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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News July 2003

July 2003

I. The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Culture

One of the highlights of the Foundation's Executive Committee Meeting held in Jerusalem on July 7-8 was the Symposium, "The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Culture," addressed by Professor Menahem Brinker, Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Hebrew Literature at Hebrew University and the University of Chicago; and Professor Alan Mintz, Professor of Hebrew Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Professor Menahem Brinker opened his remarks with the startling observation that the revival of Hebrew was more miraculous than the success of political Zionism. He further contended that the revival of Hebrew in modern times was not created by Zionism, but instead created the climate for Zionism. The first phase in the revival of Hebrew was the modernization of Hebrew as a written language, accomplished by the leaders of the Haskala. The second phase, the resurrection of Hebrew as a spoken language, was the result of the need for a common spoken language for the diverse Jewish groups who immigrated to Israel after statehood. It was from this point forward that Zionism pushed for the propagation of the Hebrew language. He concluded that while Hebrew is the language of Israelis today, Hebrew for Jews in the Diaspora, is a guarantor for a healthier and continuous Jewish culture.

Prof. Alan Mintz, in his paper, dealt with Hebrew in America. The earliest Hebraists in the United States saw the Hebrew language as a guarantor of Jewish continuity in a modern world. In their view, Hebrew was a portable homeland which made it possible for them to live not only in Israel, but also in the United States. The Hebraists in the United States had some limited impact on literature, but were far more successful in the field of Jewish education. Eventually they made some accommodation with the Jewish religious groups, but their major problem was they could never overcome the powerful influence of Americanization.

According to Prof. Mintz, Hebrew is no longer central for American Jewish leadership. English for them has become the international language of the Jews. Prof. Mintz felt that one of the criteria for Jewish leadership in the United States today should be knowledge of Hebrew. Hebrew, in his judgment, also holds out some hope for connectiveness, not divisiveness, in Jewish life. He concluded that more work needs to be done to develop a persuasive rationale for Hebrew in the United States.

There was long and intensive discussions about the role of Hebrew in Jewish Culture and Hebrew in America at the symposium by both the Yakirei Yerushalayim who were present in addition to the members of the Executive Committee, and at the meeting of the Executive Committee the next day about a wide range of issues related to these areas. The discussion at the Executive Committee also dealt with the Consultation on Hebrew in America held in New York on April 6, 2003 convened by our leadership, our esteemed President, Prof. Anita Shapira, and the Chairman of our Executive Committee, Prof. Ismar Schorsch.


II. Hebrew in America

The idea for a new program to support the propagation of Hebrew in America was initially raised by Professor Anita Shapira at the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship X in Glamsta, Sweden. The underlying conceptual framework that has guided us in this area grew out of the Convocation, "Culture, Community and Continuity," held at our Board Meeting in Jerusalem in 2002. Prof. Eliezer Schweid in his keynote address, pointed out that Jewish peoplehood is achieved by the transmission of our collective memory and culture, rooted in our common language, literature and values. The more shared memory that exists in our language, literature and values, the deeper our attachment to our people and the recognition of our responsibilities to it.

Prof. Schweid opined that the Jewish people today regrettably no longer share our common language, Hebrew. Nor do we possess a full commitment and understanding of our traditional canonical texts, including the bible, as well as our classical national literature.

The consensus at the convocation was that lacking a common language and literature weakens the Jewish people; that there is an urgent need to strengthen those agencies that can assure the transmission of our collective memory and culture as K'lal Yisrael. While all at the consultation held in New York recognized that it was a Herculean task to organize a program for the propagation of the Hebrew language in the United States, there was a consensus that such an effort needed to be organized for national and ideological reasons. It was also agreed that to be effective, the focus programmatically should not be primarily on spoken fluency in Hebrew, but on Hebrew as a portal to Jewish culture, literacy, and Jewish texts.

The group recommended a shopping list of programmatic ideas that could be undertaken, like pre-school programs in Hebrew in denominational schools and Jewish centers, programs in day schools and in religious institutions which continue to maintain cultural ties to Hebrew and Hebrew learning, and programs in summer camps. The group warned about dispersing our resources over a variety of multiple, discrete programs in diverse places. Instead, it opted for integrating them in a model program in one carefully selected community. The selection would be based on the active presence of individuals and groups in that community who potentially would be attracted to such activity, thereby substantially increasing the chances for success of the model project.

The presence of these programs in one geographic area, it was also contended, could produce a synergy between the discrete programs that would amplify the cultural vitality of the program as a whole. Thereby, it would also help achieve one of the major goals of this endeavor, L'Hanif Degel Shel Ivrit, to add Hebrew to the cultural agenda of the Jewish people in the United States, aside from the substantial impact of the program in utilizing Hebrew as a portal to Jewish texts and literature. This agenda building function of the model program is one of the primary objectives of our enterprise.

What must be emphasized is the ideological foundation of the program recommended at the consultation. It was, as I stated earlier, not simply acquisition of Hebrew as a language, but Hebrew as a national value, aimed at achieving K'lal Yisrael objectives, nourishing and sustaining a common language and vocabulary for our people.

The program, about which a detailed report was given in Jerusalem by Prof. David Berger, Chairman of the Committee for Hebrew in America, was approved by the Executive Committee. Steps are currently being taken to move this innovative pioneering program forward. We will continue to keep you posted as it evolves.


III. Nachas Department

Rabbi Isak Haleva, a Nahum Goldmann Fellow in our first two seminars held in Western Europe has been elected Chief Rabbi of Turkey. His son, Rabbi Naftali Haleva, also a former Nahum Goldmann Fellow at our seminars in Eastern Europe and a recipient of a number of Community Service scholarships to study for ordination in the United States and Israel, is now a leading educator in Turkey. Both father and son are playing key roles in the intensification of Jewish religious education and culture in Turkey.

The Association of Jewish Schools in the CIS, initiated by the Foundation, organized the second In-Service Seminar in Moscow from June 24 - July 10th. 114 teachers from 31 cities participated. This in-service program covered the following subjects: Hebrew, History and Tradition of the Jewish People, Jewish Literature, English Language, Arts and Music. Seventy-seven of the participants received certificates from the Moscow Institute of Open Education, which will enhance their professional credentials and careers as teachers of Jewish subjects and assist in the upgrading of the quality of Jewish Education in the CIS.

Professor ChaeRan Freeze's book on "Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia," whose publication was supported by the Foundation and about which I reported in the previous Board Briefing, has received the Salo W. Baron Award as the best first book in Jewish Studies.

Annette Heilman's Ph.D thesis, "The Development of Civil Society in Urban Culture in Tel-Aviv During the 1920s and 1930s," won the Yitzhak Rabin Prize for the outstanding doctoral thesis in Israel in 2002.

Best wishes for a pleasant summer.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President