A recent session of Temple Isaiah's JQuest Hebrew school. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Isaiah)
A recent session of Temple Isaiah's JQuest Hebrew school. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Isaiah)

Learning Hebrew in an hour a week? It’s complicated

When it comes to learning modern Hebrew, ktsat is better than klum. However, given that Hebrew is the universal language of the Jewish people, “a little is better than nothing” doesn’t help American Jews communicate with the rest of our family. Very few of us speak Hebrew well enough to do so.

Our story this week details in depth the shaky reality of Hebrew-language instruction in after-school religious education — what used to be called, ironically, “Hebrew school.”

As a recently concluded national study has revealed, Hebrew instruction in those settings (for the most part) aims to help children “decode” the language more than actually acquire fluency. The objective is for students to be able to sound out the words, follow along in the siddur, and prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah — not to be able to maintain a conversation with their Israeli friends.

It’s not that Jewish educators prefer teaching Hebrew this way. No doubt they would love to see their students master the language.

The problem is, of course, that synagogue-based Hebrew schools have students for three or four hours a week, at most, and Hebrew-language instruction is only part of the curriculum. Even with native Hebrew speakers as teachers, these school environments are not set up for teaching more than a smattering of the language.

As one of the educators interviewed in our story lamented, “Being Jewish is not a hobby. It is who we are. But we can’t expect it to be much of who we are if we can’t make time for it.”

Even parents who are determined to give their children a deep and meaningful Jewish education can rarely provide what it takes to have them master a second language: Immersion classes, living in Israel for a time or growing up in a household in which Hebrew is spoken regularly.

But that’s just not reality for most Bay Area families.

Sending children to Jewish day schools is another option. They learn plenty of Hebrew there, along with other Jewish studies. But that’s an all-encompassing decision, not one every family wants to make.

In times as turbulent as these, parents want to see their kids thrive as best they can, even if that means going to school on Zoom and visiting with friends on FaceTime. As important as cementing Jewish identity may be for those parents, making sure their kids learn conversational Hebrew probably isn’t a priority at this time.

This is nothing new. Jewish educators have been bemoaning the state of Hebrew-language acquisition for decades, if not longer.

But that doesn’t mean they should give up.

Our story this week also describes new initiatives, such as emergent curriculum and JQuest, which push back against the inertia that impedes much Hebrew language instruction in afterschool programs. We applaud and encourage these efforts.

J. Editorial Board

The J. Editorial Board pens editorials as the voice of J.