Hebrew Language Education
Since its launch in 2013, CASJE has devoted sustained effort to laying the intellectual foundations for stimulating improvement in the teaching and learning of Hebrew in North America. This effort was directed, first, toward gaining a better understanding of core problems in the field of Hebrew language education, and, second, to formulating the contours and content of a program of applied research program to address those problems and improve the teaching and learning of Hebrew in significant ways. Laying the intellectual foundations for this effort, CASJE commissioned a briefing paper, Purposes and Practices of Israel/Hebrew Education: Towards a Joint Agenda for Applied Research. CASJE then brought together thought leaders to respond to the central ideas in the paper in a live video discussion.
In Fall 2014, CASJE convened a group of front-line practitioners, researchers interested in Hebrew teaching and learning, and foundations that support this sector, for two discussions about issues facing the field: a day-long in-person “Problem Formulation Convening,” and a week-long online Blogcast: Teaching and Learning Hebrew - Let's Talk About It. CASJE’s primary goals in all four of these endeavors were to gain a better understanding of core problems that would benefit from a robust and systematic program of applied research, and to begin formulating a series of questions that might guide such a program over time. Out of these conversations, CASJE published a resource, Hebrew Language Education: Questions from Convenings and Conversations, a distillation of the central issues and questions that emerged. These questions - about why and what Hebrew, when and where Hebrew should be taught, how, and who should teach Hebrew - establish the contours for a program of research with potential to improve the teaching and learning of Hebrew in significant ways.
- Download Reports & Resources
In March 2015, CASJE presented at the North American Jewish Day School Conference. The conversation was built on the Blogcast. The above resource, which summarized the Blogcast, was shared with the conference session attendees.
Despite decades of major investment in Hebrew language education in North America, scholars in the field still have only a vague sense of the drivers, nuances, and outcomes of the effort. What motivates North American Jews to learn Hebrew? How do Jewish identity and views on Israel relate to Hebrew language learning? What can we learn about Hebrew language acquisition in different contexts over time? How should Hebrew be taught, and by whom?
CASJE's three-part literature review series on Hebrew education explores what recent research about heritage, second, and foreign language learning means for the teaching and learning of Hebrew. These reviews built on previous CASJE work in Hebrew Language Education.
Literature Review 1: Implications of Heritage Language Research for Hebrew Teaching and Learning
Conducted by Dr. Avital Feuer, University of Maryland
This first review in the series, Implications of Heritage Language Research for Hebrew Teaching and Learning, shows the many personal and external factors that influence heritage, second, and foreign language learning and demonstrates that Jewish educators would be helped by more significant research on the subject.
- Key Findings
Home and Family Matters: Parental use of the heritage language at home encourages students’ language maintenance; Feuer recommends studying the ways Hebrew is used in the home and the attitudes toward Hebrew that children observe or mimic.
School and Educational Influences: School structure and learning goals, whether explicit or not, are important in shaping students’ educational experiences.
Other External Influences: Strong relationships with relatives in the country of origin positively affected willingness to use and maintain the heritage language. Similarly, return trips to the country of origin increased the likelihood that students would use the language, gain advanced proficiency and feel positively toward it.
Literature Review 2: Contributions of Second/Foreign Language Learning Scholarship to Identity Development and Hebrew Education
Conducted by Dr. Sharon Avni, City University of New York (CUNY)
The second review in the series, Contributions of Second/Foreign Language Learning Scholarship to Identity Development and Hebrew Education, looks closely at how second/foreign language acquisition relates to learners’ identity development and their relationships with various cultures, groups and communities. New research focused specifically on Hebrew learning would help Jewish educators understand how their learners both relate to and are influenced by Hebrew.
- Key Findings and Questions
Intergroup Relations and Motivation: How a learner feels about being a part of “target language” community may determine her or his language learning success. Moreover, successful second language learning is not necessarily about being internally motivated, but about a person’s access (or lack thereof) to social networks in which they can use the language. For learners, investment in the target language is also an investment in their identity, which constantly changes over time and across contexts.
If American Jews are learning modern Hebrew to identify and connect with the target language group (i.e., Israelis), further research could explore 1) how different Hebrew language learning conditions facilitate or hinder this connection? 2) Is Hebrew the only or best way to facilitate this connection? 3) In what ways do some members of Israeli communities accept or marginalize non-native Hebrew language use or facilitate Americans’ attempts to learn and use Modern Hebrew?
