More Jewish day schools are making Hebrew optional

Torah and Talmud, Jewish ethics and rabbinic literature are all in the curriculum for students at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. By the time they graduate high school, they will have completed at least seven full-year Jewish studies courses, on top of requirements in English, history, math and science. But there’s one subject that, as of the coming school year, will be optional for incoming freshmen: Hebrew.

Though the school’s teachers and administrators insist Hebrew is a core part of the curriculum, the head of school recently decided to allow students in the classes of 2020 and 2021 to choose between studying Spanish or Hebrew to meet their foreign language requirement in what they’re calling a “World Language Pilot Program.”

“One of the premier benefits from JCHS is students leave here empowered to engage in their own futures, and we wanted to empower more students to make choices about their learning here at school,” explained the head of school, Rabbi Howard Ruben.

In making this switch, JCHS joins at least three other Bay Area community day schools that make Hebrew optional for middle school and high school students. By shifting Hebrew from a required part of a student’s curriculum to a choice in its foreign language offerings (the other schools — Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, the Brandeis School of San Francisco and Brandeis Marin in San Rafael — also offer their middle or high school students the option of enrolling in Spanish instead of Hebrew), the schools say they are responding to the needs of their local Jewish communities while still placing a high value on Jewish learning.

But other Jewish educators, who see Hebrew as an essential part of a Jewish school, worry about the implications of treating it as a language option rather than as a mandatory part of a Jewish education.

The first thing to understand about the JCHS curriculum, leaders say, is that Hebrew remains a robust and central part of the school.

“We really view the study of Hebrew as not just studying a language other than English but as an important pathway to Jewish identity development and opening a pathway with Jews around the world,” said assistant head of school Michael Brody.

“Hebrew is taught as a vital, living language … it’s not like Latin,” Ruben emphasized. “Artifacts of Hebrew culture, such as poetry and music, are an integral part of our Hebrew curriculum. Hebrew is not a mere academic exercise.”

And yet, based on a survey of students, Ruben predicts that 15 percent to 20 percent will elect to study Spanish instead of Hebrew going forward. It’s a major change, but it’s being implemented in response to community needs and feedback, Ruben said.

Ilana Vinizky’s Hebrew literature class at Jewish Community High School of the Bay on March 15 photo/andy jeung

“In recent years, even as JCHS has strengthened its academic program … and attracted a diverse student body, enrollment has plateaued,” Ruben wrote in an email to JCHS families in October that introduced the launch of the World Language Pilot Program. “JCHS has received survey feedback from those who applied but went to a different high school, indicating that significant numbers of prospective families are intentionally not choosing JCHS because Hebrew is the exclusive, required world language.”

JCHS hopes to grow its student body (currently 160 students) by not leaving behind families that are interested in a Jewish education but are dissuaded by the Hebrew requirement. The shift comes out of a self-study the school conducted during its accreditation process with the California Association of Independent Schools during the 2014-2015 school year. The study, which surveyed the views of students, parents, alumni and board members, as well as the families of students who were accepted into JCHS but chose not to attend, concluded that stakeholders support increasing student choice in their education and plurality within the school community. And that means providing Spanish, side by side with Hebrew, as a language option.

It’s similar to the process that Brandeis Hillel Day School (now split into Brandeis Marin and the Brandeis School of San Francisco) went through about five years ago, according to Debby Arzt-Mor, director of Judaic studies and Hebrew at the Brandeis School of San Francisco. After surveying the school community, Brandeis introduced Spanish as a language option starting in the sixth grade. Though students in first through fifth grades study Hebrew daily, sixth-graders are allowed to opt out of Hebrew and take Spanish instead. The school is now in its fifth year of offering both Spanish and Hebrew in the middle school, Arzt-Mor said.

“My goal as a Jewish educator is that if a student chooses Spanish, they should choose Spanish because they had a great experience with Hebrew and feel they have great skills and proficiency and they now want to try another language,” Arzt-Mor said. “Of course, we’re overjoyed when students continue with Hebrew.” More than 60 percent of this year’s fifth graders have elected to stick with Hebrew next year, she said.

For some students and their families, Spanish seems like a more relevant language in their day-to-day California lives than Hebrew. Having the Spanish option also opens the door for new prospective students considering entering Jewish day school in middle school or high school. If they haven’t studied Hebrew before, they may not be interested in starting from scratch in sixth or ninth grade. They may also want to continue with Spanish studies they already have begun. What’s essential, Brody said, is creating a school environment that’s responsive and welcoming to the larger Jewish community.

