Teach your children well &mdash through Hebrew lessons

“Speak the language of the Hebrewman,” singer Ehud Banai suggests in his song “Hebrewman.”

Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, is a gateway to the rest of Jewish education and practice, from intense study of classic texts and tefillot to a firmer connection both with Eretz Yisrael and with Israelis.

Today’s synagogues are responsible for educating their congregants in the tongue of our ancestors. They might do so by teaching their congregants vocabulary and the structure of the Hebrew language and by holding services in Hebrew.

Proficiency in Hebrew can intensify the study of Jewish texts and commentaries in Hebrew. Students enrolled in a strong synagogue Hebrew program from an early age should be able to accurately read and translate a line from the Chumash by the time they reach seventh grade.

Synagogues should implement an educational system that emphasizes loshon kodesh, the Hebrew in which the Tanach is written, as well as modern Hebrew. Consistent, focused lessons that cover vocabulary, verb constructions, verb tenses and conjugations further students’ understanding of Hebrew. Classroom immersion, especially for young children, can effectively reinforce information because it simultaneously allows for absorption of new knowledge while solidifying what students already know.

Study of traditional tefillot is also an apropos subject; students often find it important to pray in Hebrew. Understanding the prayers is instrumental in an individual’s development of a prayer-based relationship with HaShem. Therefore, synagogues, as houses of prayer, should promote studying both text and prayer as significant parts of a Hebrew curriculum.

Another way for synagogues to amplify students’ exposure to Hebrew is by conducting tefillah in Hebrew. A siddur with a translation is undoubtedly useful; however, the actual tefillah should be in Hebrew.

One may disagree with this idea and propose that it is better to conduct prayers purely in English in order to increase congregants’ comprehension. Although this perspective holds merit, since comprehension is undeniably essential in infusing prayer with kavana (intent), this approach fails to consider the importance of using traditional liturgy. The traditional tefillot are in the siddur for a reason. The tefillot have distinct rhythms and sequences. We say many of them in place of korbanot (sacrifices) and other older Jewish rituals.

While spontaneous prayer does not necessarily have to be in Hebrew, in an organized minyan, tefillot should be in Hebrew. To expand congregants’ comprehension, synagogues should offer separate discussions that specifically focus on the meanings and symbolisms of the prayers. This allows congregants to develop insight into the meanings of the words they say while praying in Hebrew, which can allow these individuals to connect more fully with the prayers and with God.

Furthermore, if individuals comprehend the prayers’ meanings, they may attend synagogue more frequently. Many people have little appreciation for tefillah because they do not understand its meaning. If congregants learn the meaning of the prayers, services may become more meaningful for them.

Constant use of the prayers imprints on congregants’ minds the beauty of the tefillot; it encourages them to identify with key words and prayers.

Another practical reason to use more Hebrew is to teach everyday words used in modern Israel. Proficiency in Hebrew allows for more effective communication with Israelis, as well as a deeper affiliation with Eretz Yisrael. Although English is fairly common there, knowing Hebrew prior to entering the land is a definite advantage. Hebrew is an essential element of everyday life in Israel. Knowing Hebrew provides one with a leg up into Israeli culture, societal norms, and political issues. Since many synagogues send congregants (especially teenagers) on tours to Israel, a strong Hebrew program can enrich the congregant’s ability to converse more easily in Hebrew and to connect better with Israelis.

If synagogues accept this challenge to provide a higher level of both biblical and modern Hebrew for their congregants, then, be’ezrat HaShem, all congregants will be able to “speak the language of the Hebrewman!”

Shira LeVine, 16, attends Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto. She enjoys learning Torah, poetry, talking on the phone and discussing Jewish topics.