Rabbi Huna said in the name of Bar Kappara: on account of four things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: they didnt change their names; they didnt change their language; they didnt reveal their secrets; and they didnt abandon their wives.
-Midrash Exodus Rabbah 1:28
I recently was privileged to attend a conference of Jewish educators in Mexico City. This was a fascinating experience, as the Mexican Jewish community is quite different from the communities in the rest of North America, a fact which was surprising for me. The 40,000 Jews there live in a way that is much more closed off from the surrounding society, compared to their neighbors to the north. For example, over 90% of their children attend day schools. Their out-marriage rate is under 5%. Interestingly, their definition of Jewish identity seems on the whole more cultural and less religious than the North American norm. And yet despite their tightly knit community, they are very much divided into ethnic sub-communities, each with its own schools and other institutions and cultural heritage (e.g., Aleppo, Damascus, European Sefardic, Eastern European).
I found myself, along with my colleagues from the U.S. and Canada, in a constant state of amazement as we got to know the different institutions (especially schools) in the community. And one of the most striking revelations was the ubiquity of Hebrew fluency among Jews of all ages. Of course, given where Mexico is and given the forces of globalization in general no one in the social stratum inhabited by the Jews imagines s/he can get very far without a good knowledge of English. But we were really impressed with the number of Jews and not just professional Jews and former Israelis with whom we were able to communicate easily in Hebrew, at a high level; many preferred to speak Hebrew rather than English.
In Mexico (as in other Latin American Jewish communities, I think), Hebrew is a central component of Jewish identity. It binds the Jews to each other and to their fellow Jews elsewhere and to Israel. In a community that emphasizes cultural over religious Jewish identity, this makes sense. What our schools in the U.S. invest in rabbis-in-residence to teach prayer skills, Mexican schools invest in sophisticated and heavily staffed Hebrew language instruction centers. And if I can make a crude generalization, I would say that the results reflect the respective investments. But must it be either-or?
The past year has seen a major effort in many communities in North America to respond to a falling-off of interest in and commitment to Israel, with new programs to develop curriculum, train teachers, etc., aimed at generating Israel engagement. Our center here at Shorashim is involved in these efforts. However, in thinking about my Mexican experience, I find myself wondering if we are missing the boat; I suspect that if American Jewish educators and their students were fluent in Hebrew, we wouldnt need all this effort. If American Jews could get off the plane and feel at home here; if they could read Israeli newspapers and literature; if they could correspond with Israelis in Hebrew wouldnt Israel engagement be a much more modest challenge?
Mexican Jewish teachers are no better, on the whole, than their North American colleagues; and Mexican Jewish kids are no smarter than their North American peers. What would it take? When I was the principal of the religious school in a Reform synagogue, I made the realistic decision to give up on teaching conversational Hebrew, since in our limited time, and given our students prospective Jewish lives, teaching prayerbook reading, and teaching Bible and other texts in English seemed a better use of our limited resources. But then, sometimes I wonder: if we had always made such realistic decisions, would we still be here?