Teach modern Hebrew in the U.S. and invest in a relationship with Israel

What if there were hundreds of thousands of people in the US and worldwide, Jews and non-Jews, who could speak modern Hebrew.

Flashcards with Hebrew words, including the word "Tapuach," meaning "apple". (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Flashcards with Hebrew words, including the word "Tapuach," meaning "apple". (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
When I studied Hebrew at Columbia more than 20 years ago, most of what I learned was grammar. Lamaditi, lamaditah, lamadit. Halfway through college, I could rattle off verb declinations with the best of them, but order a slice of pizza in Tel Aviv? Or ask for directions at the bus station? Not a chance. Hebrew has been taught poorly in America – if at all. Many of the thousands of young adults who return from Birthright each year are excited to learn Hebrew, but when they try to find an ulpan or synagogue to take a class, they find nothing.
What if that changed? What if there were hundreds of thousands of people in the US and worldwide, Jews and non-Jews, who could speak modern Hebrew. What if there were thriving ulpans in Brentwood and Brooklyn? What if public schools in New York and Miami and Los Angeles taught Hebrew? What if day schools graduated students who spoke Hebrew?
Research shows that foreign language skills offer a lifelong ability to communicate with more people and are a window into other cultures. For Americans, Hebrew is a fascinating case of an ancient language that was revived in modern times and is today at the heart of a vital and flourishing culture that bridges Europe and Asia, East and West. Hebrew is an entrée to other Semitic languages, including Arabic. When taught from an early age, Hebrew introduces children to the syntax and to a common vocabulary shared by Arabic and other Near Eastern and Asian languages that are in high demand by the US Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense, as well as commerce and international development agencies.
As the founder of the Hebrew Public charter school network and the vice chair of my family foundation – The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life – I am committed to bringing modern Hebrew to thousands of Americans through a myriad of programs that we initiate and support.
In our Hebrew Public network of free schools open to all students (there are 13 schools and 3,000 students in grades K through 8 across North America), we are leading a new approach to modern Hebrew instruction. Our teachers use the proficiency-based approach to learning modern Hebrew, which supports effective language acquisition and enables students to communicate with native speakers confidently. Language classes are conducted exclusively in Hebrew by native speakers; Hebrew is also woven into other subjects such as music, dance and art.
Likewise, our foundation helps support a full Hebrew immersion program in Jewish day camps engaging more than 500 children at 13 camps this past summer. The Jewish Agency for Israel provides the bulk of the counselors, who teach in this program through their summer Shlichim program.
Behind every great educational program is a great educator and we, in North America, are in desperate need of strong modern Hebrew teachers and are working tirelessly to build a pipeline of Hebrew educators.
Through Hebrew Public’s Arbel Fellowship Program, we are bringing Israeli teachers for two years to teach Modern Hebrew in our schools. Behind this program are our partners in Israel – The Israel Center for Educational Innovation and the World Zionist Organization – supported by the Ministry of Education of Israel. Arbel Fellows are top teachers who are becoming experts in the proficiency approach. They benefit greatly from their daily work in our schools and through professional development in Middlebury College School of Hebrew, another signature program to train Hebrew educators that my family foundation supports. Upon return to Israel, Arbel Fellows will apply their new instructional skills in bettering educational practices in their schools.
The Arbel Fellowship is a great start to our partnership with the Ministry of Education of Israel, and we look forward to building and expanding our program over the years.
It is interesting to note that other countries’ governments understand the importance of investing in foreign language education in the US. A number of foreign governments invest in promoting the study of their languages in the United States and, the government of Israel is slowly discovering the importance of such investments as well.
Those governments most active in supporting the study of their languages in the United States are Qatar, China, France, South Korea, Italy and Greece. These countries support the learning of their languages, and through them their cultures, not only to reach people who have an ethnic affiliation with them. Rather, each of these governments understands that this support will lead to a better appreciation of their country, its language and its culture. The Qatar Foundation International provides millions of dollars to public schools and universities in the United States to promote “the learning of Arabic and for students to become familiar with the Arab world’s history and culture.” The Italian government expended approximately $1 million for the US College Board to reinstitute and develop an Advanced Placement course and exam in the Italian language and culture. The French government continues to support the Alliance Française worldwide.
We believe that the benefits of teaching Hebrew to all Americans will have a profound and lasting impact for the State of Israel and are eager to deepen our partnership with the Israeli government. Americans will have a real appreciation for Israel’s lifeblood and its ancient yet new and reborn language, Hebrew.
The writer is the founder and chair of the Hebrew Public Charter School Network.