Brandeis parents Leslie and Stephen Ticktin with (from left) Chloe, Ethan and Jared

“We take the ‘community’ in our name Jewish Community High School very seriously. We want to be a place that is accessible and welcoming to the full range of diversity within the Bay Area Jewish community,” Brody said. “For some students and families, studying Hebrew is the most important thing, and it’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t do that as part of engaging in a Jewish education. For some families, it discourages them from wanting to attend the school because they think a Jewish education is important but they don’t see Hebrew as an integral part of that for them.”

The language choice is welcome for school parent Leslie Ticktin, who has had three children attend Brandeis in San Francisco — her younger son is a seventh-grader there, her daughter is now in ninth grade at JCHS and her older son attended Brandeis from kindergarten through eighth grade and is now a junior at San Francisco’s Lick-Wilmerding High School. All three of them took advantage of the option to switch to Spanish as Brandeis middle-schoolers, she said, though they had positive Hebrew experiences. Her daughter, Chloe, had to return to studying Hebrew when she started JCHS; she tested into an advanced level and is now undecided about whether to switch back to Spanish when JCHS introduces the option next year (though the Spanish option is targeted at entering freshmen, some current ninth graders will be able to change their language selection). Ticktin’s younger son, now studying Spanish at Brandeis, will be able to continue with the language at JCHS when he starts high school.

“I’m definitely in favor of it, and I think it’s important for kids to have choices in the classes that they take,” said Ticktin, who works at Brandeis as an admissions associate. “Hebrew at both JCHS and Brandeis is still used throughout the day, in classes, programs and holidays. My husband and I feel that a Jewish school is still very much Jewish with or without a required Hebrew class.”

JCHS teachers know that when it comes to Jewish studies, the language requirement change will impact the school’s pedagogical approach. But teacher Adam Eilath said he sees it as an interesting new path.

“We’ve been having conversations about what it looks like to teach Jewish studies to a student who potentially will not know the Hebrew characters or any Hebrew. That is a challenge, but I see that as a very exciting challenge,” Eilath said. “As a Jewish studies teacher, I see myself as a teacher at a community school, and I don’t believe my role is to dictate the norms of the community to the community.”

Those community norms are unique to this region, Ruben said. “The Bay Area is unique in number and percentage of Jewish day schools that … do not require Hebrew in middle school and high school,” he said.

Idana Goldberg, co-executive director of Ravsak, a national Jewish community day school network, agreed with Ruben’s assessment.

“It doesn’t match the national trends,” Goldberg said. “Mostly across the board, there is a commitment that Hebrew language is at its core the key to understanding Jewish texts and Jewish educators in schools are working to figure out how we can improve our Hebrew language and create opportunities.”

Still, Goldberg said Ravsak encourages schools to be responsive to their local communities.

“I think that schools are trying to meet the needs of their families and stay true to their mission,” she said. “It sounds like what the Jewish Community High School is saying is that [they] don’t want children to not have a Jewish education. I think schools across the country are trying to understand the value proposition of a Jewish day school to families and find a way to offer that value proposition in ways that are meaningful.”

On Wednesdays at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, lunch is served in Hebrew. Students order their food selections from a Hebrew-language menu, and parent volunteers serve up their choices.

“We’re bringing into the school environment ways to hear Hebrew and see it used,” Barbara Gereboff said. “Our standard is by the time a child graduates from our eighth grade, they shall graduate with advanced proficiency in speaking and in listening and high intermediate accomplishment in reading and writing.”

Wornick, a K-8 school, requires all students to study Hebrew each year and doesn’t give them the option of swapping it for another language. In this approach, it’s similar to Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto and Oakland Hebrew Day School. While schools that have introduced choice into their language requirement have made concerted efforts to improve the quality of their Hebrew instruction in recent years, the schools that retain Hebrew exclusively have doubled down on it as a philosophical commitment.

With the help of a donor, Wornick has invested in a three-year teacher training and coaching program meant to improve the quality of its Hebrew instruction. Oakland Hebrew Day School has adopted an immersion model for its K-8 program that teaches students both Hebrew language and Jewish studies in Hebrew on a daily basis.

“They are listening to and speaking Hebrew for half a day,” explained Oakland Hebrew Day School’s head of school Rabbi Ari Leubitz.

For Rabbi Tsipi Gabai, the director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Tehiyah, Hebrew instruction is at the heart of Jewish education.

“I believe that the Hebrew language ensures Jewish survival. It’s the key for Jewish identity, allowing access to the older Jewish world and connection to Israel,” Gabai said. “As a bonus, of course, it provides all the standards for a second-language benefit.”

Still, some educators maintain it’s appropriate to allow students more options in their studies as they get older, even at Jewish schools. Gereboff said she is committed to continuing Hebrew education for students through the eighth grade.

“High school makes sense for me,’’ she said. “I think high school is a time when there should be a bunch of different choices.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.