Coffee And Politics, Or: From Cups To Coups

By Dr. Jeremy Benstein, HATC Senior Consultant

The favorite joke of one of my sons, when he was about four years old, went as follows (translated from the original Hebrew): “A man was walking along, fell into a hole, and couldn’t get out. ‘God,’ he prayed, ‘Make a miracle for me!’ God answered: ‘With sugar or without sugar?'”  

Now, in order to get this joke, you have to understand that the word for “miracle” in Hebrew is nes, which also means “instant coffee.” So, if you ask someone to make you a nes, you’re more likely to get a cup of coffee than a miracle. Even from God.  

Nes, by the way, is actually short for nescafe, which though the brand name of a type of coffee made by Nestle, is generic in Israel for “instant coffee.” The correct term for that light brown powder dissolved in hot water (which is hardly divine, by any standard) would be kafeh names, literally “dissolving coffee.” Compared to other types of coffee, this one (pronounced “nah’mess”), indeed involves less mess, and thus is somewhat miraculous.  

Today Israel boasts world-class cafes in most cities and a burgeoning coffee culture, with a plethora of brews to fit every discerning palate. But once nes was one of a mere two types of Israeli coffee.  

The other was a sort of Turkish coffee that, instead of being cooked on the stove, is simply mixed in water like nes. But since it is essentially unbrewed coffee grounds, the miraculous dissolution does not occur. This leaves a thick, black sludge at the bottom of the glass, which looks a lot like mud, or in Hebrew, botz, which became the name for this potent beverage usually served in small glass cups.  

It’s not hard to imagine the chalutzim, Israeli pioneers, after a hearty mug of muddy botz in the morning, going out to drain the swamps — the bitzot, same root — whose black peat looked and probably smelled about the same.  

Miracle or Mud? 

These two types of coffee seemed to define the two poles of Israeli reality: miracle or mud. Roses or thorns, paragon or pariah: a country of extremes. And it’s no accident that these are opposites. For the third type of coffee, which came on the scene a little later, is kafeh hafuch, or simply hafuch, meaning “opposite,” or “reversed.” Or upside-down, or inside-out, or backwards – from the Hebrew word hafuch means all those things. More on that to follow.  

In the case of coffee, though, it means something between a cappuccino and a latte (or café au lait) – a shot of espresso, with a lot of milk, and possibly some ketzef, whipped or steamed milk, depending on your taste. It’s not clear whether this is considered hafuch, backwards or reversed, because the hot milk is poured in first, and only then the coffee (not every barista would agree with that method), or simply because as opposed to nes, which is a lot of water and a little milk, this is the opposite. (While this coffee is usually not made at home, it is one of the most popular types ordered in cafes.)  

Many claim that this is a unique Israeli blend, but it turns out that in the Netherlands something like this type of coffee exists and is called verkeerd,“incorrect” or “cockeyed,” not unlike hafuch. Who knows? Perhaps it was not only the Turks who influenced Israeli coffee culture, but the Dutch as well.  

A revolutionary word 

The root of the word hafuch is h-f-ch, which may not evoke the same symbolism as do “miracles” and “mud,” but is also central to Israeli culture and history. The very oscillation between the “roses” and the “thorns” is an indication that reality here is very hafachpach, a beautiful word that means “changeable,” “volatile,” or “erratic.” It is in a form that repeats the second syllable (“f” and “p” being alternates of the same medial letter) to make it a descriptor, and almost onomatopoeic at that: one can almost hear the flip-flop.  

Probably the most well-known use of this root was by the legendary newscaster Haim Yavin, who broadcast the results of the election polls in the game-changing vote of 1977 when the Labor Party was ousted and the Likud, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, came to power for the first time in the history of the state.  

To this day, Israel uses paper ballots, and so it can take many hours to get even preliminary results. That year was the first time public opinion surveys were conducted at the polling stations to get an indication of the results before the final count. When Yavin got the news that the polls showed Likud with a significant lead, he summed it up in a word: “Mahapach!,” a reversal, an upset, a sea change.  

In saying this, Yavin meant that this was not nearly a mahapecha, a full-fledged “revolution.” And since it was achieved by democratic means, neither was it a haficha, a coup d’etat. But all of these words from h-f-ch signify different political developments that turn things, well, inside-out, upside-down, or backwards – at least relative to previous regimes or norms.  

Even though the Starbucks chain famously failed in Israel, it seems that the global coffee culture is here to stay. One might say that this trend is not hafich, “reversible.” This form makes the verb “X” mean “X-able,” such as achil “edible”, from aleph-ch-l, “eat,” or kari, “legible,” from k-r-aleph, “read” or dalik, flammable, from d-l-k, “burn.”  