Context and Culture: Foreign/second language novices are socialized through language to become familiar with their community’s ways of thinking, feeling, and acting in the world. Through language they learn about a community’s values, beliefs, and ideologies, a process called “second language socialization.”
This research shows that while some learners may achieve “success,” others may experience ambivalence, resistance to or rejection of the target language culture or community. Thus, future research might explore the relationship between language learning and the process of identifying as a member of a particular community: In what ways are Hebrew language learners—whether learning through social media, preschools, day and sleepaway camps—socialized to think about what it means to become a “speaker of [Jewish] culture”? In what way does the teaching of Hebrew as a second language socialize American youth into particular ways of thinking about themselves as Jews?
Language Repertoires and Performance: Language teachers and learners are engaged in a performance with an audience of spectators in the classroom and with a broader global audience that may not be physically present, but who also either reject or affirm the learners’ new knowledge. One study examines how Israeli shlichim families in the United States learn to recognize and mock Americans’ non-Israeli pronunciations of Hebrew, thereby allowing Israelis to reinforce and blur the boundaries between Israeli and American Jews. By doing so, the shlichim families can claim Israeli authenticity.
Literature Review 3: Learning Hebrew as a Second or Foreign Language: Issues of Directionality, Orthography, and Metalinguistic Awareness
Conducted by Dr. Chad Walker, University of Southern California
The third Literature Review, Learning Hebrew as a Second or Foreign Language: Issues of Directionality, Orthography, and Metalinguistic Awareness, looks closely at recent literature on the Hebrew writing system—as well as other languages—and discusses the ;unique complexities of acquiring Hebrew and its right-to-left (RTL) writing system in today’s world filled mostly with languages that are read left-to-right and whose characters and correct spelling differ significantly from Hebrew’s.
- Highlights from the Review
When assessing Hebrew reading comprehension and writing, account for Hebrew being a “homographic” language, meaning that because words are largely based on three-letter roots, groups of words look very similar to each other. Educators should thus pay attention to the use of vowels in the early stages of reading to help with the identification of isolated words and texts. Research shows that for learners of Arabic, clear (i.e., pointed) vowels can be beneficial even for skilled readers.
Hebrew language educators should look for areas where reading accuracy may not correlate well with reading comprehension. Because of Hebrew’s root system, a learner may comprehend a word or text, while not knowing how to pronounce it correctly due to the possible ambiguity or lack of vowels being used. Or, in the opposite scenario, a very small percentage of readers — so-called “word callers” — may be able to read a written text quite fluently but not understand it at a similar level.
The learners’ first language—English for most Americans—can influence their ability to attain proficiency in their second language. English’s vastly different characteristics from Hebrew, including direction, use of vowels, and makeup of words, poses challenges. For example, when a learner’s first language is read left-to-right, that individual will have spatial biases toward the left side of space and thus generally follow a left-to-right direction in how they perceive and produce. Native readers of a RTL language will have a stronger tendency to scan and process information in a right-to-left direction.
To advance its mission to promote research that can make a difference to how Jewish education is practiced, CASJE established a Small Grants Program. Historically tied to the Areas of Focus, but expanded in recent years, the CASJE Small Grants Program has provided researchers in Jewish Education small grants between $10,000 - $36,000 to use towards studies of Jewish educational processes and outcomes.
CASJE has supported two Small Grants project focusing on Hebrew Language Education:
- Mapping Hebrew Education in Public Schools: A Resource for Hebrew Educators
- Let’s Stop Calling it Hebrew School: Rationales, Goals, and Practices of Hebrew Education in Part-Time Jewish Schools
Sharon Avni and Avital Karpman
In the past decade, there has been a resurgence in the study of Hebrew in traditional and charter public schools. However, the types of schools teaching Hebrew and the demographics of students studying Hebrew do not resemble those of earlier iterations of public school Hebrew programs that trace back to the early 20th century. Although the majority of Hebrew programs still disproportionately serve Jewish students, many schools in urban and suburban districts across the country are teaching Hebrew to students from diverse racial, religious, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds. This project set out to take measure of these programs and provide some baseline information about Hebrew teaching in public schools in 2018 by investigating their demographics, instructional approaches, and language learning objectives.
Two questions guided this project:
- What is the current picture of Hebrew instruction in US public schools regarding enrollment, materials, program structures, and teacher demographics?
