Previous scholarship and conceptual frameworks

This study addresses a major gap in the scholarship. A few studies reference trends in Hebrew education in supplementary schools14 or investigate Hebrew education in a particular school.15 And several practitioners have offered possibilities for how Hebrew education in these schools might be improved.16 However, as Avni, Kattan, and Zakai point out, there has not yet been a landscape study of Hebrew education in supplementary schools nationwide,17 nor has there been a comparison among various stakeholders’ approaches and perceptions.

Based on previous scholarship and our own experiences as researchers and practitioners, we approached this project using several conceptual frameworks. First, Hebrew is not one unified linguistic entity. Hebrew has many historical phases, most notably the ancient phase when it was codified in sacred texts and its transformation to a modern language (called re-vernacularization) in the 19th and 20th centuries.18 Decoding a biblical verse and conversing about the weather, for example, require different skills. Our research therefore distinguishes between two different types of Hebrew, Textual (including Biblical and Liturgical) and Modern, while recognizing their great overlap.19

In addition, Hebrew serves as a flexible signifier: it has multiple potential symbolic meanings.20 Hebrew can symbolize Jewishness in general, or it can symbolize Jewish religiosity, Israel, or even the particular Jewish communal setting or subgroup in which it is heard or seen. Different people might ascribe different symbolic value to the same Hebrew word, or an individual might have different associations with the word in different contexts.

Related to these diverse symbolic meanings, Jewish educational institutions (and individuals) have diverse rationales and goals surrounding Hebrew21 and use different amounts and different types of Hebrew. In a school geared toward secular Israeli children, Hebrew might be seen as connected to Israel, and students might learn little Textual Hebrew. A synagogue-based school might be solely concerned with Hebrew for ritual recitation and offer no instruction in Modern Hebrew. One school might be filled with Hebrew words, signs, songs,activities, and instruction, and another might have hardly any. Researchers have referred to this diversity as a “continuum of Hebrew richness.”22 Our study was designed to analyze this diversity. The surveys asked about multiple possible rationales (e.g., bar/bat mitzvah preparation, Hebrew as a language of the state of Israel, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people) and multiple goals (e.g., skills in Hebrew decoding, writing, and conversation). We selected schools to observe that were at various locations along the continuum of Hebrew richness.

We also came to this study aware of a discourse of failure regarding Hebrew education in part-time Jewish schools and knowing that some leaders in the field have introduced innovations intended to address this perceived failure. Some alternative approaches to Hebrew education have gained traction around the country, including sound to print (introducing decoding only after students have been exposed to spoken Hebrew for several years), Hebrew Through Movement (a Hebrew version of an approach to language learning called Total Physical Response23), and Jewish life vocabulary (Hebrew words used within English in Jewish communal life). All of these are part of the #OnwardHebrew approach.24 Educators, including us, have expressed interest in Hebrew education serving affective goals—strengthening students’ personal connections to and feelings about Hebrew.25 Finally, some schools have incorporated one-on-one learning, including using technology like Skype.26 Our surveys probed how widespread these approaches are and how stakeholders perceive them.

This study also draws from descriptive, theoretical, and methodological advances in scholarship on language education more broadly.27 American Jews may approach Hebrew differently than immigrant and indigenous groups approach their languages, because of the multifaceted history of Hebrew, including both ancient/sacred and modern/vernacular status. As Ergas notes, “Hebrew, at least in the context of Hebrew instruction for Jews in a Jewish educational setting … is probably best understood as some amalgam of a heritage language (the language of actual ancestors), a second language (one spoken at school but probably not at home), and a foreign language (a language learned in a place where very few people speak the language).”28 Despite the differences, research on American Jews’ Hebrew education can still incorporate insights from other languages and groups and contribute to this growing body of scholarship.

There are several possible approaches to language education. Teachers might focus on communication skills, including the productive skills of speaking and writing and the receptive skills of listening and reading. A foundational component of reading skills is decoding—sounding out letters to form words. In most language education, reading skills involve both decoding and comprehension, but many part-time Jewish schools focus only on decoding so students will be able to recite Hebrew prayers and Biblical passages, skills necessary for ritual participation.

 In contrast to communication skills, another possible approach to language education is ethnolinguistic infusion—when group leaders incorporate elements of the group’s special language in the context of another primary language of communication to foster connection to the language and the group.29 For example, in the Elem Pomo tribe in California, most tribe members communicate in English and know very little Elem Pomo, but leaders frame ceremonies with brief prayers in Elem Pomo.30 Ethnolinguistic infusion can involve songs, loanwords (words from one language used within another language), signs, and metalinguistic conversation and activities (talking about the language). The goal of these infusion practices is not for participants to become proficient in the language, but rather for them to feel personally connected to the language and the group. In other words, by exposing group members to elements of the special language, group leaders strengthen ideological links between the language and the group, between the individual and the language, and between the individual and the group. A possible result of Hebrew infusion in Jewish educational settings is that Jewish children feel connected to a local and/or worldwide metalinguistic community31 of Jews who value Hebrew and use it ritually even if they have limited productive language skills.

Some community members may be critical of ethnolinguistic infusion, especially of the hybrid language practices and the lack of focus on linguistic proficiency. Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant communities in the UK, US, and Canada serve as examples of this tension. Some immigrants are critical of their children or grandchildren using only loanwords and memorized chants and hymns, rather than learning productive speaking and writing skills in Tamil.32 We find similar conflicting discourses in Jewish communal life. Although many schools (and summer camps33 and other settings) focus primarily on ethnolinguistic infusion, some feel they should also teach productive Hebrew conversation skills.

