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Thursday, December 08, 2022
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“Every child who attends Jewish day school through 12th grade should be able to speak Hebrew … without having to sacrifice other aspects of their education.”

When Rabbi Daniel Alter came to Moriah, Hebrew language was one of his team’s priorities. The school already had a strong reputation as an institutional leader in the Religious Zionist world. Moriah leadership saw Hebrew language acquisition as a necessary and important aspect of a Jewish day school education. But this goal also posed a specific quandary. Having lived through the benefits and challenges of Hebrew immersion in his previous school, he and his administrative team at Moriah began a deep dive into finding a balance that provided the benefits of Hebrew acquisition, while minimizing the challenges that Hebrew immersion poses.

They began their work by creating a strong foundation in their Early Childhood program. Research shows that children learn a second language in a similar fashion to first-language acquisition—by experiencing the language. They observe their environment and absorb the culture and language around them. The Moriah Early Childhood program built a partial immersion model, where each class had a Hebrew-speaking teacher whose role was to serve as a full-time teacher in the class, participating in every aspect of school life, while speaking exclusively in Hebrew. “I can see the difference in our students since we started the program,” said Divsha Tollinsky, the Early Childhood director. “I hear Hebrew conversations from teachers and students on a regular basis now. The speed at which the students pick up language at this age is phenomenal.”

With the Early Childhood Hebrew program running successfully, the school turned its attention to the Lower School.

The first objective was to find the right people to run the program. The school embarked on a major search to find Israeli shlichim. Luckily, Ilan Frydman, who oversees all shlichim in the U.S. and Canada for the Sochnut (Jewish Agency), and his wife, Oshrat, had chosen to move to Englewood a year earlier. They enrolled their younger daughter in Moriah, and Oshrat was already teaching part-time at the school and making her mark enhancing our Hebrew language program. Ilan’s help navigating this process proved to be crucial, and his involvement has been a critical catalyst for the renewed focus on Hebrew education at Moriah.

The school interviewed numerous couples, and one couple stood out above all others: Yonit and Rav Adiel Mhazri.

The Mhazri family had already completed a successful shlichut in Chicago 10 years ago. “Before we even met them, I called a friend who is a school administrator in Chicago, and he couldn’t stop talking about how incredible they were.” said Rabbi Alter. “They left a real impact on the Chicago community. At that point we knew that we had found the perfect fit.”

The Mhazris arrived in New Jersey with their six children and have taken the school by storm.

Following a successful military career, Rav Adiel obtained a law degree and was working in the Knesset. While in Chicago he ran Bnei Akiva for the entire city. He is presently teaching limudei kodesh in the Middle School and has quickly developed close relationships with his students. Yonit has worked in American post high school seminaries in Israel, and has experience teaching, writing curriculum and overseeing staff members in an elementary school in Bat Yam.

The next objective was to develop a unique immersion model that could achieve strong Hebrew skills in Moriah’s students while still maintaining all the characteristics that make the school successful. Building a philosophy of education and culture of pedagogy in a Jewish day school takes years of intense and stable work and requires commitment and buy-in from a dedicated and experienced staff.

Research has shown that stability among administrators and teachers plays a significant role in educational outcomes. One of the hallmarks of Moriah’s success has been the caliber of each and every teacher. Furthermore, Moriah has a very high percentage of experienced teachers who have been in the school for decades, contributing to the strong culture of education and strengthening the school’s commitment to academic success. Incorporation of an immersion model had to ensure maintaining stability of teachers. In addition, Israeli schools function differently than American schools, with different norms and expectations. It can often take shlichim a couple of years until they acculturate to an American school and learn pedagogical models. Considering that shlichim are often in America for only three, or maximally four years, the investment had to be protected.

Taking these goals into consideration, this year the school is piloting a program beginning in first grade that expands the Early Childhood program. Every limudei kodesh class in the grade has two teachers—one who is an experienced American limudei kodesh teacher and one who speaks exclusively Hebrew. “We saw such success in the Early Childhood program that utilizing the same model made sense,” said Odelia Danishefsky, associate principal of Lower School. “This model is the best of both worlds. It allows us to create an immersion model where students are interacting with a teacher, both listening and speaking in Hebrew, but at the same time, allows us to ensure that there is an experienced, seasoned teacher in the classroom who understands American children from day one. We get the Hebrew immersion without having to sacrifice any of the hallmarks of a Moriah education.”

Yonit, together with Oshrat, are co-teaching in the first grade, working with two experienced and beloved limudei kodesh teachers, Beth Wittenberg and Leah Levi. Morah Beth and Morah Leah ensure that the quality of academic instruction continues to be high, while Morah Oshrat and Morah Yonit have joined the team as partners, and speak to the children exclusively in Hebrew. They are already beginning to solicit responses from students in Hebrew as well.

In the short time that they have been in Moriah, the Mhazris have already had an impressive impact on the culture of the school. Between the Mhazris, the Frydmans, the 10 Israeli Hebrew teachers in the Early Childhood and this year’s b’not sherut, Hebrew is now regularly heard in the halls of the school, not only among teachers, but more and more between teachers and students.

This program was made possible through a generous donation from the Hy and Shirley Nutkis Charitable Foundation. Their daughter, Naomi Spira explained that “Hy and Shirley Nutkis lived their lives humbly and with a deep sense of purpose. They were staunch supporters of the state of Israel, committed to Jewish day school education, and focused on ensuring the accessibility of this education to anyone who sought it. The development of the Hebrew language program combines these three passions, and they would be proud to have a hand in its realization. They would be especially thrilled that their grandchildren will be able to speak Hebrew fluently, easily converse with cousins in Israel and study from limudei kodesh texts with ease. Their family is gratified to see their vision and their life’s work executed so beautifully at the Moriah school.”

“Our plan is to build on this successful pilot and create a unique approach to Hebrew language acquisition that balances the need to maintain strong and consistent staffing, ensuring that no child falls through the cracks, while at the same time, giving our students the ability to understand and speak Hebrew at a high level,” said Rabbi Alter. “We think that this model is replicable and will be happy to share with other schools so that we can strengthen Hebrew language education in the Jewish day school world.”

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