Free classes to teach basic Hebrew literacy

While students can't expect to read their way through an Israeli newspaper, they will become more comfortable following along in synagogue.

"Students will learn the alphabet and be able to put words together," said volunteer Sarah Joelson, who will teach five 90-minute sessions beginning Wednesday, Nov. 4 at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, where she is a member. "Understanding the words, that's another story. But it's better than nothing, for sure."

The Read Hebrew America program is based on the National Jewish Outreach Program's NJOP's "Hebrew Reading Crash Course," which since 1987, has taught more than 105,000 North American Jews to read Hebrew.

Still, an estimated 80 percent of all North American Jews do not know how to read Hebrew, according to the NJOP. The course materials are designed for Jews with little or no background in Hebrew.

"I hope it will open up the door for people to learn Hebrew," said Dottie Miller, director of the Council on Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, which is coordinating four South Bay sites.

Rabbi Shmuel Jablom, associate headmaster of South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, where classes begin Tuesday, said: "It's never too late to get on a track of Jewish study. It's a tremendously empowering thing to be able to read from a prayerbook. Being literate in Hebrew gives someone increased access and comfort in Jewish study and in the synagogue."

Shulamit Ziberfarb, a former teacher in Israel whose child is enrolled in the Sunnyvale day school, has volunteered to teach five sessions at the school.

The program, said Jablom, "gives people who always wanted to learn Hebrew an opportunity and a feeling that they are not alone. They are part of a community of thousands of adults who want to know more about their heritage, language and culture."

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad of the East Bay agreed. He will teach for five weeks starting Tuesday evening.

"Hebrew literacy is key in involving people in Jewish life," he said. "When services are in Hebrew, it's nice to know what things mean in the original language."

Should there be a demand, San Francisco's Congregation Beth Israel-Judea plans to continue free classes through December, following already-scheduled sessions beginning Monday, Nov. 2.

"Many Jews who don't know Hebrew have a feeling of inadequacy when they attend services," said the synagogue's cantor, Henry Greenberg, who has signed on as an instructor. "They would enjoy services a lot more if they could follow the Hebrew."