But to someone who would claim that regime change or a bad political decision is irrevocable or irreversible, bilti hafich, we would say: lehefech! “Au contraire!” Hope springs eternal, and we have to believe that there’s still room for some surprising tahapuchot – turnarounds, changes of direction, though at times it may seem like this requires nothing short of a nes 


With a background in developmental psycholinguistics and as a Jewish day school parent, I have spent the last 40 years preoccupied with the state of Hebrew teaching and learning, especially in day schools, throughout North America and beyond. Anyone who knows me knows that I am meshuga ledavar, obsessed with Hebrew teaching and learning and unwilling to accept the mediocre results that characterize most of Jewish education when it comes to Hebrew.

Over the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure to discuss their commitment to Hebrew with various funders of Jewish education, all of whom have held leadership roles at Jewish day schools. Our conversations focused on two questions:

  • Why do we believe it is so important to invest in Hebrew?
  • How should we leverage our investment in Hebrew?


Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people. It is both a link across generations and the language of the State of Israel, the Jewish state. There have been many concerns expressed about the widening gap between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora; Hebrew is viewed as a key element to narrowing that gap and strengthening our connection to each other. In addition, Hebrew not only provides deep and direct access to our heritage, our texts and to meaningful engagement in prayer but has the added benefits associated with learning another language, a language that has personal meaning for all Jews.

According to Sara Bloom, board chair of Hebrew Public: Charter Schools for Global Citizens, “Hebrew creates a deep connection between Jews and non-Jews and Israel.” Evelyn Katz, past chair of Hebrew Academy (RASG) in Boca Raton, called Hebrew “the gateway to our culture and our heritage.” Speaking more than one language broadens our own world to include others. When we think about strengthening the connections between America and Israel, she points out that we can best relate to, understand, and enjoy a country, its people and culture when speaking their language.

David Koschitzky, immediate past chair of the board of trustees of Keren Hayesod, expressed, “For us, the Hebrew language has been a defining part of Jewish culture through the centuries. It would be a shame to lose as an anchor and building block.”

Alisa Doctoroff, chair of the board of the Jim Joseph Foundation, said, “The story of Hebrew is compelling as a story. At one point in history, it was spoken by very few people and now it is the language of a whole country. It is exciting and is the bond between the past, present and future.”

Manette Mayberg, founder of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, reflected, “As the language of the Jewish people, Hebrew provides the glue for Jews globally. Without shared language, there is no culture to attach to and ultimately no potential for lasting community.”

It is not possible to extract the deep meanings and wisdom embedded for us in our legacy as the Jewish people without access through Hebrew language.


When asked how to most effectively invest in Hebrew education, one strong message is to invest in our educators. The recent CASJE research study of Jewish educators makes it clear that Jewish education will be strengthened when we provide deep, sustained professional development opportunities for our teachers and educational leaders. Al achat kamah vekhamah, all the more so for Hebrew. Even in many of our day schools where students might spend up to 13 years with anywhere from 3 to 5 hours a week in Hebrew class, students are graduating who don’t speak Hebrew or are unable to navigate Jewish texts in the original.

As Manette Mayberg pointed out, it’s crucial to dispel the notion that any Hebrew speaker can teach the language. Investing in organizations like Hebrew at the Center that prioritize training and coaching of Hebrew language professionals and take language transmission seriously, in other words, investing strategically in the human resources that are key to achieving the goals we set for our day school graduates, provides the most value.

In Sara Bloom’s view, the average day school gives very little thought to the outcomes of Hebrew education—whether their kids can navigate a Tanakh or buy a bus ticket. Day school leaders are not necessarily thinking intentionally about these outcomes, and many of the teachers don’t have the sophistication to realize articulated outcomes. She also points out that in order to realize the benefits of truly functioning in a language, we need to be encouraging and investing in truly immersive Hebrew learning as opposed to other pedagogic frameworks.

As parents, board members and funders, we can play a key role in calling attention to this deficiency by engaging our school leaders to focus more on their Hebrew programs and to set higher expectations. For example, the Koschitzky family ties its funding of Jewish education to requirements that schools include a certain amount of Hebrew, Tanakh and Israel education as part of the curriculum.

It is important not only that these elements are viewed as essential elements of a Jewish education but that they are coupled with an investment in assessment. There are effective tools available to language educators to help them set clear goals, measure student proficiency and adjust the teaching to ensure that students continue to progress. This is an essential element of effective education that holds us as educators accountable and fosters student growth.

If we are truly interested in giving our children a strong start, there are clear benefits to introducing Hebrew at an early age. In addition, we can expand access through the development and use of technological tools, online apps and programs that allow our students to enhance the language learning beyond the classroom.

English might be my mother tongue, but Hebrew is the language of my heart and heritage. It is our responsibility to pass this gift on from generation to generation.

In the words of Alisa Doctoroff, “Language has power. Hebrew has power for the Jewish People.”

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With Covid not yet behind us but with some sense of managed normalcy, I have returned to visiting day schools across North America. While each individual school, community and region differs in approach, I am learning from school leaders and my HATC colleagues about key trends, challenges and strategies defining the current state of Hebrew teaching and learning.

