Hebrew Education in the United States: Historical Perspectives and Future Directions

Published: 
August, 2014

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 3, pages 256-286

 

This article sketches the trajectory of Hebrew education in the United States from the early 1900s to the present. Attending to the historiography of Hebrew education, it shows how current curricula and pedagogical approaches have been stamped by historical considerations and language ideologies, how goals and strategies have changed (or remained the same) over time, and how the evolution of the field has been driven both by internal dynamics within the Jewish community and by changes in the broader social and political context of the United States. It concludes with a framework for constructing a meaningful research agenda for the future.

 

The purpose of this article is to synthesize the research on Hebrew education in the United States from the past 80 years in order to make sense of where the field has been, where it is today, and where it might be in the future. It also aims to demonstrate how the enterprise of Hebrew education is an expression of American Jewry’s beliefs and ideologies about the Hebrew language more broadly.

A major assumption running through this article, already touched upon, is that the purposes and practices of Hebrew education cannot be isolated from the sociohistorical context in which the learning takes place. At times, for example, advocates for Hebrew education have been reactionary, emphasizing the need to improve Hebrew language instruction as a means of buttressing Jewish particularity in the face of societal secularizing and homogenizing forces (Schiff, 1996; Zisenwine, 1997).

In this light, debates about Hebrew education reflect enduring concerns about the essential nature of American Jewishness: that is, how to be a part of the larger American fabric and apart from it (Sarna, 1998). If indeed, as Sarna persuasively argues, schools are sites in which this tension is negotiated, and where the “central drama of American Jewish life is introduced and rehearsed” (p. 10), then this article aims to analyze Hebrew education in the United States as a central character in this ongoing, persistent, and unresolved performance.

 

With all of these caveats in mind, my method for surveying the field included archival research in JJE, in which I identified approximately 90 substantive articles over the course of its 80-year history that had something to say about teaching and learning Hebrew to American Jews. I also extensively searched the article database on the NYU Berman Jewish Policy Archive website and did extensive searches on Google Scholar to identify newspaper articles, manuscripts, and dissertations on Hebrew education from outside the pages of the Journal of Jewish Education. Norman Drachler’s (1996) A Bibliography of Jewish Education in the United States was also a central resource for locating relevant literature. I read and coded each article according to thematic categories. My efforts offer a comprehensive body of scholarship that represents work by leading figures in the field as well as lesser known scholars.

 


Conclusion:

 "Tracing its contemporary roots to the early 1920s, Hebrew education has never been solely about the “how to” of teaching a language. Rather, it has always been a thread in the larger tapestry depicting how American Jews in modern times have negotiated their way in American society. Articles in the Journal of Jewish Education stitch together how these negotiations have unfolded as Jewish educators have called upon Hebrew to do a wide array of “work”—including transmitting Jewish identity, revitalizing and refashioning American Jewish culture, strengthening Americans’ connection to Israel, and connecting Jews with their religious heritage and textual tradition.

The historiography of Hebrew education in the United States also reveals how crucial turns in language ideologies and policies have resulted in radical shifts and cultural disruptions in how Hebrew learning has been construed and practiced. From Ivrit b’Ivrit to bar/bat mitzvah decoding, to day school immersion, to Hebrew charter schools, the trajectory of Hebrew education has reflected social and cultural dynamics in the American Jewish community and in American society. Understanding why this has been the case, and how the project of Hebrew learning can work in promoting, shaping, or inhibiting the goals of Jewish education in the future is a task worthy of our collective attention and efforts."

Updated: Sep. 18, 2014
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