- What are the learning goals of Hebrew language programs? What challenges do schools face in reaching these goals?
- Key Findings from the Study
- The number of students learning Hebrew in American public schools is growing. Most of the growth is in Hebrew charter schools; however, traditional public high school programs also report steady and increasing enrollments. One of the largest impediments to increasing high school enrollments is the lack of Hebrew class options in middle schools.
- Proficiency in Hebrew varies tremendously among students at the high school level. 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 teacher to engage in extreme versions of differential teaching.
- High school teachers report that the Hebrew class represents a different type of space than other foreign/world language classrooms. It is a place where Jewish students can be together, and it is perceived as a less stressful and more comfortable subject than other academic courses.
- Finding qualified and (in the case of traditional and some charter schools) state certified teachers is a major problem. Additionally, in charter schools, finding teachers who are committed to staying in a school long-term is an issue. Veteran teachers, who made up the largest group interviewed in this study, are concerned about being able to retire and/or leaving their programs without a teacher because it would essentially end the program.
- The Hebrew class does more than cover the Hebrew language. Hebrew teachers also teach (mostly in English) about the Holocaust and Israel. While there is no common Israel curriculum, almost all of the teachers reported not covering the geopolitical realities of the Middle East and refraining from discussing politics. Topics usually focus on food, geography, types of communities, cities, and “start-up nation” information.
- Most high school teachers develop their own curriculum. Materials include a combination of teacher-created worksheets and books used in day schools and in ulpan programs designed for immigrants in Israel. There is no published material specifically designed for Hebrew teaching in public schools.
- Charter schools report teaching Hebrew for one period and integrating Hebrew throughout other classes, but this integration is not structured or assessed. Middle and high school students at traditional public schools are exposed to Hebrew learning only during the Hebrew period. There are no fully immersive programs in which children are taught in Hebrew in all content areas, nor are there any dual language (two-way immersion) programs in which half the students are Hebrew-only speakers and the other half are English-speaking.
- Some middle and high schools offer Israel and/or Hebrew clubs. These clubs are not always taught by the Hebrew teacher, and the content of these clubs is detached from the Hebrew class curriculum. Jewish students attend after-school programs run by local Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), Chabad, and other Jewish organizations, both on campus and in other locations.
- High school programs use various formative and summative assessment methods. Programs may use the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) guidelines, offer classes or tracks in International Baccalaureate (IB) Hebrew, or employ state-run or private proficiency testing programs (for example, Avant STAMP).
- Schools have divergent and overlapping goals for teaching Hebrew. Some goals are ideological and symbolic, such as strengthening a connection to Israel and cultivating students who can become adults who positively represent Israel. Other goals are pragmatic, such as offering students a credential on their high school transcripts, or cultural, such as increasing intercultural competence. Some high school teachers position their programs as a form of Jewish education within the public school setting so that Jewish children can have opportunities to study together. In Hebrew charter schools, teachers recognize that families have chosen to enroll their children to have access to academically rigorous and safer schools. This divergence means that teachers, administrators, and students do not always share the same goals. It also makes it difficult to assess and evaluate the learning outcomes of Hebrew programs.
- Reflections from the Authors
Sarah Bunin Benor, Netta Aveniri, Nicki Greninger
This study investigated how Hebrew is taught and perceived at American part-time Jewish schools (also known as supplementary schools, religious schools, and Hebrew schools). Phase 1 consisted of a survey of 519 school directors around the United States, focusing on rationales, goals, teaching methods, curricula, and teacher selection. Phase 2 involved brief classroom observations at 12 schools and stakeholder surveys (376 total) at 8 schools with diverse approaches. These observations and stakeholder surveys were intended to determine how teachers teach, use, and discuss Hebrew; how students respond; how students, parents, clergy, and teachers perceive their program; and these constituencies’ rationales and goals for Hebrew education.
- Download the Surveys
- Key Findings from the Study
- Most schools emphasize decoding (sounding out letters to form words) and recitation of Liturgical and Biblical Hebrew without comprehension for the purpose of ritual participation. Many schools also incorporate some Modern Hebrew, but only a small percentage teach Modern Hebrew conversation through immersive teaching techniques.
- In addition, most schools practice Hebrew infusion—the incorporation of Hebrew words, songs, and signs into the primarily English environment. The (unstated) goal of infusion is to foster a metalinguistic community of Jews who value Hebrew. This is reflected in the high importance of affective goals—such as associating Hebrew with Jewishness and feeling personally connected to Hebrew—for all constituencies, especially school directors.
