Since the end of the summer, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in two day-long meetings dealing with Hebrew in day schools and other parts of our Jewish educational system. Both meetings, though forward-looking in their focus, reflected what seemed to be a shared sense among participants that Hebrew language learning and teaching—despite some notable bright spots—generally faces an uphill struggle in our schools. The problem is not one of lack of good curricula or pedagogic knowledge, though there certainly are concerns about finding and preparing an adequate supply of capable teachers. Rather, again and again, participants in the conversations pointed to a “crisis of confidence and commitment”: the lack of a clear sense of purpose and growing questioning from parents, students and even school leadership as to whether the time and energy devoted to teaching Hebrew could be better spent elsewhere…
Happily, the response among those at the meetings to this state of affairs was not to pull back from a commitment to Hebrew education. And I would argue, for all the challenges they face, day schools remain our best hope for serious Hebrew learning and teaching in North America. Summer camps and other intensive programs, early childhood immersion, study in Israel, and even supplementary education all have contributions to make. But only day schools offer the opportunity for serious Hebrew learning that extends over many months and years and that can be applied immediately to diverse arenas of activity from tefillah and text study, to the arts, to conversation in the classroom and in the hallways. This is not the time for day schools to back off from their commitment to Hebrew, but they will have to address a number of issues that go beyond which curriculum to use and how much time to spend….
And, having said this, day schools need to believe that they can succeed. Fortunately, there is an expanding array of supports for Hebrew learning and teaching, both homegrown and from Israel. There are new academic centers, advocacy organizations, curricula and teacher training programs. There are new models, like the Hebrew charter schools, to look at and learn from. New initiatives to elevate Hebrew’s visibility and prestige are in the works. As the Jewish educational landscape blossoms with new programs in so many arenas, the opportunities for Hebrew literacy to become functional and relevant will only grow. Day schools can be the engine for providing many Jews, not limited to their current students, with that modicum of Hebrew literacy that makes every other Jewish experience incomparably richer and more meaningful.
I will confess that I came to those meetings on Hebrew with some skepticism and cynicism myself. I heard no easy answers, discovered no magic bullets. But to my surprise, what I came away with was a new sense that the status quo truly can and must be changed. We need a renewal of Hebrew education in America, and we need day schools to take the lead.
Read more in HaYidion.