Hebrew Learning in American Public Schools: An Under-the-Radar Educational Experience and Resource

September 18, 2019

Source: eJewish Philanthropy 


With support from the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), we set out to collect baseline data about public school Hebrew programs. The findings from our research appear in a new report Mapping Hebrew Education in Public Schools: A Resource for Jewish Educators. In it we focus on the programs’ rationales, language learning goals, instructional approaches, curriculum, and staffing.

Drawing on 32 interviews with Hebrew teachers and world language department administrators, as well as observational data at 6 schools, we found that modern Hebrew is being taught to approximately 6,600 children in 35 K-12 traditional public schools and publicly-funded charter schools across the country. More specifically, the breakdown is approximately 1,400 students in traditional public schools and approximately 5,200 children in charter schools. The majority of learners are in grades K-8 (4,947), with 1,681 in grades 9-12. In total, we identified 127 K-12 Hebrew teachers working either in full or part time capacities in programs in the United States.

What emerges from our study is a portrait of a highly diverse group of Hebrew programs that offer a unique opportunity for thinking about Jewish education in non-traditional ways.

Some of the main takeaways are:

  • The number of students learning Hebrew in American public schools is growing.
  • Public schools are legally barred from asking about their students’ religious identity, but Hebrew teachers report that not all their students are Jewish, particularly in the charter schools but also in the high school programs.
  • There is tremendous variation among students in terms of Hebrew proficiency.
  • Finding qualified, state-certified Hebrew teachers is a major challenge.
  • In addition to teaching Hebrew language, many Hebrew teachers also teach (mostly in English) about Israel.
  • Hebrew teachers in many schools are working on their own to build curriculum, develop lesson plans, and create classroom materials.
  • There are no fully immersive Hebrew language learning programs in public schools.

These findings should give Jewish educators and policy makers a strong reason to know more about what is happening at these under-the-radar Hebrew programs. Day schools, congregations, college campuses, and camps will undoubtedly continue to deliver high-quality and intensive Hebrew educational experiences, but the Jewish educational world should also give its attention to Hebrew programs in middle and high school programs as a viable venue for teaching about Jewish life and Israel, even if it is not in the traditional sense.

Our study on Hebrew in American public schools left us inspired by the passion teachers felt toward teaching Hebrew and by their tremendous efforts to ensure their programs’ ongoing success. At the same time, we recognize that an individual teacher is limited in what he/she can do structurally or institutionally, especially in cases where there is only one Hebrew teacher at a school. By teaching Hebrew and teaching about Jewish history and Israel, these programs are doing a form of Jewish education, while remaining careful not to cross the line of separation of Church and State.

Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Oct. 07, 2019