April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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Hebrew in Day Schools—For What?

A while back, I attended a family simcha in New Square, a Hasidic village in Ramapo, New York. The lunchroom cum auditorium doubles as a simcha hall when school is not in session. Walking around the halls of the school (there was plenty of “waiting around” time during a very lengthy “yichud” when the young couple, who hardly knew each other, could be intimate for the first time), one thing struck me. No English. No Hebrew. Yiddish only. Was I in Sitka, Alaska, the fictitious domain of Michael Chabon’s novel, “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”?

No. I was in the Talmud Torah of Bobov, a real-life institution in Rockland County, where Yiddish is the lingua franca, Modern (spoken) Hebrew is not taught and only the minimum state-mandated time is allocated to teaching general subjects like English, mathematics and so on.

I was reminded of this visit when reading “Hebrew for What?—Hebrew at the Heart of Jewish Day Schools,” a just-released report commissioned by the innovative AVI CHAI Foundation and authored by Dr. Alex Pomson, a researcher and managing director of Rodov Consulting, formerly founding head of Jewish studies at King Solomon High School, a Modern Orthodox (United Synagogue) high school in Ilford, part of greater London, and Prof. Jack Wertheimer, a noted professor of American Jewish History at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The goal was to explore how Hebrew is being taught in day schools, and whether the needs of the educators and consumers (parents and students) were being met.

I asked Yossi Prager, North American executive director of AVI CHAI, about the Foundation’s motivation for funding the study. “We’ve long been advocates of teaching Hebrew in Jewish day schools,” he said. “We’ve funded many different curriculum and teacher training initiatives,” he continued. “We thought it would be helpful if professionals, volunteer leaders and funders of schools better understood the perceptions of administrators, teachers, parents and students about how well Hebrew language education these efforts is being received. Was it the same across the schools? Did it depend on the school’s affiliation, grade level or the kind of Hebrew the school prioritized (text study or Modern spoken Hebrew)? We’re into having data drive our decision-making.”

The study was fair-sized, but not comprehensive, involving over 7,000 people, including 553 educators, 3,060 students and 3,422 parents, but only 41 day schools. Students were about evenly divided among grades 5, 8 and 11.

An earlier AVI CHAI study published in October 2014 by Dr. Marvin Schick, and covering 2013/14 and available at http://avichai.org/knowledge_base/a-census-of-jewish-day-schools-in-the-united-states-2013-14-2014/ counted some 255,000 students enrolled in 802 Jewish day schools, so a sample of about 1.2 percent were studied. The respondents were further characterized into one of five groups they called Centrist Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Community. Non-Orthodox schools constitute 13 percent of enrollment in Dr. Schick’s study. Today, 60 percent of enrollment is from yeshiva world and chassidic communities and Modern and Centrist Orthodox comprise 27 percent.

As you might imagine, The Bobov Talmud Torah did not participate in the study.

Personally—and I have to say this—I grew up observant, and was brought up to be open-minded, tolerant and inclusive—to love all Jews. So my apologies, but for me, these distinctions don’t resonate. I certainly can’t distinguish “Centrist” and “Modern” Orthodox, nor am I motivated to try. I’m told, however, that these are customary groupings. As it turns out, there were minimal differences between the two Orthodox sub-categories.

To date myself, when I attended Ramaz School, all Jewish studies were conducted in Hebrew, Talmud included. In my Hebrew-speaking summer camp, Massad, baseball was played in Hebrew, and a Massad Dictionary provided any needed neologisms.

It’s a fact that use of Hebrew as the language of instruction in U.S. day schools has declined precipitously in recent decades. Conversely, the level of commitment to Halacha and Jewish observance has increased. We see two sides of the same coin.

From the ‘50s to the 70’s, most teachers of Jewish subjects in day schools were not native born. Many were Israeli, spoke native or near-native Hebrew but often were not observant. They may or may not have been trained language teachers.

In the ‘80s that began to change. Over the ensuing decades, more and more faculty were native-American, many part of the milieu of Yeshiva University or products of righter-wing yeshivot. Their Hebrew language skills often fell far short of their idealism and commitment to Orthodox Judaism. Naturally, over time this phenomenon became self-perpetuating.

Against this background, AVI CHAI Foundation asked hard questions: Why should Hebrew be studied? Did different stakeholders (administrators, teachers, parents, students) have different perspectives? How do they assess the quality of Hebrew language study, and what are their expectations for current and future attainments? Are there differences between grades 5, 8, and 11? They also sought to assess the degree of alignment among the stakeholders.

I asked both Mr. Prager and Prof. Wertheimer what most surprised them in reviewing the findings. They cited several things:

Most teachers of Hebrew were trained in education, even though not in teaching Hebrew as a second language, despite the myth that the sole qualification for teaching Hebrew in day schools was the ability to speak Hebrew well.

There was progressively less satisfaction with the Hebrew experience as children moved through the grades.

The students were more interested in practical language skills than parents and teachers.

