The Hebrew Language Needs of Future Conservative Rabbis: A Needs Analysis

Jul. 06, 2009

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 75, Issue 3 , pages 258 - 289


In the field of second/foreign language teaching, needs analysis is widely recognized as an essential step in curriculum design and program evaluation. A needs-based approach to Hebrew language education has been advocated by a number of researchers and educators. In a study that employed interviews and surveys, the Hebrew language learning needs of Conservative rabbinical students were investigated. Differences of opinions concerning the desired focus of Hebrew language instruction, its content, and skill emphasis were found both within and across respondent groups. Some curricular and pedagogical implications of the findings as well as the limitations of the study are discussed.


The current article reports the findings from an analysis of the Hebrew language learning needs of students training to become Conservative rabbis at the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (AJU) in Los Angeles.

The study was conducted in two stages and employed a mixed research design, whereby nonexperimental qualitative and quantitative data were submitted to interpretive and statistical analysis, respectively.

In the first phase of the study, opinions about the Hebrew learning needs of rabbinical students in the Conservative movement were elicited during semistructured interviews with 44 individuals drawn from six stakeholder groups: rabbinical students, Conservative rabbis, Hebrew language faculty, Bible and Talmud professors, rabbinical school administrators, and Conservative congregants. The interviews were taped with the interviewee's permission (otherwise, extensive notes were taken), transcribed, and submitted to thematic content analysis.


The information gathered in the interview phase of the study served as a heuristic for generating survey questions for the questionnaires that were administered in its second phase. The purpose of the questionnaires was to survey a large number of participants, confirm the perceptions and opinions that were expressed during the interviews, and provide information about the distribution and frequency of the phenomena being explored in the qualitative phase of the study. The survey was cross-sectional, meaning that it measured perceptions of needs collected at one point in time. Another feature of the survey design was the collection of parallel samples obtained from different constituents responding to similar questions.


The participants in the second phase of the study were students enrolled in the rabbinical schools of JTS and AJU (the target population) and Conservative rabbis in the United States and Canada, who were considered the domain experts. The data were collected in the fall of 2006. Most students accessed the survey electronically, via the Internet, while most rabbis received and sent back paper questionnaires in the mail.



In the first, qualitative, phase of the study, interviews with 44 individuals representing six stakeholder groups—students, rabbis, rabbinical school and Hebrew Department faculty, administrators and congregants—revealed a controversy about the goals of Hebrew language instruction for rabbinical students. Specifically, the interviewees disagreed whether Hebrew language classes should be geared to specific (rabbinic) purposes by promoting the ability to read and translate non-modern texts (e.g., Bible, rabbinic commentaries) and focusing on rabbinical school topics, or provide general-purpose instruction, through emphasis on Modern Hebrew, oral communication skills, and Israel-oriented topics. The findings from the Hebrew language needs survey, which in the second phase of the study was answered by 79 rabbinical students in two institutions and 330 Conservative rabbis in the United States and Canada, revealed similarities as well as differences of opinions both within and across groups with regard to the mission of the Hebrew language department.


At the end of the article, some curricular and pedagogical implications of the findings as well as the limitations of the study are discussed.

Updated: Oct. 14, 2009