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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Teaching Israel VI


Galilee Diary #328, March 11, 2007  


Marc J. Rosenstein


It is plain for all to see… that our youth is abandoning our language – but why?  Because in their eyes it is a dead and useless tongue…  Let us therefore make the language really live again!  Let us teach our young to speak it, and then they will never betray it!  But we will be able to revive the Hebrew tongue only in a country in which the number of Hebrew inhabitants exceeds the number of gentiles…

      -Eliezer ben-Yehudah, 1880


Recently I met with a group of teachers in an American community, with whom I've been working over the past two years in an Israel Engagement course.  Several of them were assigned to present an issue for the group, and their presentation was a simulation of a discussion at a congregational education committee, on the dilemma of teaching conversational Hebrew in a supplementary school.  The conversation that developed was fascinating – and even more so to me, as I remembered confronting the same frustrating dilemma thirty years ago as a supplementary school principal myself.  The more things change, the more they stay the same…


The dilemma stems, of course, from the fact that Jews in the United States Jews seem to be linguistically challenged when it comes to Hebrew (which may or may not be part of a larger US problem with foreign languages in general).  On the one hand, an ability to speak and understand Hebrew would be a powerful anchor of Jewish identity, providing a connection with Jews all over the world, with Israel and its culture, and with the entire library of classical Jewish texts – and self-confidence and self-awareness as an "insider" in Jewish life and history.  On the other hand, even with very sophisticated methods and high motivation, teaching a spoken language to children in a couple of hours a week is a pretty daunting task – especially when they don't hear the language outside of class – and when language instruction must compete for scarce resources of time against all the rest of the curriculum – Bible, holidays and customs, history, beliefs, values, etc.


Trying to teach language in a setting and under circumstances that guarantee failure and frustration and hence a feeling of wasting precious time sends kids home not wanting to return.  But on the other hand, giving up on the language also sends a message, and for the most part, that is the message that most liberal Jewish kids have internalized: "who needs Hebrew?"


One solution would be for our students to spend a year in Israel – and indeed many do, in NFTY programs and various college settings - and they learn Hebrew, and that often has a large impact on their connectedness to Israel and to the classical Jewish library.  On the other hand, "many" is not "most," and the vast majority of our young adults – even if they go on Birthright tours or summer programs – remain basically illiterate in Hebrew.  Which reflects, of course their parents' situation: what we are talking about is trying to make a radical change – to educate a generation to be literate in Hebrew when their parents and all the institutions in which they have grown up have accepted the assumption that one can be fully Jewish in translation: if we can pray in English, and read the Bible and other texts in English, and if we can even "get by" in globalized Israel in English – then indeed, who needs Hebrew?


Such a revolution in consciousness, such a transformation in identity between generations is a daunting task, to say the least.  But based on my own experience, on my observations of others' experiences – and even a bit of formal research – I believe that we really do need Hebrew for our own authenticity as Jews, for our connectedness to our people over space and over time.  And I believe, therefore, that we should be investing our time and creativity and resources in finding ways to undo the culture of Hebrew illiteracy that we have fallen into in the course of the last century.  And if not now, when?

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