We found the notions of ethnolinguistic infusion and metalinguistic community useful in analyzing how part-time Jewish schools approach Hebrew education in their limited contact hours. And we believe Jewish educational leaders will feel comforted knowing that American Jews are not the only group grappling with how best to approach language education in a society in which learning a second language proficiently is rare and many activities compete for children’s time. Finally, we hope our research will be useful to scholars and communal leaders interested in heritage language education in immigrant, indigenous, and religious communities.34

Historical background

Hebrew education today has been influenced by over a century of diverse orientations and pedagogical approaches. In the early 20th century, Hebraists—Jews ideologically committed to the revival of spoken Hebrew—dominated American part-time Jewish schools, including Talmud Torahs but excluding Reform Sunday schools. In fact, part-time schools focused so much on Hebrew that they came to be called “Hebrew schools.” In 1902, Samson Benderly began to experiment with lessons conducted entirely in Hebrew. The schools he ran focused solely on oral skills in the early grades and only later introduced reading and writing.35 As philanthropist and benefactor Harry Fidenwald gushed in 1903, “In our schools, Hebrew, which some called a dead language, comes to life under the magic of speech, for all instruction excepting History, is in Hebrew. The exercises in physical culture and the games and songs are conducted in Hebrew only.”36 Benderly’s disciples continued to run supplementary schools in which Modern Hebrew language acquisition was a central goal—one that, it seems, they accomplished.

The focus on Hebrew conversation skills was possible because of the large number of contact hours at these schools: two hours a day for four to six days per week. Over the decades, contact hours decreased due to suburbanization and the rise of competing activities. In addition, the primary venue moved from dedicated schools to synagogues, and the emphasis shifted from general Jewish education to bar/bat mitzvah preparation.37 The focus of Hebrew instruction transitioned from both productive and receptive Modern Hebrew language skills to receptive skills in Textual Hebrew and eventually primarily to decoding. These changes led to the tensions schools are still experiencing today. For example, research on Conservative congregational schools in the 1970s and 1980s found that “educators were increasingly reassessing their Hebrew-centered curricula, as they were confronted with damning reports about student outcomes. After twenty years of closing their eyes, they felt forced to confront the mismatch between their ambitious curricular aims and the declining number of teaching hours.”38

In the Reform movement, Hebrew education underwent a different series of trajectories. In the early years of the 20th century, Sunday schools were the dominant form of education for youth in Reform communities. The schools held classes one day a week (Sundays) and incorporated very little, if any, Hebrew. In 1923, one of Benderly’s disciples, Emanuel Gamoran, was recruited to head the Reform movement’s Commission on Jewish Education, where he encouraged Reform part-time schools to expand from one to two days a week and to incorporate Hebrew into the curriculum. Gamoran was initially met with resistance, but over time, his proposals took hold. By the mid-to-late 20th century, many Reform synagogues had incorporated more Hebrew into their schools, in many cases adding one day a week for “Hebrew school” in addition to the usual “Sunday school” on Sundays.39

As is clear from this brief historical background, part-time Jewish schools in the United States have taught Textual and Modern Hebrew using diverse methods in service of diverse goals. The diversity, tensions, and changes-in-progress that we found in contemporary schools continue this long history.

Concerns of educational leaders

When we interviewed leaders in the field of Jewish education, including several who work for umbrella organizations that support part-time schools, they expressed a number of common concerns. Many worried that school directors tend to lack coherent goals and means of assessing them. A few complained that some school directors are set in their ways and have little interest in innovation or do not have the training to research and implement changes in pedagogical approach.

Educational leaders also bemoaned the misalignment of goals, such as parents (and some clergy) wanting to focus primarily on bar/bat mitzvah preparation and some directors and teachers who are interested in skills beyond this life cycle event, including Modern Hebrew conversation. This can at times create tensions among stakeholders in part-time schools.40 Based on these conflicting concerns, leaders characterized bar/bat mitzvah using metaphors like “the elephant in the room,” “an albatross around these organizations,” and “the third rail of Jewish education.” One leader explained, “Parents still see bar mitzvah as the test, so we’re still teaching to that test. If that wasn’t an issue, we could teach Modern Hebrew.” Another called for more transparency: “If the goal is bar mitzvah, let’s just get honest about it.”

A few leaders relayed concerns that parents were not on board with best practices in the field. In particular, when a school adopts the increasingly popular sound to print approach, some parents complain that their child is “not learning Hebrew,” by which they mean decoding. This leads to some schools continuing to spend years on decoding, when they could be teaching different skills. As one leader put it, they are “wasting time doing the thing the customer demands,” because “in the end, they have to meet the demands and the needs of the people who pay their salary.”

Some educational leaders pointed to the diversity of schools in different parts of the country. In large cities, there is an ample pool of prospective teachers, including many Israeli immigrants who speak Hebrew fluently. In small towns, especially in the Deep South, there are so few Jews that at some schools, all administrators and teachers are volunteers, including some non-Jewish Hebrew teachers (more on this here).

Another issue that leaders highlighted is a tension between teaching skills and making learning fun. This tension stems from school directors trying to shed the bad reputation of Hebrew school as something that parents hated and now send their children to, expecting them to hate it too. One leader said, “Some educators take content away in an attempt to make it more fun for kids. This is most evident in social action/tikkun olam, but it happens in Hebrew too.”

Finally, educational leaders brought up the issue of limited time. School directors must make difficult decisions about which topics and skills to prioritize in only a few hours per week. One director noted, “The hardest thing to teach with less time is Hebrew because language learning is incredibly intensive.” We had these issues in mind as we crafted our surveys and planned our observations.