Hebrew in America: A communal responsibility

It’s time to change course. That requires a strong commitment to adult Hebrew literacy at the communal level.

Home for the Hebrew language (photo credit: Reuters)
Home for the Hebrew language
(photo credit: Reuters)
The well-publicized Pew study of American Jews validates a sad reality: Hebrew literacy among American Jews is abysmally low. Just 52 percent of American Jews know the Hebrew alphabet, only 13% understand what they are reading, and a mere one in 10 Jews say they can carry on a conversation in Hebrew, according to the 2013 Pew Research findings.
So what? Does Hebrew really matter in America? The World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry and several partner organizations seem to think so. Instead of hand-wringing or digging their heads in the sand, they recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to reverse the current situation and raise the status of the Hebrew language in America. (See Jerusalem Post, November 21, 2013.) It’s not the first time that a formal structure has been established to promote the Hebrew language in America.
Nearly a century ago, in 1916, the Histadrut Ivrit of America was founded to spread Hebrew language and culture to strengthen Jewish identity. Among the organization’s many initiatives was Hadoar, a weekly Hebrew-language newspaper which was published from 1921 to 2005.
Over time, as Zionist fervor caught hold, there evolved a network of Hebrew teachers’ colleges, afternoon Hebrew schools, and Jewish summer camps where Hebrew was the lingua franca. In the early 1950s, public high schools in major US metropolitan areas began teaching Hebrew as a foreign language, using the curriculum developed by the Hebrew Culture Service Committee in New York City.
As ethnic pride swept the country in the 1970s, we witnessed the burgeoning of Hebrew language programs at colleges and universities across North America together with a growing day-school movement and increased opportunities for young people to study in Israel. Thirty- some years ago I taught Hebrew at a suburban Boston public high school which added Hebrew to its course offerings in response to Jewish student pressure.
Let’s not get wrapped up in the past. As we know from sociological research and anecdotal evidence, the American Jewish landscape has shifted dramatically in recent years. The many challenges facing our community are well documented. If we still care about Hebrew today, we need to change its future course.
Time for a new direction Moving forward, making Hebrew a priority demonstrates a sense of optimism about our future as a people and our relationship to the State of Israel. It goes without saying that this requires improving the quality of Hebrew language instruction for children and teenagers, beginning with early childhood. Numerous such initiatives are now underway in Jewish pre-schools, day schools, Hebrew schools, summer camps and Hebrew charter schools.
However, there’s a deeper underlying issue: Can Hebrew in America truly ever achieve widespread, longterm success? And does it really matter? Here’s the rub. When it comes to improving Hebrew literacy, other than the founders of the newly-formed Hebrew Language Council, the Jewish communal voices that are highly vocal about intermarriage, synagogue affiliation and Israel are conspicuously silent.
In our well-intentioned efforts to expand the tent and become a more welcoming community, Hebrew seems to have dropped from the equation. When basic mastery of Hebrew is not required for even the most intensive adult education programs and synagogues continue to use Hebrew prayer books with transliterated texts, what message are we transmitting about the value of learning Hebrew? Hebrew is at the core of our identity as Jews. It is the language that links us to our tradition, connects us to other Diaspora Jews, and fosters our relationship with Israel.
How can we expect to motivate young people to learn Hebrew when their parents and grandparents don’t know the language basics? We desperately need Hebrew-literate adults to serve as role models for our children. Yet when approximately half of American Jews don’t even know the Hebrew alphabet, we face a chicken- or-egg predicament.
It’s time to change course. That requires a strong commitment to adult Hebrew literacy at the communal level.
Federation executives, rabbis, educators and lay leaders, step up to the plate. Make the Hebrew language, lashon hakodesh, integral to the educational experience.
Invest community dollars and resources to this end.
Incorporate Hebrew language learning in family education initiatives, adult education, Israel education programs and as pre-requisites for bar and bat mitzvah families.
Take advantage of technology such as Skype and online Hebrew courses that make this endeavor easier.
Tap into the growing core of graying, Hebrew-literate baby boomers who would welcome the opportunity to volunteer their time as Hebrew coaches in synagogues and community centers. And find ways to partner with umbrella organizations such as the Hebrew Language Council of North America.
Listen up, community leaders. If you don’t show that you care about Hebrew, why should it matter to the rest of us? The author is a writer in the Boston area.