Israel's President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations' leadership meeting in Jerusalem, Feb. 18, 2019, when he was chairman of the Jewish Agency. (Photo/JTA-Hadas Parush-Flash90)
Israel's President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations' leadership meeting in Jerusalem, Feb. 18, 2019, when he was chairman of the Jewish Agency. (Photo/JTA-Hadas Parush-Flash90)

Israel’s president to Palo Alto students: Check out Hebrew TikTok

Israeli President Isaac Herzog has a busy schedule, but he made some time on the morning of Dec. 20 for some very important people: a lucky group of Bay Area kids.

Some 30 students studying Hebrew through the Beged Kefet program at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto got the chance to speak with Herzog on a video call.

“It’s not often you get an opportunity to talk to the Israeli president,” said attendee Orri Nitzan, 17.

“I think that it is very important to protect our Israeli and Jewish identity,” Herzog told the youth. “It’s not simple. We live in a very diverse world, but part of a person’s ability to develop is having an identity that you believe in and belong to.”

Students in elementary, middle and high school were able to ask and answer questions with the president. Herzog, 61, was curious how they felt about Israel, what they knew about politics, and what kinds of Hebrew books or shows they consumed. Nitzan said Herzog was engaged and seemed to really want to hear what they had to say.

“He very obviously cared about the responses,” Nitzan said.

Beged Kefet is an afterschool program for students in preschool through high school that teaches Hebrew reading, writing, speaking and comprehension — with a dash of Israeli culture. It was founded in 2008 as an alternative to synagogue religious school, as a place where Israelis living in the South Bay could send their kids to learn the modern Hebrew they themselves spoke. It serves around 500 students at multiple locations around the Bay Area, including in Sunnyvale, Los Gatos, Foster City and Walnut Creek.

Some of the young Hebrew learners in the Palo Alto JCC’s Beged Kefet program.
Some of the young Hebrew learners in the Palo Alto JCC’s Beged Kefet program.

Herzog, son of former Israeli president Chaim Herzog, visited the school in person back in February 2020, when he was the new chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (he became Israel’s president in July of this year). It was part of a Bay Area tour, during which he said that the local Jewish community “is known for its incredible institutions and its historic and current leadership.”

The event this month was scheduled to coincide, more or less, with “Hebrew Language Day,” which falls on the 21st of Tevet, the birthday of the man who revived and modernized Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

“As the president of Israel, speaking to you during Hebrew Language Week — and Hebrew is a beautiful language — I encourage you to enter websites, apps, TikTok, or wherever, and keep practicing your Hebrew and feeling that you belong, because as far as we’re concerned, you’re our brothers and sisters across the sea,” Herzog told the group .

Yuval Waizer, 16, another Beged Kefet student, told J. that initially he had joined the talk only because his Israeli father insisted.

“He was like, you’re doing this!” Waizer said with a laugh. “I was like, OK.”

But once he started reading more about Herzog, he became more interested. He said he enjoyed the talk and was impressed with Herzog’s kind and approachable manner toward the students.

“It was just a really cool experience,” he said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.