Blogcast 2: Teaching and Learning Hebrew: Let's Talk About It


October 21, 2014

For years, Hebrew language has been a staple of the Jewish education curriculum. To what end? Or, in contemporary terms, what is the ROI of Hebrew in Jewish education? How can research extend the promise of Hebrew?

This week, CASJE is bringing together experts to think about the place of Hebrew in Jewish education. The conversation developed over the course of a few days and was open to anyone.


  • Alex Pomson, Rosov Consulting

  • Eli Schaap, Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life

  • Naomi Stillman, NETA-CET, Hebrew College

  • Tova Shimon, TaL AM

  • Sharon Avni, Borough of Manhattan Community College - City University of New York

  • Rena Dorph, Edah; Lawrence Hall of Science

  • Elli Fischer, Rabbi, Translator, and Writer

  • Vardit Ringvald, Institute for the Advancement of Hebrew, Middlebury University




Alex Pomson
Welcome to CASJE’s second-ever blogcast!

Over the next few days, a fascinating group – our cast - will undertake an online conversation about Hebrew Language Education in North America. Building on previous efforts of CASJE, we’ll be especially interested in exploring how research can help advance this often challenged field.

There are many different Hebrews, and many different purposes to learning Hebrew; what’s it all about for you? What fuels your passion for this language?

Vardit Ringvald
A famous Israeli poet, Shaul Tchernichovsky, wrote: “A man is nothing but the image of his native landscape.” And I would like to add "and of his or her mother tongue."

Even though I am a daughter of immigrants whose first language was Hungarian, I was born into a Hebrew speaking household and was raised by parents who were proud that they could conquer the language as adults and turn it into a “first language” that became central in our lives.

As a novice teacher, I witnessed for the first time the difference between "learning" and ״acquisition" -- a concept I became familiar with later on when I learned about Krashen’s Monitor theory in graduate school. As Krashen explains it, my students in Montevideo wanted to become fluent in Hebrew but, because they “learned” the language and did not “acquire” it, they fell short of their goal. This left all of us very frustrated. The same experience repeated itself when I was a young lecturer in Hebrew Language at Brandeis University almost three decades ago. I met motivated young adults who had been in Hebrew classes most of their lives and were still unable to apply their knowledge about the language in real life settings. As a learner myself, I knew that "owning" a language happens for the most part only when it has a purpose or when there is a need for applying it.

Hebrew, like any other language, can be viewed through the lenses of different disciplines -- linguistics, anthropology, history, religious studies, psychology and so on.

I prefer to view Hebrew as an applied linguist -- to advocate the need to use what we know about second language acquisition and apply it to our Hebrew program. Like other scholars in the field, I view the acquisition process as made up of powerful acts that enable learners to make the language part of who they are. In my own research I discovered that students who were able to conquer the language admitted that the acquisition process helped them to grow and develop emotionally and intellectually. Using this tool in Jewish education can create powerful venues for strengthening students’ identities and opening the door to their own culture and their own people.

In order to accomplish this, however, Hebrew teachers need to be trained not only as Hebrew scholars but also as second language teachers.

Naomi Stillman
Like all passions, mine is fueled by its object – Hebrew itself. I am devoted to Hebrew because I delight in it. This delight is not only sensory and emotional but intellectual and academic.

I love the sound and the feel of Hebrew words as I hear and say them. I get a thrill from understanding a thousand-year-old text, and knowing that if I met its author we would be able to communicate And I am proud of (sometimes) passing as an Israeli when I speak Hebrew with friends, family, and strangers on the street. The emotional punch comes from connection to Jews and Judaism and Israel, and from a sense of pride and competence.

The intellectual satisfactions of Hebrew are many. I savor the poetry and beauty and logic (yes, really) of the language, the way all the historical layers of the language intertwine to produce a living, modern language. I value the ability to directly access Hebrew texts of all kinds without relying on the kindness - and skill – of a translator. I both teach and study Jewish texts, and I frequently experience moments in which my knowledge of Hebrew gives me an edge. I know that my Hebrew facilitates my engagement with literature, culture, and history, as well as language.