- A major challenge in Hebrew education is the small number of “contact hours” that most schools have with their students. On average, schools spend 3.9 hours per week with 6th graders, including 1.7 hours on Hebrew. Multiple stakeholders consider this limited time the most significant challenge. Even schools on the high end of contact hours wish they had more time.
- School directors, clergy, teachers, parents, and students have diverse rationales and goals for Hebrew education, which at times can create tensions. School directors believe parents are only or primarily interested in bar/bat mitzvah preparation. This is true for many parents, but some parents also have other goals for their children, including gaining conversational Hebrew skills. Parents and students value Hebrew for reasons besides bar/bat mitzvah more than school directors and clergy expect them to.
- School directors express less interest in some Modern Hebrew-related goals than do parents and other constituents. Perhaps this reflects school directors’ more realistic sense of what is possible with limited contact hours.
- Students generally express positive feelings about their school and learning Hebrew. Their responses suggest that schools are generally succeeding in affective goals more than school directors believe.
- School directors are more likely to feel they are accomplishing goals that are important to them when certain factors are present: when they have been in their positions longer, when they have realistic goals based on the contact hours they have, when their schools do much of their Hebrew learning in small groups, and when their schools assign a small amount of homework.
- Many schools have trouble finding teachers with sufficient Hebrew knowledge, as well as teachers with adequate pedagogical skills for teaching Hebrew.
- Schools are making changes in opposite directions. Some schools are adding more Modern Hebrew instruction; others are shifting their focus solely to Textual Hebrew.
- Hebrew Through Movement and other elements of #OnwardHebrew have become popular. Many school directors consider these approaches successful.
- Online Hebrew learning is gaining some traction. Online options include gamified activities and one-on-one Skype/FaceTime tutoring sessions (this study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic). School directors generally feel that these individualized and technologically based approaches are effective.
- Many school directors and teachers are not aware of the resources for Hebrew education in part-time Jewish schools.
- Recommendations from the Study
- Initiate a comprehensive process of collaborative visioning regarding rationales, goals, and practices involving teachers, clergy, parents, and students.
- Make explicit the primacy of affective goals and expand Hebrew infusion practices to accomplish those goals.
- To teach decoding, spend less class time in large groups and more time in one-on-one and small-group configurations.
- With parent buy-in, offer a small amount of gamified homework.
- Offer multiple tracks or an enrichment option for families interested in conversational Hebrew.
- Change the informal nomenclature to stop using the misnomer “Hebrew school,” except where Hebrew language proficiency is the primary focus.
In addition, the nationwide and regional educational infrastructure should offer more funded online training for teachers, information sharing, and consulting and training for school directors.
Connection, Not proficiency: Survey of Hebrew at North American Jewish Summer Camps (2016)
Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni
The report, from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, funded in part by CASJE, offers an unprecedented look at the many ways, to what degree, and the reasons why Hebrew is incorporated at Jewish overnight camps across North America. Connection, not Proficiency: Survey of Hebrew at North American Jewish Summer Camps surveys the experiences and opinions of camp directors at 103 camps. As the report shows, the overwhelming majority of these camps are deeply invested in using Hebrew to connect their campers to their camps’ traditions, to Israel and to Jewish peoplehood.
The survey report is part of a larger study of Hebrew at North American Jewish Summer Camps conducted by Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni, the results of which were published as a book (Rutgers University Press, 2020). Beginning with pilot research in 2012 and culminating in 2015, the study involved observation at 36 camps around North America, interviews and focus groups with about 200 staff members and campers, archival research, and document review, in addition to the survey whose findings are presented in this report. The study is a project of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, with funding from CASJE and additional support from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and City University of New York. Initial seed funding was provided by a Wexner Foundation Alumni Collaboration grant.
Hebrew Infusion co-authors and National Jewish Book Award winners:Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, Sharon Avni in conversation with Riv Ellen Prell, Shaul Kelner, moderated by Jon Levisohn.
Tuesday, 5/4/2021, 3:00pm - 4:00pm
Featuring Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni, this webinar featured an engaging conversation on Hebrew, camp, and American Jewish life.
Thursday, 8/27/2020, All day
Hebrew at the Center and CASJE present new research on how camps came to infuse Hebrew in creative ways, their rationales, and the history of infusing Hebrew.