Hebrew unlocks doors, says rabbi who started literacy drive

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of Israel's founding, 1998 has been declared "the year of Hebrew literacy" by a panel of Jewish leaders that includes Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar; and Rabbi Seymour Essrog, incoming president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international governing body of the Conservative rabbinate.

Why bother to learn Hebrew, one might ask? "It has been used for 4,000 years, and Hebrew is our link with our ancestors," says Golinkin, a man in his late 70s who has been rabbi emeritus since 1986 at Columbia, Md.'s Conservative Beth Shalom Congregation.

"It's our link with all Jewish people around the world," he says of Hebrew. "We want the Jewish people to continue. We need a bridge to the future."

Being able to read Hebrew prayers helps Jews "feel like insiders," says Cantor Abraham Golinkin, the rabbi's son who helps his father with the project. "Hebrew is the key that unlocks the doors of Judaism."

Sitting in his spacious home office in Columbia, surrounded by piles of paper arranged on collapsible tables, the rabbi speaks of his achievements with pride tempered by modesty. One minute he's showing letters of praise from colleagues, then moments later he's worried about sounding too boastful.

Over the centuries, Jews have always been a highly literate people, the rabbi says. Every Jew was able to read Hebrew — even Jews who otherwise weren't well educated could read a prayerbook and the Psalms in Hebrew, he says.

However, he believes that with the increasing emphasis on higher secular education in Jewish families, interest in Hebrew literacy has diminished.

Throughout the nation, congregation-sponsored Hebrew classes were poorly attended, he says. "If you had a class of 25 in a congregation of 1,000, it was considered a big achievement."

While serving Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Arlington, Va., from 1950 to 1965, Golinkin says he challenged his congregation. One month in 1962, he left his popular newsletter column completely blank, with a small note at the bottom of the space indicating the column would return as soon as the membership got serious about learning Hebrew.

At a subsequent brainstorming session in his home, he came up with the slogan, "Those who cannot read must learn. Those who can read must teach."

The congregation began offering 12-week sessions, taught by fellow congregants, aimed at teaching participants to read the entire Friday night service in Hebrew. So that no one could use scheduling conflicts as an excuse for not enrolling, classes were offered two or three times a day, six days a week. As an extra incentive to complete the course, graduates were asked to lead services on Friday nights.

In 1965, Golinkin left Arlington-Fairfax to be the founding director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington. Three years later, he implemented a nondenominational Hebrew literacy campaign in the Washington, D.C., area.

He returned to the Baltimore-Washington area in 1978 to become the rabbi at Beth Shalom. That was when he saw his opportunity to take the Hebrew literacy campaign to the national level.

That year, the Conservative movement issued an updated edition of its prayerbook, Sim Shalom. Conservative rabbis were asked to make suggestions on how to increase participation in services, and Golinkin wrote an article in a Rabbinical Assembly newsletter saying that without widespread Hebrew literacy, participation in services was not likely to increase.

The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, an organization of the Conservative movement, stepped up to sponsor a nationwide effort. The organization asked Golinkin to recommend a good textbook. Since he couldn't find one suitable for adults, he wrote one, "Shalom Aleichem ."

In the mid-1980s, the rabbi created an intensive program that he dubbed "the Hebrew Reading Marathon." The 120-page text for that course, "While Standing On One Foot," appeared in 1987.

Golinkin and his wife, Dvorah, travel the country teaching the eight-hour crash course in synagogues. In addition to their good humor and etymological insights, they include exercise breaks and lots of snacks to keep students' spirits high.

In 1995 and 1996, the Reform movement in Canada invited Golinkin to train a group of teachers, who later conducted simultaneous Hebrew marathons in 12 Canadian cities on Israel Independence Day.

Essrog, spiritual leader of the Beth Shalom Congregation in Carroll County, calls Rabbi Golinkin "a modern-day Eliezer Ben- Yehuda," in reference to the founder of modern Hebrew.

"He's a passionate supporter and advocate for the reading of Hebrew, and he's been very successful," says Essrog.