Intellectual challenge and analysis, feelings of emotional connection and pride, and the commitment to students fuel my passion for Hebrew. I delight in seeing students develop their own mastery of and passion for the Hebrew language. These are my motivators – other Hebrew learner and users will have their own. And that plurality of passions, of course, is what makes the whole enterprise of teaching Hebrew possible.

Rena Dorph
Hebrew language unites Jews across time and space. From a practical standpoint, competence (a.k.a. proficiency) in Hebrew language is a critical gateway to engagement in Jewish life and learning, enabling full participation in Jewish cultural life (Wieseltier, 2011; Hazony, 2012). At the same time, development of Hebrew language proficiency seems a tall order for U.S. Jews. There are limited places to learn and practice the Hebrew language, and many of the existing offerings are ill-equipped for the complex task at hand: infusing U.S. Jews, including children, with the will and skill to learn and use Hebrew(s).

I am lucky. As a Jew who has lived in the United States for most of my life, I was able to gain Hebrew language fluency at an early age (by living in Israel for a year when I was 8). I have been relatively successful at maintaining Hebrew language proficiency through multiple immersive experiences, ongoing participation in Jewish ritual and community, and intermittent language study throughout my life. My passion for Hebrew(s) is fueled by the joy and meaning that Jewish living and learning bring to my life and the role that Hebrew(s) proficiency plays in allowing me to participate in it. I am driven to figure out ways to provide rich, immersive language acquisition and learning opportunities for my children and others like them (who live in the United States in the 21st Century).

Alex Pomson
It’s inspiring to hear about what fuels your passion for Hebrew. I imagine that others on this conversation can identify with these emotions and the commitments they produce.

I’m wondering, at this early stage in the conversation, if others have a sense of what impedes such passion from catching fire more broadly in the wider community.

If this is what motivates you, what troubles you? What, from your vantage point, has or does most challenge this field?

Elli Fischer
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
Two languages? Bilingual.
One language? American.

This hackneyed joke reminds us that American Jews are part of a broader culture that simply does not value multilingualism and has grown to expect everything worthy of consumption to be made available in English. Acquiring a language is simply not deemed worthy of the commitment of time, money, and intellectual energy that it demands.

This situation creates a vicious cycle - the less Hebrew American Jews know, the larger the market for translation. The more translation, the less of a need to know Hebrew. The ubiquity of Jewish culture within American culture more generally - for some reason, I keep coming back to Adam Sandler's Chanukah Song - further drains the desire to encounter Jewish culture in other languages, even Jewish languages (we can add Yiddish and Ladino to Hebrew for these purposes).

On one hand, as a translator, I make my living off of this reality. On the other hand, it is extremely frustrating to see how much of American Jewry consumes Judaism - be it cultural or religious practices or simply news about Israel - from secondary and tertiary sources. One of the things I love about Israel is the vibrancy and intensity of debate within its culture, religion, and politics. That is simply not coming through in English, and when it does, it is made to seem petty and squabbling.

One final cultural criticism: it is okay, בדיעבד, to consume Jewish culture in English. I have much greater concerns about cultural production and creativity. What passes for American Jewish literature today is very thinly Jewish. It's the experience of American suburbia sprinkled with, to paraphrase Cynthia Ozick, ten Jewish words to describe genitalia but none to describe Jewish learning.

Sharon Avni
I recognize that American monolingualism is still pervasive, but I think that American (Jews and non-Jews) are also becoming aware of the cognitive, social, economic and cultural benefits of multilingualism. In my suburban town outside of NYC, there are now many options for young children to learn Mandarin, Spanish and other "minority" languages in immersive early education environments. Yet, none of the local synagogues or community centers seem to have tapped into that market/desire that parents have for their children (and themselves) to be multilingual speakers and what the linguistic anthropologist, Elinor Ochs calls a "speaker of a culture." I wonder if passion is a function of branding. It makes me wonder what kind of ideologies, values, skills such a speaker would have in the Jewish context, and how learning Hebrew can be seen as a form of socialization into Jewishness/Judaism.

Vardit Ringvald
Alex, you are asking us to share what troubles us in “this field.”

