Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News September 2006

September 6, 2006

HEBREW IN AMERICA

Last year the Foundation launched Hebrew in America, one of the Foundation’s boldest initiatives. This report is an update on what has been accomplished to date. To fully understand the significance of this undertaking, some background about our involvement in this area would be helpful.

The Foundation has in recent years been promoting the concept of Klal Yisroel and Jewish “connectedness” in its manifold programs. Indeed, at our recently concluded meeting in Jerusalem, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees formally approved the incorporation of the promotion of Jewish “connectedness” into the Foundation mandate. Jewish peoplehood is achieved by the transmission of our collective memory and culture, rooted in our common language and culture.

It has been abundantly evident to all knowledgeable observers of Jewish life that there has been an accelerating and radical decline in the use of Hebrew in the United States and the rest of Diaspora. With this serious decline in Hebrew, not only are we lacking one of the most crucial ingredients of peoplehood, a common language, i.e. words, but concomitantly, a common vocabulary of values, norms and beliefs.

Under the leadership of Prof. Shapira, after her election as president of the Foundation, and Prof. Ismar Schorsch, Chairman of the Foundation’s Executive Committee, the Foundation engaged in a long process of deliberation and consultation before undertaking any action in this area. The conventional view about the possibility of a successful intervention in this area of some of the individuals with whom we spoke in Israel and the U.S. was negative. The views expressed were also not always polite.

 

FIRST STEPS

After a series of symposia, consultations and the establishment of a distinguished committee of communal leaders and scholars to review this issue, the Foundation concluded that it was critical for compelling national reasons to undertake a program in this area, despite the Herculean challenges– communal and sociological – that such an effort would confront.

The committee made a number of decisions at the outset that have contributed considerably to the success achieved to date. The most critical decision was not to disperse our limited resources geographically, but select one pilot community to test the validity of the concept and program we would develop.

The community we chose was the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey based on a whole set of criteria that we believed greatly enhanced the possibility of success in what many considered a problematic enterprise. As a communal enterprise, rather than the work of individual institutions or solo charismatic educators, the program, if successful, could be adapted and replicated in other federated communities in the U.S. Our first success was that the Federation of Northern New Jersey, its executive vice president, Howard Charish, and its lay leadership committed themselves to undertake this challenging and difficult assignment.

The Foundation decided that our major focus would be to attempt to change the culture in the schools, and ultimately the community, about Hebrew. We would not confine ourselves to the traditional concerns of curriculum, teacher training and other related standard issues.

Finally, we also agreed from the very outset on one critical organizational principle that we have adhered to it throughout. All decisions regarding the program will not be made in Jerusalem or even by distinguished cultural bodies in New York, but solely by the Jewish community in Northern New Jersey. If the program is to work, the locals must have full responsibility for it. This indeed has been the case.

We launched the program at our Executive Committee meeting in Bergen County, New Jersey last spring, with two critical actions. Members of our Executive Committee visited a prototype of the program we envisioned and were convinced of the do-ability of the project. Secondly, a community-wide meeting was organized to both interpret to, and mobilize, the community to support this innovative, pioneering effort. The 200-seat hall at the Jewish Community Center where the meeting took place was filled to capacity, with some standees, including amcha, the rank and file of the community. Looking back, the size and enthusiasm of the crowd that evening was a hopeful harbinger of what was to follow as reported below.

 

FIRST YEAR

The program is now operating in 10 schools, eight of which represent the whole ideological and religious range of all the day schools in the community, as well as two congregational schools. The program was launched at the first level in the educational chain, in early childhood – at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten level – where almost nothing has been done for the propagation of Hebrew to date in the United States and elsewhere. Both we and the community believed that this would be the most effective point of entry into the community, and the fulcrum with which we could begin to change attitudes about Hebrew in the educational system as we proceed up the educational ladder.

At the meeting in Jerusalem this July, our leadership and Board of Trustees received the first formal report from the Federation of New Jersey, not in the usual form of an oral presentation by a member of the professional staff or a lay leader of the community but via a 20-minute video prepared especially for our Board. The video focused on the children and teachers in the classrooms en situ.

It was thrilling to observe the children and the teachers very comfortably engaged in Hebrew, often using full sentences, in describing common place objects and doing common tasks and singing together. In his introduction on the video, Dr. Wallace Greene, the director of the Jewish Educational Services of the UJA/Federation of New Jersey, pointed out, that viewers could easily have the impression they were observing kindergartens and early childhood programs in Israel.

The video was certainly one of the major highlights of our very successful Board meeting about which I reported in my earlier Board Briefing of July 18, 2006. Copies of the video can be obtained from the Federation of Northern New Jersey.

The program currently reaches more than 700 children. Prof. Berger, Chairman of the Hebrew in America Committee, and I also visited two of those schools and three programs last spring and were elated by the enthusiastic response by the early childhood directors in the schools, as well as their teachers, and the children themselves. The Foundation always believed, despite the naysayers, that we would and could locate pockets of support within the community, meshugaim leoto davar, that could help launch the program and ultimately sustain it.

This is indeed what has ultimately occurred in the pilot community during the first year of its operation. Fortunately, those individuals came from within the professional educational leadership of the Federation of Northern New Jersey, key educators in the local schools, and the parents of the children in the program.

Most significantly, we witnessed first-hand the buzz that the program has created in those schools. This is being concretely expressed in the preparations the schools are now making in personnel and programs in their first grades into which the more than 700 children who will be entering next year. These efforts will hopefully continue the nourishment, sustenance and the expansion of the program, as it proceeds up the educational chain in the community.

In sum, we have come a very long way in the last two years despite the skepticism, in our and other circles, about the feasibility of the enterprise. We, of course, still have a very long way to go. But the seeds we sowed are now flowering.

Most important – and this is the critical innovation of our pilot program – it is a communal enterprise, which, as I noted earlier, allows the possibility, if successfully accomplished, for its replication in other interested communities. The Jewish community in Detroit has already invited Shoshana Glatzer, the education director of the project, to share the program with their community. I myself have received inquiries from two other communities in the United States. At the meeting of our Board, two major Jewish communities overseas also expressed serious interest in the program.

I believe that we can be hopeful that inherent in our partnership with the Federation of Northern New Jersey, currently as well as in the future, there exists a real possibility of this endeavor reverberating across the cultural landscape of American and even hopefully Diaspora Jewry.

Best wishes for a New Year of peace and good health.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President