Bringing Hebrew outside Briskin Elementary’s Walls

Imagine the surprised look on the face of the local farmer when a little American child approaches and asks:

אפשר לקבל שלושה מלפפונים?

Another student asks:

יש לימון היום?

A third chimes in:

אני רוצה חסה בבקשה.

The farmer sells his produce at Helen Albert Certified Farmer’s Market in Hollywood, California, and the children are second graders at Briskin Elementary School, the Jewish day school of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform Temple in Southern California.

Shopping at the farmer’s market – in Hebrew – is one of the many ways that Briskin Elementary School students experience Hebrew outside the walls of the school while living up to the school’s mission. Briskin Elementary provides its students in kindergarten through 6th grade with a meaningful educational experience and a passion for life-long learning, the arts, Jewish values and traditions, participation in social action, and a connection to Israel. The leaders and teachers at Briskin accomplish their goals through a dynamic curriculum of General Studies, Hebrew and Judaic studies, and the arts.

With a strong emphasis on creating independent problem-solvers who care deeply about sustainability, the Hebrew faculty, under the leadership of Noa Vitaly, seek ways to integrate Hebrew language learning, as authentically as possible, into the overall activities of the school. So, before the 2nd graders take a field trip to the farmer’s market, they spend several weeks learning the Hebrew vocabulary and sentence structure to successfully shop for seasonal, healthy, nutritious produce. They do so by using the methodology of learning Hebrew through dramatic play, relying on the JIGZI online platform for watching short video stories in Hebrew, reading the transcripts of the story, writing scripts for little plays, practicing, and performing their plays, and then taking what they’ve learned out to the real world.

Authenticity has its limits, though, since the farmers and vendors at the Hollywood farmer’s market don’t actually know Hebrew! This is why Noa Vitaly is already dreaming of bringing the Briskin fourth graders who will learn about animals this year to חוות כפר סבא, a local animal farm owned by Israelis, where the students will be able to interact more fluidly and fluently at a developmental stage of second language acquisition where they will have developed stronger Hebrew language skills.

After several years as a classroom teacher at Briskin Elementary School, Noa Vitaly is excited to be in her second year as Hebrew Coordinator. Noa shared, “our approach is to integrate Hebrew with other subjects, expanding it visually in the school environment, and connecting it to the outside world. I truly believe that teaching in general and teaching a second language, in particular, is most effective when you succeed in building core memories. Through the farmer’s market experience, we witnessed a high level of engagement and joy in learning (חדוות למידה). We plan more opportunities to expand learning outside of the classroom walls and build more lasting memories for our students.”

This Week, Millions of Jews Will Not Understand the Words They Are Saying

Wonder Woman and the second gentleman are getting ready to do it.   

Chuck Schumer and Drake will most certainly do it.  

Isaac Herzog, Judy Blume, and Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz cannot wait to do it.   

I, and likely you, will probably do it as well.   

We are all getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, preparing ourselves once again to read, sing and make heart-felt declarations in Hebrew. And for far too many, there is little to no understanding of those words coming out of our mouths.    

So, is understanding Hebrew truly even important to the future of the Jewish world?   

Hebrew is certainly important as a connector of world Jewry. I am not the only person surfacing questions about Hebrew. There is a Stand With Us YouTube of Elon Gold’s currently making the rounds where the comedian asks, Have you ever wondered why most Jews don’t actually speak Hebrew?. Beyond the humorous but biting critique of his own experience as both a student and a parent of a Hebrew language education, Gold rightfully notes that these Jewish educational settings focus too much on what we are not supposed to do and not enough on teaching the actual language of Hebrew. He then brings home the real message: “It is so crazy to know laws and not be able to communicate with my people in our homeland.” If we want to be real partners with global Jewry and capable of having a sophisticated conversation about the Jewish future with Israelis, we must ensure we are competent speakers of the Jewish people’s language.   

Hebrew is certainly important to our experience of our holy days. Whether sharing a simple “Shana Tova,” or chanting aloud from the machzor throughout the yamim nora’im, the High Holidays reflect a moment when we look to the future and when most North American Jews encounter and use Hebrew as the language of their people. Like the blast of the shofar, the use of our sacred tongue between family and friends or within a congregation creates the soundscape of these holy days as our people wrestle with powerful word concepts such as t’shuva and slicha. And in our culture, every day has the power to be holy, an ordinary day that can and should be set aside for extra-ordinary actions and transcendence.  