What I am really concerned about is the fact that “teaching and learning Hebrew” in North America still cannot be considered a true “field.” A field is an academic discipline that relies on research and systematic application of knowledge in educational settings, as can be said of other fields of teaching second languages.

The current research about teaching and learning Hebrew is anecdotal and not systematic enough to support the work of a field. Currently there are efforts by academic institutions to build academic programs. Not all of these will result in contributions to the field, however. Only an academic degree that requires students to take part in the act of inquiry and a search to push the boundaries of the profession will support the building of a field.

Building the field is an urgent need. It is true that people and organizations passionate about Hebrew support the creation of excellent Hebrew programs within various educational frameworks. Without a true field, however, such efforts are not sustainable.

Another concern that I have is the decline in numbers of students enrolling in Modern Hebrew courses at the university level. This is troubling not only because fluency in Hebrew is needed in order to pursue different areas of study but also because it means that we cannot look to Hebrew programs to be our “recruitment pool” for future Hebrew educators.

Alex Pomson
Eli, Sharon and Vardit, thanks for weighing in.

Eli, you’re highlighting the broader cultural challenge. Sharon, you seem to suggest that the cultural winds have actually shifted in favor of Hebrew, but that the Jewish community has not seized the opportunities promised. Is that right?

Vardit, you seem to be bracketing out those forces, and point instead to a kind of systemic failure: there need to be institutions that support and sustain the field whatever the cultural milieu.

Are there are other factors and forces we haven’t mentioned yet?

Naomi Stillman
To borrow a phrase from my former life and health care research, the lack of passion for Hebrew is multifactorial.

Americans’ famous monolingualism is definitely not an advantage to Hebrew educators. I am less sure that branding per se is the answer – we have to look at actual results. Rosetta Stone is well-branded and appears incredibly successful, but how many people have actually mastered a language using it? Most folks I know who purchase it put it up on a shelf and there it stays. So branding may be useful, but it doesn’t on its own each languages effectively. And it is certainly imperative to professionalize Hebrew-as-a-second-language teaching, and I will speak to this a bit later in my post.

I think that one reason that has not been mentioned yet for declining interest in Hebrew is the change in attitude towards Israel and Zionism among American Jews. Jews who are ambivalent, antagonistic, or merely apathetic to the Zionist project are unlikely to see Hebrew as a key value. In this context, it’s instructive to look at the few instances in which American children successfully mastered Hebrew. Notable examples include Masad and other camps that functioned in Hebrew between the 1940s and the early 1970s and a few Jewish day schools in the 1960s and 70s. The founders and educators of these institutions were unwavering Zionists who were absolutely convinced of the inherent value of Hebrew. They insisted on and created immersive Hebrew environments for their charges.

The flip side is the generations-old burden of disdain towards Hebrew education and teachers among many American Jews. The negative depiction of the Hebrew school teacher in the Coen brother’s 2009 film A Serious Man is a painful but familiar example of this phenomenon. Generations of American children were forced to attend Hebrew school in what would otherwise have been free time and encountered teachers who were ineffective, culturally alien, or both. For these children, Hebrew was the vestige of an unwanted past and had no place in their lives. No wonder they developed negative attitudes which have been passed on to their children. This legacy lives on - when my own son was in the 4th grade at a Jewish day school, a classmate who hadn’t done his Hebrew homework told my son, “My mom said I don’t have to do it, Hebrew is a second string subject.”

Unfortunately, all too often Hebrew instruction continues to be haphazard and unprofessional – taught by teachers who are not professional second–language teachers, using an assortment of materials from here and there which are not linguistically sequential, intellectually engaging, or age-appropriate, and with no clear standards or goals for achievement.

Finally, it is difficult to articulate a compelling purpose for knowing Hebrew to students, parents, teachers, and school administration. Not only are the humanities in general suffering in our STEM-dazzled educational world, but Hebrew win particular has no shine. Arabic, OK. That will come in handy for politics and international commerce. The same for Chinese. But everyone knows that even the most successful Israeli entrepreneurs start their start-ups in English!