The Shrinking Talent Pool

By far the biggest challenge is the shrinking number of available Hebrew teachers, not to mention qualified Hebrew teachers and leaders. While many teachers from a range of fields left teaching or just relocated away from their schools, the field of Hebrew teachers relies heavily on Israeli-Americans or short-term shlichim. Travel restrictions and visa issues significantly reduced the number of shlichim coming to North America.

A number of Israeli-Americans have used this moment to return to Israel, either no longer wanting to be prevented from visiting family or because a primary earner could now telecommute from Israel. Hebrew leaders often found the pandemic-related demands on their time as school leaders meant less time to focus on staff development or curricular planning. In order to reverse this talent shortfall, fieldwide strategies regarding recruitment, retention and professional development must increase, especially if reported parallel increases in enrollment continues.

Zooming In and Out

Challenges related to the shift to virtual, hybrid and on-again, off-again onsite learning consumed countless articles. Key challenges have included working to meet the needs of students moving into the day school space seeking “safe harbors,” arriving in most cases with limited or no Hebrew language skills, and often entering grades where teachers are unaccustomed to beginning Hebrew learners. Groupings of students are not always done based on Hebrew language levels, and some schools continue to keep teachers from moving freely across grades or buildings. The need to create new beginner classes for these students further exacerbates the already stated paucity of teachers. Time and resources will need to be prioritized to train teachers to successfully onboard these students and, where applicable, to expand their effectiveness in differentiated instruction.

Social-Emotional Learning and Hebrew

We are seeing a shift from primarily considering how social-emotional learning supports skills building and content learning to where instruction is now being modified to meet students’ social-emotional needs. The theories and skill sets related to social-emotional learning and the range of training that prepares teachers to be effective and nimble are central to the core curriculum of academic training in education. However, more than half of the field of Hebrew teachers have not even attained a bachelor’s degree in education, and the time demands due to Covid prevent many from accessing the professional development opportunities that might have partially offset this lack of training. Most school-based professional development is typically done in English rather than Hebrew, and attention is not always paid to the unique cultural reality many Israeli-Americans contend with as first-generation immigrants in a new country.

Time Allotment

A central variable in successful language learning is time allocation; the pandemic typically took away time from Hebrew instruction that is only now returning. Covid’s increase also led to decreased assessment of Hebrew, particularly approaches that focus on all four skills of reading, writing, speaking and comprehension. This challenge, besides obscuring student progress, hindered teachers’ ability to use assessment to inform instruction. We are now seeing a return to more robust assessment. Early results indicate that while the pace of student advancement slowed, Hebrew language learning did progress despite the pandemic.


From the perspective of Hebrew language learning, we are also seeing Covid-keeps, those creative adaptations likely to become normative. Teachers are reporting a percentage of students did well with distance learning, and increased use of digital tools provided fun and engaging access to Hebrew learning in ways likely to remain in teachers’ repertoire. Greater comfort with using videoconferencing enabled teachers to bring guest speakers into the classroom from across the globe or to support real-time interactions with peer learners in Israel.

The surge of increased virtual professional development opportunities that emerged to respond to the crisis is not likely to reverse to the prior state, ensuring that more time and dollars can be spent helping teachers and school leaders grow rather than be spent on travel, lodging and food. We expect more intentionality to guide us when we gather physically, ideally focusing more on networking and field building in this still nascent profession.

Barriers between and within schools have also moved or been broken, allowing students, teachers staff and parents to learn from one another. Within schools, an “all hands on deck” reality has allowed Hebrew teachers greater opportunity to step out of the Hebrew-speaking departmental community to interface and integrate with other colleagues. This helps elevate these teachers’ sense of being a part of the school as a whole and allows everyone the ability to see them in a new light.

The graying boundary between home and school has allowed Hebrew to be experienced in a more holistic manner. We are also learning more materials are needed to assist most parents in helping their children with Hebrew language learning, an opportunity to perhaps empower more parents to connect with this key element of good Jewish day school education.

Two final, broad thoughts emerge from this field perspective. Language learning, by its very nature, provides space for teachers and students to explore thoughts and feelings about their identities and to develop new lenses through which to view the world. We believe this increases a sense of empathy and community.

And while Covid has been a global scourge, reminding us that no community can isolate itself from the rest of the world, it also reminds us that the Jewish community has always been a global people. Our physical isolation has raised our awareness of the centrality of Hebrew as a connector across Jewish schools and communities. May greater attention on strengthening Hebrew learning and teaching ensue, leading to better student outcomes and increased support for the teachers providing these students with the gift of the Hebrew language.

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Reframing Hebrew in the Jewish Educational Space

Dr. Netta Avineri

Associate Professor, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

Dr. David Bryfman

The Jewish Education Project

Co-Sponsored by The Jewish Education Project