Hebrew is certainly important to Jewish education. On the short list of well-known Jews that opened this piece, the name Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz was included both due to the tremendous work she has been doing over the arc of her career in Jewish education and due to the important essay she shared last week in eJewish Philanthropy, Hebrew learning in synagogues: A call for change. Moskowitz rightly challenges our congregations and our community to rethink how we introduce children to their sacred language, drawing both from historical approaches and research-based insights on how someone learns to read and engage with a language. She is correct to critique a tradition that is ineffective and counter-productive, knowing that this leads to too many turning away from finding the beauty and spirituality in Jewish worship. Breaking one’s teeth over a language that can elevate and penetrate is bad for young Jews, for the Jewish future, and most definitely for Hebrew. And if we are failing in congregational schools, the first step in most young people’s Jewish educational journey, we are bequeathing to the next generation nothing but a future of more Jews reciting Hebrew words they do not understand.  

Hebrew is certainly important as a tool for leadership. One of the entities that consolidated into Prizmah was Ravsak, boldly stated, “Our client is the Jewish future.” Fifteen years ago, Hebrew at the Center was founded in reaction to a call to action similar to Moskowitz’s in the Jewish day school world where, as one of our long-time supporters quipped, “In no place is more time and money spent not teaching Hebrew than in Jewish day schools.” We understood we needed to be disruptive in our approach, drawing from language learning science, a deep commitment to training Hebrew speakers to become Hebrew language instructors, and the establishment of proficiency standards and assessment systems that could ensure data-driven instruction. However, as important as pedagogic and programmatic interventions are, we know that fundamental work must be done in creating a culture of seriousness and commitment to Hebrew learning on the part of parents, school leaders, and the community. Given the high percentage of Jewish communal leaders that come out of the day school world, it would be a tragedy to continue wasting the hours being spent on Hebrew language instruction without ensuring that we were seeing a true return on this investment of time.  

Hebrew is certainly important – because Hebrew is important! The Hebrew language is fundamental to Judaism, Jewish culture, and identity. Hebrew is a shared inheritance and tool that transcends the diversity of theological and ideological differences during a time of growing fractures. Hebrew is a living bridge that connects global Jewry and opens access to our sacred text and contemporary Israeli film, television, and literature. And in this particular moment when Israelis are wrestling the fundamental dilemmas of building a Jewish and democratic state, Hebrew language provides opportunity for the rest of the Jewish family to be able to have an insider’s understanding of what is taking place rather than remaining dependent upon translated OpEds, news articles, and demonstration placards.  

On Rosh Hashanah, a new year begins and the opportunity for us to individually and collectively be written in the book of life is renewed again, creating the opportunity for us to both improve ourselves and ensure our future. We believe that the revolution that Nachama is calling for in congregational and part-time schools, our efforts in day schools and summer camps, and the critical work our field colleagues are doing in these settings and more demand communal attention, finding ways to unleash the power of Hebrew in North America. Together, we can ensure that the largest Jewish community outside of Israel does not give up its commitment, ownership, and love of the Jewish language.  

While we can forgive and  be forgiven throughout the year, something we will be reminded about during these upcoming days, we will not be forgiven for not taking this message about Hebrew seriously, only to bemoan ongoing Hebrew illiteracy in the future. We can make a difference in the level of Jewish literacy, offer a point of unity to a fractured people, and reverse the expanding gap between Israel and us. Our tradition teaches that sha’arei t’shuva, the gates of repentance, are always open. Let us use this moment to reflect on what we can do to better Hebrew language education and repent our misguided way, collectively stepping through the gates of Hebrew. We will soon read in the Torah that our world was created through speech, and we know humans make meaning through language. Let us pick up Nachama’s gauntlet and respond to Elon’s taunt, launching a strategic and collective effort to strengthen the ability of the members of our community to feel truly at home in Hebrew. As we use Hebrew words to pray for ourselves and our community, let us pray for true understanding and then take a big step towards change.  