So what does ignite and sustain passion for Hebrew? I would suggest two elements that stand out even just in this blogcast. The first is positive early exposure to Hebrew at home or school, and the second is the feeling that you get something valuable from knowing Hebrew.

How can we provide these for our students?

Ideally, we should start early – in kindergarten or before. But no matter when we meet the students, the essential, the crucial thing, is to make Hebrew learning an experience of such high quality that it intrinsically rewards the learner.

Because we cannot rely on ardent Zionism and high-sounding ideals to motivate our students, we must provide well-trained, effective, professional Hebrew educators. Because the vast majority of day schools cannot provide (at least yet!) true Hebrew immersion, we must provide sound sequential and intellectually challenging curriculum and materials and adequate hours of instruction. All this requires extensive and ongoing professional development (both face-to-face and remote), ongoing mentoring of and work with teachers, ongoing curriculum development by experts in both language teaching and the uses of technology in teaching language, and assessment of the results - are students speaking and listening, reading and writing in Hebrew? Only via an effective and meaningful educational encounter with the language will students acquire the ability to argue and joke, sing and dream in Hebrew – and, in turn, to become passionate about Hebrew.

Are our students becoming both consumers of and participants in the Hebrew culture of their choice – Torah texts or the op-ed section of the Hebrew newspaper, Israeli cookbooks or the latest Israeli TV series, university lectures, or Tzahal acronyms. It’s our job to provide them with the tools to engage the culture – and their job to find their passion in it.

Rena Dorph
Many of the posts above also remind me of the important contribution that the learning sciences and motivational theories can make to filling in some of the picture about factors and forces. Kids and adults bring a whole host of affective "baggage" to their study of and engagement with the Hebrew language. The internalization of the cultural and social inputs that Naomi and others mentions as well as people's own family histories as well as an individual's own dispositions are present and influential when people approach Hebrew speaking, learning, listening.

So in answer to your question, Alex, a critical factor/force in this discussion is the affective soup that an individual brings to his/her engagement Hebrew(s). Is she excited to speak Hebrew? Does he feel a lot of pressure because he knows how important it is to his mother? Does she love languages? Is he planning a trip to Israel? Does she resent being in Hebrew school? Does he long to understand the words in traditional Jewish liturgy and text? Does she feel incompetent? Is he anxious because he doesn't understand what people are saying to him? Is she motivated to speak to a loved one who is Israeli? And so many more...

Naomi Stillman
To quote the title of the September issue of Educational Leadership - Motivation Matters

Alex Pomson
I can't resist jumping back in to keep in play Rena's comment about how the learning sciences and motivational theories help us understand what shapes the field.

We've racked up an account of so many factors and forces that complicate the work of Hebrew language education. Prompted by Rena's comment, i want to ask: in what other ways can research help us better understand (and meet) these challenges and complications?

Naomi Stillman
Here's a question. Many schools take their students to Israel - some in 8th grade and some in high school. Do these trips motivate Hebrew learning? If they do, do they mostly motivate pre-trip or post-trip learning - or both? Do they have lasting motivational impact, in which case the earlier trips will bring more benefit? Is there a difference in the reaction of younger and older students? What factors might impact Hebrew interest positively? Is there anything we can do to capitalize on these trips to advance Hebrew learning?

Elli Fischer
In response to Naomi's question, I'm going to state the obvious. Maybe returning to some first principles will shed some light.

Language is a means of communication. Mastering a language means acquiring the ability to communicate content that cannot otherwise be communicated or with a set of people with whom one cannot otherwise communicate effectively. Unless someone feels that they can be enriched (economically, culturally, religiously, socially) by that content or by that group of people, there will be no motive to acquire that vehicle of communication.

In that sense, an Israel trip (any Israel trip) presents students/tourists with the opportunity to see how their lives can be enriched by acquiring Hebrew. This casts the educational questions in a slightly different light: What sorts of Israeli experiences will tantalize students? What will leave them feeling like they are "missing out" by not understanding what they see or hear? The answers will obviously differ from student to student depending on a host of factors, but the experiences we give them should bear this question in mind. For some it might be the camaraderie between IDF soldiers of different ethnic and national backgrounds all communicating in Hebrew. For another it might be the cacophony of the shuk, for another, that of a beit midrash. To use current parlance, we're trying to generate FOMO.

