World Zionist Organization establishes council to promote Hebrew language for diaspora Jews

Council's inaugural conference was held this week in New Jersey; aimed at increasing fluency in Hebrew.

November 21, 2013 20:23
3 minute read.

Home for the Hebrew language. (photo credit: Reuters)

The World Zionist Organization, along with the Education Ministry and several other groups, announced on Monday the establishment of a council dedicated to the promotion of the Hebrew language among Diaspora Jewry.

The Hebrew Language Council, whose inaugural conference was held this week in New Jersey, is aimed at increasing fluency in Hebrew to forge deeper connections to Judaism and the Jewish people, Dr.

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Simcha Leibovich, representative of the WZO Executive in North America, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem, as well as the US-based Hebrew at the Center (HATC) organization, Middlebury-HATC Institute for the Advancement of Hebrew and Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, are all founding members of the forum.

Michael Steinhardt, the chairman of the Steinhardt Foundation, was one of the founders of Birthright, which has been lauded by Jewish leaders as an important tool for stemming increasing assimilation and intermarriage in the US.

The announcement of the HLC’s formation comes as Jewish organizations across the board grapple with the findings of a recent Pew Research Center study that paint a portrait of a Jewish community racked by intermarriage and decreasing religious identification and seek new avenues for combating these trends.

Leibovich told the Post that the WZO decided to focus on the Jewish tongue because, among other reasons, “Hebrew is not a language, it’s a culture. It is the Torah, the Bible, it’s us.” The Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams are all represented in the leadership of this new group, he added.

Hebrew is an important component in stemming the tide of assimilation, he contended, stating that teaching Hebrew to second- and third-generation Israelis in the Diaspora would be key in “keeping them Jewish.” “We want to make sure that kids can speak to their grandparents in Israel,” Leibovich said.

He believes that not only can Hebrew serve as a bond between Jews around the world, strengthening Jewish identity, but that it opens up a world of culture that would otherwise be inaccessible to nonspeakers.

Among the goals of the HLC is the establishment of a professional organization to represent Hebrew teachers. The status of the Hebrew language can only be improved by giving teachers a forum for collaboration, and the council will “provide all kinds of professional development” and publicity, he believes.

Among the successes that the WZO plans on building upon are the establishment of Hebrew-language departments in public schools and the budding proliferation of Hebrew-language charter schools.

Citing a Chicago school where he said such efforts had already borne fruit, Leibovich stated that for parents who are unwilling or unable to send their children to day schools, adding Hebrew is a way to maintain a connection with Judaism.

“We want this all over the States,” he said.

Leibovich also believes Hebrew charter schools, which teach Hebrew and Israeli culture and are funded by the US government, must be expanded as well.

“They don’t teach Judaism but they teach Israel,” he explained, adding that he would like to see the revival of the teaching of Judaic subjects in Hebrew in the day-school system as well.

Over the coming years Leibovich expects to see a rise in the number of teacher emissaries that the WZO sends to the US, which he believes will contribute to the expansion of Hebrew among Diaspora Jews and “make a revolution.”

According to a report on eJewishPhilanthropy, the new council will hold an annual conference on Hebrew language and Israeli culture and will establish a non-profit to raise the funds necessary for future programs.

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