Hebrew Learning in American Public Schools: An Under-the-Radar Educational Experience and Resource

September 18, 2019

The topic of how and why American youth learn modern Hebrew has taken center stage in recent debates in diverse educational contexts in North America. Central to these debates are core questions about what motivates Jewish children to learn Hebrew, how Hebrew knowledge contributes to a sense of Jewish identity, and what the best pedagogical strategies are for teaching Hebrew. These questions have gained urgency as more community stakeholders, educators, and parents, are expressing a renewed commitment to ensuring that American Jewish children can speak, understand, and engage in Hebrew language.

Yet one site of Hebrew study has been virtually ignored by stakeholders in the enterprise: Hebrew language programs at American public schools. Despite the fact that these programs exist – and in many cases are expanding and thriving – they remain a virtual black box in Jewish educational research, and are often disconnected from broader Jewish communal and institutional structures. We contend, on the other hand, that Hebrew language instruction, even in public schools, has implications for Jewish education.

With support from the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), we set out to collect baseline data about public school Hebrew programs. The findings from our research appear in a new report Mapping Hebrew Education in Public Schools: A Resource for Jewish Educators. In it we focus on the programs’ rationales, language learning goals, instructional approaches, curriculum, and staffing.

Drawing on 32 interviews with Hebrew teachers and world language department administrators, as well as observational data at 6 schools, we found that modern Hebrew is being taught to approximately 6,600 children in 35 K-12 traditional public schools and publicly-funded charter schools across the country. More specifically, the breakdown is approximately 1,400 students in traditional public schools and approximately 5,200 children in charter schools. The majority of learners are in grades K-8 (4,947), with 1,681 in grades 9-12. In total, we identified 127 K-12 Hebrew teachers working either in full or part time capacities in programs in the United States.

What emerges from our study is a portrait of a highly diverse group of Hebrew programs that offer a unique opportunity for thinking about Jewish education in non-traditional ways.

Some of the main takeaways are:

  • The number of students learning Hebrew in American public schools is growing. While most of the growth is in schools serviced by the two major Hebrew charter networks (Hebrew Public and Ben Gamla), the traditional public high school programs also reported steady and increasing enrollment. The lack of middle school Hebrew programs adversely affects enrollment in the high schools.
  • Public schools are legally barred from asking about their students’ religious identity, but Hebrew teachers report that not all their students are Jewish, particularly in the charter schools but also in the high school programs. Nonetheless, some teachers see their programs as a “form” of Jewish education within the public school context in that children have an opportunity to come together to learn about and discuss Jewish culture, history, and celebrations. Teachers avoid teaching about topics that would run afoul of the constitutional separation of Church and State in public schooling.
  • There is tremendous variation among students in terms of Hebrew proficiency. The same class may have students who have little to no ability to decode, as well as native speakers who speak and read fluently. This diversity requires teachers to engage in highly differentiated teaching, especially at the high school level.
  • Finding qualified, state-certified Hebrew teachers is a major challenge. Another challenge is finding teachers in the charter schools who are committed to staying in a school long-term. Veteran teachers in high schools are concerned about retiring and/or leaving their programs without a replacement teacher in place because they do not know how the program would survive.
  • In addition to teaching Hebrew language, many Hebrew teachers also teach (mostly in English) about Israel. Yet almost all of the teachers reported not covering the geopolitical realities and refraining from discussing Israeli politics. Topics usually focus on food, geography, types of communities, cities, and “start up nation” information. Some high schools do offer Israel and/or Hebrew clubs, though they are not always taught by the Hebrew teacher and are separate from the Hebrew class curriculum.
  • Hebrew teachers in many schools are working on their own to build curriculum, develop lesson plans, and create classroom materials. Hebrew is siloed from other language/general education programs at the school, and pre-packaged curriculum guides are scarce. Materials include a combination of teacher-created worksheets and textbooks typically used in day schools and ulpan programs designed for immigrants in Israel.
  • There are no fully immersive Hebrew language learning programs in public schools. For example, there are no dual-language programs in which children are being taught content areas (i.e., math, science, social studies) in Hebrew.

These findings should give Jewish educators and policy makers a strong reason to know more about what is happening at these under-the-radar Hebrew programs. Day schools, congregations, college campuses, and camps will undoubtedly continue to deliver high-quality and intensive Hebrew educational experiences, but the Jewish educational world should also give its attention to Hebrew programs in middle and high school programs as a viable venue for teaching about Jewish life and Israel, even if it is not in the traditional sense.

Our study on Hebrew in American public schools left us inspired by the passion teachers felt toward teaching Hebrew and by their tremendous efforts to ensure their programs’ ongoing success. At the same time, we recognize that an individual teacher is limited in what he/she can do structurally or institutionally, especially in cases where there is only one Hebrew teacher at a school. By teaching Hebrew and teaching about Jewish history and Israel, these programs are doing a form of Jewish education, while remaining careful not to cross the line of separation of Church and State.

In our next installment, we’ll discuss how Hebrew in public schools can continue to grow long-term, which will also have implications for growing Hebrew language instruction in the US generally.

Sharon Avni is Associate Professor of Language and Literacy in the Department of Academic Literacy and Linguistics at BMCC (CUNY). Avital Karpman is Associate Clinical Professor of Hebrew and Director of the Hebrew Program at the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Originally published in eJP