Sharon Avni
To underscore what Vardit wrote, there is an urgent need for academic programs to build the field of Hebrew education. Without a core group of scholars who are actively researching and publishing, it is hard to address empirical questions such as the role of motivation in the Hebrew learning process or the role of homeland tourism in language learning/language socialization.

Ideally, an academic program needs to educate Hebrew instructors in the latest theories and methods of second language acquisition, so that graduates of these programs have the pedagogical content knowledge to be effective teachers in the variety of contexts in which Hebrew learning takes place in the US. Students in such a program would benefit tremendously from a university setting that has a strong Jewish education and general education program as well. I find that so much of language teaching is not only about how to plan lessons, teach a particular skill/proficiency and do assessments, but about how to think about learning a language in its wider cultural and social context. We need to see Hebrew teaching and learning as part and parcel of the broader trajectory of the schooling, socialization, and learning.

Finally, a strong academic program needs to develop and nurture future scholars in the field. How can we encourage more doctoral and graduate students to enter this "emerging" field and start to build a body of knowledge?

Alex Pomson
Sharon, that’s a compelling statement of what’s needed to build a field.

Let me float an idea. A kind of thought experiment…Imagine if young scholars could be drawn to this field by finding that really interesting research questions were waiting to be answered within a wide variety of disciplinary frameworks. This, after all, is a field that provides a chance for emerging scholars to make their names.

What might those research questions be?

Vardit Ringvald
Many of the questions mentioned above in relation to the teaching and learning of Hebrew are the same questions about which the field of second language acquisition has already produced a large body of research.

For the past several decades, this field has produced tools that are available for use by researchers and teachers. Research has covered topics such as, motivation (since 1972), attitudes towards language and culture, learner variables including how age may impact language acquisition, student and teacher beliefs, aptitude, the role of culture as a motivating power and measuring outcomes for all languages skills.

This research has also led to tools for measuring and understanding the ideal profile of the language educator and approaches to best training these educators.

What puzzles me is how little these instruments have been used for the benefit of learners and teachers of Hebrew. Why has this body of knowledge been ignored in what appears to be a systematic way?

Could there be some confusion about whether it is possible to view Hebrew in the same category as other foreign languages? Is this a result of the desire to teach the language primarily as a Jewish value, which tends to confuse knowledge about the language with the ability to fully function in the language, including speaking, listening, reading and writing? The ability to function in Hebrew will always play some role in any program. There appears to be a lack of understanding, however, about the balance required between knowledge about the language and the extent of actual Hebrew acquisition that would best contribute to shaping educated Jews and to strengthening their Jewish identity.

Naomi Stillman
Exactly. I came to Hebrew education after a career in clinical periodontics and clinical and public health research. When I started work in Jewish education my instinct was to do research, gather data, and acquire hard facts about Hebrew education. I learned fast that the variables involved in educational transactions are more numerous, more abstract, and more difficult to quantify than science or even many public health variables. And that knowing more about doesn't necessarily improve teaching and learning.

In 2005, AVI CHAI, our funders, commissioned The Henrietta Szold Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences in Jerusalem to conduct a three-year study of the NETA program. This was an ambitious study, whose objective was to test all the students in the program in all 4 language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension). Principals, Hebrew language coordinators and teachers completed questionnaires addressing multiple aspects of their experience with the NETA program. Finally, detailed rubrics were designed to capture school and teacher variables (number of hours of Hebrew instruction, student placement, Hebrew teacher educational background and training, preparation time given to teachers and more) and to correlate these with student achievement.

What did we learn?

We learned that the program “works” - there was a robust increase in student scores from level to level in all 4 language skills over the year. We learned that focused, intensive work with teachers pays off - In the year in which we worked intensively with teachers on cultivating student speaking skills there was such a big jump in speaking scores that the investigators called us to ask whether there had been some mistake.

But we also learned that there are limitations to what can be gleaned from such a study. None of the school or teacher variables were found to correlate with student achievement – apparently because of “the large number of inseparable variables”.