The more commitment from the school to Hebrew (senior administration, board and faculty), the higher the level of satisfaction perceived by parents and students.

Teachers are inadequately trained to teach Hebrew as a Second Language, even though they possess both pedagogic and language skills.

Mr. Prager believes that the most significant find of all is that irrespective of which curriculum was used, it was the commitment of the school—top to bottom—that most influences satisfaction with Hebrew.

As you might expect, most parents from Orthodox homes value the Hebrew language skills as a key to studying Jewish religious texts. Conversational skills are less valued. Non-Orthodox parents place higher value on communications skills.

Also, the study discovered that the case for Hebrew isn’t being made. For administrators, it’s self-evident but not for many parents and students.

But are our parents and children correct to emphasize text over conversation?

Praying in Hebrew is important. In the Zohar II:29b we read, “One who lives in the Land of Israel, eats in a state of ritual purity, speaks in the Holy Tongue and recites the Shema every morning and evening is assured a portion in the World to Come.”

Some prayers must be recited in Hebrew: The Mishnah (Sotah 7:1-2) teaches, “The following are [e.g., must be] recited in the Holy Tongue: The declaration made at the Bikkurim [First Fruits] (Deut. 26:5-10), the formula of Chalitza [release from Levirate Marriage] (Deut 25:5-10), Brachot u-klalot [the blessings and curses] (Deut. 27:15- 28:69), Birkat HaKohanim [the benediction of the high priest], Num. 6:24-26), Parshat HaMelech [the king’s portion] (Deut. 17:14-20), Parshat Eglah Arufa [heifer whose neck was broken to atone for an unsolved murder] (Deut. 21:3), and Mashuach Milchama [a kohen anointed to lead war] (Deut. 20:1-9).”

Beyond those, Hebrew is and has always been the language of choice for prayer. The Talmud asserts (Sotah 33a) that angels don’t understand Aramaic (and by extension English). Since the angels carry our prayers on high, we should pray in a language that they understand. Rabbi Yehuda ruled that the Shema must be recited in Hebrew, while the chachamim (the majority) rule it may be recited in any language the reciter understands. All agree, however, that the Amidah may be recited in any language.

Hebrew is Lashon HaKodesh, the holy tongue.


Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, 1194-1270) observed in his commentary to Exodus 30:13: “As I see it, the reason for the Rabbis calling the language of the Torah the Holy Tongue is that the words of the Torah and of the prophecies and all sacred utterances were all spoken in that language; it is the language that the Holy One, blessed be He, speaks with His prophets and with His people, saying, ‘I am…,’ ‘Thou shalt not have …’ and the remaining commandments and prophecies; it is the language by which He is called in His sacred names… and in which He created His universe, gave names to heaven and earth and all therein, giving His angels and His host names—Michael, Gabriel, etc.—all in that language, and in that language naming the saintly people in the Land, such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Reuven Chaim Klein’s book (in English) “Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew” (English, Hebrew and Aramaic Edition), available from Amazon is well-researched, written for the observant Jewish reader and provides a wealth of information on the central and vital importance of Hebrew to Judaism to any reader needing convincing.

Conversational Hebrew is good. No doubt about it. Ramaz and Massad made me bilingual and it’s been for me a lifelong benefit. But “Jews are a textual people,” as my brother, Jewish Historian Jonathan D. Sarna stated in a remarkable new video about Sefaria (https://vimeo.com/206481819/ad6575e6a3), the free, massive online site that is collecting and organizing all Jewish texts. One hundred million words are already online.

I believe our day school parents and kids have gotten it [mostly] right. The emphasis correctly ought to be on textual mastery but without neglecting conversational skills that provably increase overall mastery.

The rabbis observed that hearing can’t possibly be compared to seeing (Rosh Hashana 25b). They were generally referring to the higher quality of direct, observed testimony to hearsay. But all our senses (aural, oral and visual, and sometimes even olfactory), combine to reinforce learning, retention and recall. The very word for learning—leshanen—implies oral repetition.

At the end of the day, a text-based people is who we are—am sefer (the people of the book, or Ahl al-Kit?b) as the Qura’an (the first source of this term) calls us.

As Jay Rapaport (“Ruach Rock”) sings:

At first there was nothing

but thoughts and ideas

Tales of our people,

passed down through the centuries

Parents taught their children,

that’s how it got around

Until we had the bright idea

to write all this stuff down

That is why they call us the people

of the book

Our stories made us strong,

some words was all it took

If you think you’ve heard it all before,

take another look

We are Am Hasefer, people of the book


By David E Y Sarna

 David E. Y. Sarna is a writer and retired entrepreneur. He has eight published books, including “Evernote For Dummies,” hundreds of articles, and has nearly completed his first novel about the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archive. He is hard at work on a book about the Internet of Things, and also on a book on the Talmud for general readers. He and his wife, Dr. Rachel Sarna, are long-time Teaneck residents.


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