Rabbi Andrew Ergas is the Chief Executive Officer of Hebrew at the Center, with its vision of a world in which the Hebrew language profoundly enhances the joy and richness of Jewish identity and connects Jewish communities around the world. The organization works to revolutionize Hebrew language education and engagement as it advocates for Hebrew as a more prominent and intentional feature of Jewish life. 

At Ottawa Jewish Community School: Hebrew Language + STEAM = Great Learning

At the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) in the capital city of Canada, teachers across disciplines enjoy experimenting with cross curricular activities. The entire faculty has embraced that learning a new language is more fun and meaningful when it is project based. We thank OJCS, who joined Hebrew at the Center during the winter of 2023, for sharing how Kitah Dalet combined Hebrew vocabulary, Jewish history, math, and computer programming into an interdisciplinary unit of study to create a computerized tour of Jerusalem. Their wonderful 4th grade teachers, Faye (General Studies) and Dana (Jewish/Hebrew studies) co-planned the unit and their students got together with both teachers on Fridays to collaborate on this cross curricular task linking Hebrew vocabulary and mathematical coding skills.

The students translated a Hebrew directional piece of writing, where a character moved around the city of Jerusalem giving a tour and naming different famous places, such as the Jaffa Gate, Tower of David, and the Kotel. Once the students translated their directions, using keywords such as ‘turn left/right’ (שמאלה/ימינה) they then needed to program their Sprite, in a coding program named “Scratch,” to move around Jerusalem. Their “Sprite” needed to give correct key facts from the text, at the appropriate time and place, providing the coding to link the backgrounds.

When a group of educators from Israel visited their school, the educational leaders of OJCS left it in the hands of the capable 4th grade students to explain their projects to their guests, to the best of their ability, in Hebrew. The Israeli guests were paired with Grade 4 students as they continued working on their unfinished projects.

What better way to help the Israeli educators understand the power of bilingual Project Based Learning (PBL) than engaging directly with the OJCS 4th grade students? The beauty of this PBL is that it goes beyond the subjects it intends to teach and onto learning important 21st century life skills such as collaboration, teamwork, problem solving, perseverance, presentation, and interacting with adults they don’t personally know but who are trusted by their teachers and school leaders. Most importantly, if you ask any of the students, they will say – !היה כייף IT WAS FUN! The visiting Israeli educators were engaged, impressed, and had a wonderful time ‘יןךק visiting the the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

ברכו את התלמידים.ות בעברית בכניסה לשיעור
Greet your students by their Hebrew names as they enter class


ברכו את התלמידים.ות הנכנסים.ות לכיתה בשם העברי שלהם.ן, והוסיפו משפט חיובי בעברית, כמו “אני שמח.ה לראות אותך היום!” או “אני אוהב.ת את התיק החדש שלך!”. מחקרים מראים שברכות אישיות כאלו בדלת הכיתה מעלות את מעורבות התלמידים.ות בלמידה ב 27%.
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השאירו מקום על הקיר לעבודות תלמידים.ות
Designate wall space to showcase student work


הציגו את עבודות התלמידים.ות בעברית על קירות הכיתה וברחבי בית הספר. כך תצרו סביבה עברית אופטימלית, תשפרו את מעורבות התלמידים.ות בלמידה, ותעלו את חשיבות השפה העברית בקרב קהילת בית הספר. לחצו כאן לרעיונות נוספים להצגת עבודות תלמידים.ות.Continue reading

פתחו את השנה עם פעילויות היכרות
Start the school year with Getting-To-Know Activities

פעילויות היכרות לפתיחת השנה חשובות ליצירת אווירה בטוחה בכיתה לכל תלמיד.ה, לחיזוק הקשרים החברתיים, וליצירת תשתית להוראה מותאמת וממוקדת תלמיד.ה. לחצו על הקישורים בעברית באנגלית למגוון רעיונות לפעילויות לפתיחת השנה, והתאימו לכיתה הספציפית שלכם.ן. 

Getting-To-Know-You activities for the beginning of the year are important for creating a safe space for each student, for strengthening social ties, and for informing the design of student-centered tailored instruction. Here are Hebrew and English links for a variety of ideas for activities to start the year, and adapt to your specific class.