I won’t clog the blogcast with a detailed report on the methodology, data collected, and statistical correlations of the entire study. I will however reiterate that the number and abstract nature of variables in Hebrew education, and their complex relationship to each other, speak to the necessity for well-defined expectations, careful study design and rigorous interpretation of such research.

It would be most effective, I believe, to conduct close studies of specific areas. One such area, as I mentioned, could be the contribution of Israel trips to student motivation and even achievement. And I agree with Elli - there are many fruitful questions to be explored beyond what I initially listed.

A careful examination of ways to encourage successful Hebrew learning among students with various learning difficulties would be invaluable.

It would be profitable to look at teaching Hebrew writing – how best to do it? How can we leverage technology to help us if at all? When in the learning process should writing be emphasized?

In our collaboration with the Center for Educational Technology in Israel, we have developed hundreds of online interactive exercises for students. We would like to look at which are most effective – and even to compare, for example, whether there is an advantage to asking students to type in a response vs. selecting a response from a dropdown menu.

Translational medicine is a new discipline in medicine. It was created to “translate” medical research findings into practice. And that of course is the crux of the issue – how do we bring research from the right to the classroom where it matters?

Rena Dorph
So here's a starter list of some of the questions I think could guide some field building research (with the order being intentional--and the wording being colloquial--like not how I might phrase them for the academy):

Why Hebrew? What Hebrew? What is in the hearts and minds of North American Jews when they think of why they do or do not want to learn Hebrew. What is their motivation? What is their "baggage"? How do people's views about being Jewish and Israel fit into their thinking/feeling about Hebrew language learning?

Theory of Learning. What is our theory of learning related to Hebrew language learning in North America? How complicated is it? What are the forces and factors that play a role in Hebrew language acquisition and learning? What are the implications of that theory for Hebrew language educational practice? How does the social construction of the value of Hebrew language play out in this theory? What role does emotion and belief (of learner, of family, and of community) play?

How will we teach? What pedagogical approaches support Hebrew language acquisition/learning? for whom? under what conditions? What happens when pedagogy (best ways to support Hebrew language acquisition/learning) and ideology don't align?

Who will teach? How can the people who we have who are interested in and available to facilitate Hebrew language learning in Jewish learning settings do so well? What are the characteristics of good Hebrew educator? In what settings? With what students? Can non-fluent Hebrew speakers teach Hebrew language? If so, how? How can we build in opportunities to learn and develop into the expectations for teachers, ongoing.

pearl mattenson  Added by: CASJE
What a generative conversation! thanks all. I want to harken back to Elli's comment about language as communication. I would love some research that explores who the Hebrew language learner has in their orbit to be in relationship with and how that affects their motivation to communicate. This will necessarily shift with age, context, etc. Are there family members? Friends made on Israel trips? Shinshinim? If we know more about this can we be more intentional about creating the conditions that engender motivation to learn?

Naomi Stillman
Big conceptual questions often lead to big conceptual answers that don’t necessarily effect change in schools. Smaller, more focused questions will feed more directly into teaching practice. For example, we already have quite a bit of information on Why Hebrew. We know that motivations vary from community to community, from school to school, and from individual to individual. But we don’t know what works best to motivate the unmotivated. We could consider researching some concrete “interventions” – for example, do Hebrew films and/or songs advance Hebrew learning? While it will be hard to separate the motivational effect of an intervention from its strictly educational effect (i.e., did a student’s Hebrew improve because visiting Israel motivated her to study harder back home, or because she actually acquired lots of new words in Israel?), we can learn a lot from “experiments” like this.

As to teaching and teachers – improving Hebrew instruction has been our core emphasis for over a decade. We have learned a lot, and know the many constraints on growing a robust pool of effective, devoted, and professional Hebrew language teachers. Many of the issues affect education generally, or Jewish education generally. Some are Hebrew-specific issues. Research questions could include how to encourage individual teachers and groups of teachers to invest in their own professional development and what types of professional training, development and mentoring are most effective and efficient in an environment which is often unfriendly to such sustained efforts.