How Hebrew comes to life in day schools through talk, play

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Alana Honig didn't always study Hebrew as part of her school day. She used to go to Hebrew classes after school.

It was an unqualified dud.

"It was boring," said the 14-year-old. "I hated it. They tried to smush too much Hebrew into two hours. Then, I came here, and it felt like my real community."

Here is Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito. Like other Jewish day schools in the Bay Area and throughout the country, Tehiyah prizes the teaching of Hebrew and features it prominently during the school day.

"It's not black and white anymore, it's all in color," said Marit Shmargard, head of Jewish studies at San Mateo's Jewish Day School of the Northern Peninsula. "They live the language, they smell the language. You'll see them doing everything but sitting."

That might come as a surprise to baby boomers, who probably remember Hebrew school as a medicinal dose of afterschool instruction, seemingly designed to instill resentment in children who might otherwise be joining pals at play.

But the teaching of Hebrew has changed dramatically. The new method even has a moniker: It's called language immersion.

Conversational and biblical Hebrew are valued equally and taught through active, not passive, methods. Advocates say students are not only gaining a love of their heritage and international communication skills but the equipment to excel in secular learning.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, dean of San Francisco's Hebrew Academy, said those changes are all for the better. "In the late afternoon or evening, children are tired," he said. "They see the other kids going to play ball. It should be part of school, part of life."

And it should be lively, he added.

Lipner brings in guest speakers, like the San Francisco Superior Court judge who engaged an eighth grade class in a "sophisticated, relevant discussion" about Jewish law — in Hebrew.

"They loved it," Lipner said.

Across the bay on teacher Tsiporah Gabai's desk, a dumbek, tambourines, Hebrew books and a shofar compete for space over a pile of papers. The classroom walls are decorated with ceramic plates, crocheted shawls, menus, posters, and all manner of things cultural from Morocco and Eastern Europe.

"We learn Hebrew in Hebrew," said Gabai, who heads the Hebrew Language Department at Tehiyah Day School.

For example, after studying the Book of Ruth in biblical Hebrew, students will read about the Palace of Versailles and the Grand Canyon in modern Hebrew.

They write menus for imaginary restaurants. They rap and compose songs. They read the paper and engage in robust political discussions — all in Hebrew.

"I've been here for nine years and I've definitely learned a ton of Hebrew," said Maya Guendelman, 14. "We don't learn that much from books, it's more conversational."

Even first and second graders learn Hebrew in the immersion method. "We create a visual environment so it's all around them," said Gabai. Language is supported by visual displays, reading stations and music in the background. The children learn prayers, blessings and poems, even sing and play-act in Hebrew.

And the teachers, once in the classroom, speak only in Hebrew to the students.

"In class, I don't understand a word of English," Gabai said with a smile. "You don't talk about the lesson in English, you talk about the lesson in Hebrew."

Studies at Stanford, Georgetown and San Jose State universities show the immersion method is far more effective at teaching language than what Gabai calls "the sitting, starting, taking notes" method.

She added with a smile, "I have to have a little action, too."

Public schools have also embraced immersion education. Spurred by impressive research, school districts in San Francisco, Tiburon, San Mateo and Healdsburg, among others, have developed alternative schools in which students learn in Spanish and Chinese.

Brandeis Hillel Day School Marin Campus is adopting TaL Am and TaL Sela, the immersion curriculum used by Tehiyah.

But in enacting change, Jewish schools are encountering challenges as well. Parents at first fear that "too much Hebrew" may, like the eucalyptus tree, overshadow other subjects in bloom.

"We have to assure our parents that our program is not missing anything," said Dr. Henry Schreibman, dean of the Brandeis Hillel Marin Campus.

As with public and private secular schools that teach second languages in the lively style, teachers come up against a scarcity of materials and texts. And teachers must be specially trained to engage students in the second language using a variety of stimuli. Often, that means inventing as they go along.

TaL Am is a total immersion curriculum for the first and second grades. TaL Sela provides a near-total curriculum for third, fourth and fifth grades. But for the middle school students at Tehiyah, Gabai and the teaching staff have had to create a curriculum.

"If the students don't understand, use your hands, jump, act it out, sing, bring materials with you," Gabai said. The typically engaging immersion method has produced dramatic results since Tehiyah adopted it five years ago, she said.

"We don't let them get used to speaking in English. They no longer translate word by word. By the time they get to middle school, they know enough that they can really converse."

Small class size helps. At Northern Peninsula, that means 17 to 19 per class.

"Let me tell you, it makes it easier," Shmargard said. "They hear us and we hear them."

Beyond the classroom, the benefits of a strong Hebrew program include tighter bonds between generations: For many families, Hebrew bridges a gap between child and grandparent, or family in Israel.

"I go to Israel every other summer and I can talk to my grandparents," said Tehiyah graduate Tali Sendowski.

Teachers say language fluency also tightens the circle around the broader Jewish family. That matters in today's classrooms, where Soviet emigres study alongside South American transplants, where students from the Middle East sit with classmates born and raised in California.

But the modern method serves an ancient purpose: religious study.

Eighth graders at Torah Academy in Mountain View can read, write, speak, pray, and analyze in fluent Hebrew. They read passages in the Torah and the commentaries — without vowels. And even the seventh graders can read two chapters of the Talmud.

"I believe the first priority is learning to read the Torah," said Rabbi Yosef Levin of the Torah Academy. "The mystical teachings tell us each letter represents an emanation of God's light, so, therefore, when they learn the language, they are already learning Torah."

By reading in Hebrew without the English translation, students discover that the Bible does not say, "Thou shalt not kill," but "Thou shalt not murder." That Eve gave Adam "the fruit," not an apple. And that Jonah was swallowed not by a whale but by "a big fish."

"That's quite a difference," Gabai said. "Learning the language is more than learning words. It's understanding for yourself the meaning" of a passage.

"When you read the Torah in English, you miss a lot," said high-school student Gavriela Kipnis, who attended Tehiyah. "We studied the Book of Ruth in Hebrew. When I go to a bar or bat mitzvah, I can follow along with the whole service."

Learning a new language "in itself is stimulating to the mind," added Levin. Beyond that, "the thought process of Torah study is very deep, the Talmud very logical," he said. "It promotes high-level thinking. You have to truly understand it, you can't fudge it. And that helps with other subjects."

Said Hillel's Schreibman, "Exposure to a second language at an early age permits new channels to open up in the brain for language acquisition, promotes strength in math, music, language arts,"

Parents of today's students seem to welcome the new approach to Hebrew instruction.

"It's completely different," said Michelle Lerman, whose children attend Brandeis Hillel in Marin. "We all hated Hebrew. It was dull. But the way it's taught now relates to the kids. It's completely integrated into their day."

In fact, if yesterday's students were commanded to leave their personal lives at the door, today's students are encouraged to bring themselves along to the study of Hebrew — to write poetry, memoirs and descriptive essays.

Hebrew Academy teacher Ruthie Rosenwald remembers the boy who, in his new second language, "wrote a beautiful story about how his parents first met." Such an exercise helps make the language lesson more meaningful, she said.

Parents say they are astonished at how quickly the children become conversant. "My daughter Lindsey's biggest disappointment is that when she graduates from Brandeis-Hillel, she will not have the option of continuing Hebrew at her Marin high school," said Robin Meisel.

"They learn the language through interactive play," she added, "not through rote methods, as I did."

"Everyone tells me of their gloomy memories of Hebrew school," Shmargard said. "Sometimes I see those old schoolbooks, and I think, 'Oh my God, how could they learn from such books?' Believe me, we are having fun."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.