A boy reads in Hebrew 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I can’t seem to get out of my head a recent email announcing the 90th anniversary
celebration of Boston’s Hebrew College. Mention Hebrew College today and the
rabbinical school is probably what first pops into mind. But for those of us who
graduated from its high school and college during the ‘60s or before, it is the
Like the Herzlia Hebrew Teachers Institute in New York
and a dozen or so such schools across the US, the former Hebrew Teachers College
was an outgrowth of the Hebraist or tarbut ivrit, Hebrew culture movement of the
early 20th century. Inspired by the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-Am, the
European-born intellectuals who founded the movement aspired to preserve Hebrew
language and culture in America, and viewed Hebrew as the vital spiritual link
to Eretz Yisrael. The result was a network of schools and camps based on the
educational philosophy of ivrit b’ivrit, the Hebrew-in-Hebrew method.
curriculum reflected a deep-rooted commitment to Zionist ideals and Hebrew
language and culture.
Through the Hebrew language, lashon hakodesh, we
forged an inextricable bond to Eretz Yisrael. Hebrew was the exclusive language
of our classes, text books, written assignments and even hallway conversations.
We studied the Hebrew poets Rahel, Shlonsky, Bialik, and Tchernichovsky as well
as Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Ha- Am, A. D. Gordon, and Y. L. Pinsker. We
knew nothing of Deir Yassin or Palestinian refugee camps, but neither did our
classmates at the secular universities where we simultaneously pursued full-time
The 20th-century Hebraists worried about preserving Jewish
identity. Who knows whether they would have been surprised by shifting attitudes
toward Israel among young Jews? Probably, though, they could not have predicted
the abundant wealth of Jewish educational and cultural opportunities, Israel
programs, college-level Judaic studies programs, and online resources available
in the 21st century or foreseen that young Jews would visit Israel more
frequently than previous generations.
In any case, there are valuable
lessons we can learn from the Hebraist movement and its singular curricular
focus on Hebrew language and Zionist thought. It’s also where the contemporary
American-Jewish community sorely misses the point.
leaders wring their hands on how to engage young Jews with Israel, Israel
advocacy continues to be prioritized. Lectures on the Arab-Israeli conflict,
media training for campus activists and social media workshops on how to combat
anti-Israel voices remain the rule of thumb.
There’s nothing inherently
wrong with advocacy per se. But we need to face current realities. In today’s
highly charged politicized atmosphere, a strong focus on pro- Israel advocacy
does not offer broad appeal to young Jews seeking to engage comfortably with
Israel on their own terms.
The emerging field of Israel education
represents a step in the right direction. Initiatives such as the Jewish
Agency’s Makom and the iCenter offer significant promise.
But to achieve
lasting success, Israel education must emphasize Hebrew language
Nothing binds us to Israel like the Hebrew language. I still
remember the exhilaration of speaking Hebrew on my first visit to Israel many
However, what percentage of American Jewish young people can
conduct a conversation in Hebrew, understand an Israeli radio or television
broadcast, or read an Israeli newspaper? Yet it is through the Hebrew language
that we gain insights into the complex intricacies of contemporary Israeli
culture, society and politics – from the raunchy humor of Israeli reality TV to
the raucous Knesset debates.
Hebrew language learning must be prioritized
from an early age. Take my two-year-old granddaughter who speaks Hebrew
fluently, recognizing how it distinguishes her from most of her New York
playmates. She loves to point out the Israeli flag and read that children in
Israel speak Hebrew (just like me!) as we read one of her favorite Hebrew
storybooks. Already, Hebrew is the basis for her identification with
Granted, she has the advantage of parents committed to raising a
bilingual child. But today several Hebrew immersion programs designed for the
early-childhood set exist in America such as “Hebrew in America,” sponsored by
the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the “Ma’alah” program, developed
by the Melton Center with a Covenant Foundation grant.
There are numerous initiatives to improve Hebrew language instruction in Jewish
day schools – Hebrew at the Center, Tal Am (Tochnit Limudim Ivrit Umoreshet) and
NETA (Noar Letovat HaIvrit). But most elementary-age American Jewish children
receive their Jewish education in supplementary settings where there’s little
time for serious Hebrew language instruction. And while teenagers in large
metropolitan areas can learn Hebrew at supplementary high schools such as the
Prozdor of Boston’s Hebrew College and the Ivry Prozdor at the Jewish
Theological Seminary in New York, they represent only a fraction of the
Nearly a century ago, Hebraist visionaries – and not without
engendering significant controversy – called for teaching Hebrew in America.
Today the challenges are different but we also have trained teachers and a
wealth of technology tools, including Skype and online courses, which make our
task significantly easier.
If we want to link young Jews to Israel, the
Hebrew language can and should play a pivotal role. If Hebrew is to become
imprinted in the DNA of our Jewish youth, it’s never too early to begin. Nor
should it be reserved exclusively for those with access to an intensive Jewish
It’s time to issue a wake-up call to the 21st-century
American-Jewish community. Make Hebrew language learning for Jewish youth a
communal priority. Promote its value. Invest the financial resources to ensure
Begin today because Israel cannot wait until
tomorrow.Paula Jacobs is a writer based in the Boston area.