when they learn Chumash in first grade they’ll be familiar with the verbs, the roots.”
Plus, she adds, “it’s so fun and informal they don’t even know they’re learning.”
As it looks for new grants and to expand the program to more schools, the Jewish community in northern New Jersey looks forward to watching Hebrew in America follow its students through higher grades. There is hope that its trickle-up effect will reach more and more community members.
“There’s a big discussion about not compromising on Jerusalem,” says Hochbaum of the Memorial Foundation, referring to Israelis and Palestinians possibly sharing the city as a capital in any final peace agreement. “Well, we shouldn’t compromise on Hebrew either. It’s not only teaching Jewish culture, it has a much larger dimension in terms of the connection to the State of Israel and the language of Israel.”