Bilingual English-Hebrew PBL Bring Joy To Learning

Denver Jewish Day School has a long and proud history as a member of Hebrew at the Center. Over the years, the status of both Hebrew language and the Hebrew teaching faculty have risen in stature in this K-12 community day school in the Mile-High City. Today, secular and Hebrew language studies flourish together, on equal footing, side-by-side but also intertwined, most notably through PBL units, meaning Project Based Learning or Project Based Learning. Either way, PBL is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students acquire deeper knowledge through active exploration of areas of personal interest or real-world challenges and problems. PBL units involve the whole self and culminate in written and oral presentations and/or exhibitions, in which students can share their expertise and answer clarifying and probing questions, in real time, from members of their audience. Denver JDS is renowned among Jewish schools for their commitment to bilingual PBL units. 

Member School Highlights sat down with the lower school principal, Elana Shapiro, the lower school Hebrew Coordinator, Ravit Eldar, and the 2nd and 3rd grade Hebrew teacher, Elena Shtutman, to learn how Hebrew language instruction at Denver Jewish Day School continues to evolve and why PBL is such a source of true joy for students and faculty alike. 

Years back Denver Jewish Day School made the pioneering decision to invest serious thought, time, and funding for a customized, multi-year PD program for their Hebrew language staff through Hebrew at the Center. They went “all in” with the equivalent to what is now referred to as “Package 3: Best Recommended Value Package.” Around this time, Elana Shapiro became the elementary school principal and the lower division Hebrew Coordinator, Ravit Eldar, set out to earn a master’s degree in Hebrew language instruction at Middlebury College. Such intensive professional development led to significantly increased expertise in Hebrew language teaching and learning for the entire lower school Hebrew faculty. Maintaining basic membership, year after year, which includes some one-on-one coaching hours with their long-time and beloved HATC coach, Hamutal Keinan allows the Hebrew faculty to continue to refresh, renew, and sharpen their knowledge at a reasonable cost. 

Once the intensive work of professionalizing Hebrew teaching and learning at Denver JDS was well underway, interest and enthusiasm grew among secular studies teachers and subject specialists to collaborate with their Hebrew language partners in planning PBL units. As principal, Elana Shapiro was deeply committed to PBL, but she also gave the Hebrew and secular studies teachers agency in figuring out what concepts and topics would work well as bilingual units. Elana gave the teachers the gift of time, as she reorganized the daily schedule so that English and Hebrew teachers would have simultaneous prep periods. Teachers’ good intentions are worthless if there is no time to collaborate to create PBL units, and Elana made it happen. Currently, there are between two and three PBL units per grade, some that emanate from secular studies, and others from Judaic and Israel Studies. Examples of Judaic and Israel studies based PBL units are the Siddur Celebration in second grade, the Jerusalem Project in 3rd grade, Israeli Communities in 4th grade, and Israeli Inventions in 5th grade. 

As an example of a PBL that originated in the English language arts curriculum, Elena describes the second grade’s “Monsters Project,” a fruitful collaboration between the English and Hebrew teachers, and an imaginative and enjoyable leap forward in the writing and oral presentation skills of seven-year-olds. In their minds, and while workshopping ideas with their peers, each student created their imaginary monster and then developed their monster into a well-rounded, believable being: physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Each monster would have a personality, demeanor, look, likes, dislikes, moods, favorite foods, and hobbies. The vocabulary needed to develop their monsters was based on the daily conversations conducted in Hebrew class beginning in kindergarten, in which students described themselves in Hebrew and listened to their classmates’ self-descriptions. Through the Monster Project, students moved from first-person to third-person, and in dozens of creative ways from describing people to narrating the life of monsters. By unleashing their imaginations, learning more and more Hebrew vocabulary became an absolute necessity. How else could the students’ monsters become fantastical? 

Students conducted consultations with their peers and their teacher. Rough drafts were improved upon until the final version of their monsters’ descriptions were ready to be presented at exhibition, requiring artistic, written, and oral skills, as well as strong reading and aural skills to learn about their friends’ monsters. In other words, through imagining and expressing crazy, angry, and silly monsters, all four Hebrew language skill sets – listening, speaking, writing, and reading – grew stronger and stronger, side by side, in collaboration, but not in competition with English language skills. In fact, Elena Shtutman made very clear that students were NOT to translate their English writing, rather she encouraged her students to include different details in their Hebrew presentation. 

Topic-wise, next up for the second graders at the Denver Jewish Day School is a PBL unit on animals, which will rely more on reading-based research and less on imagination. It will require re-using the Hebrew and English vocabulary that children developed through the Monster Project, while also requiring the acquisition of new terminology. After all, just like monsters, animals have personalities, demeanors, likes, dislikes, and looks, but they also have habitats, ecosystems, and the need for healthy diets. Inevitably, fewer animals than monsters will be purple, pink, and green, but the students’ thinking, reasoning, vocabularies, writing, and speaking will continue to grow…bilingually. 

As part of Denver JDS’s ongoing PD through Hebrew at the Center, this year’s coaching hours with Hamutal Keinan are focused on building a scope and sequence for Hebrew grammar. Inevitably, future PBL units will include an increased focus on building written and spoken grammar skills. The students will not even notice. They will just think they are creating fantastical monsters! 

To learn more about effective interdisciplinary PBL’s, contact Elana Shapiro, Lower School Principal, or Ravit Eldar, Lower School Hebrew Coordinator at Denver Jewish Day School. To learn more about one-on-one coaching, professional development, and the benefits of membership at Hebrew at the Center, contact Dr. Cindy Dolgin. 

Hillel Day School’s Journey: Elevating Hebrew Language Education Standards

Like at all Jewish day schools, Hebrew is crucial to the heart and soul of Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit. “[Hebrew] drives a big part of who we are as a Jewish day school. Hebrew is connected to our identity and Hebrew connects us both back historically and forward to our future,” says Rabbi David Fain, Rav Beit HaSefer at Hillel. The idea, however, of a professionalized journey toward Hebrew language proficiency began five years ago, as a result of a “self-study of the curriculum,” in conversations between Rabbi Fain and Amira Soleimani, Director of Judaic Studies Curriculum and Instruction, and the decision to tackle strengthening Hebrew language education as Item #1. What would it take to not just teach Hebrew, but to teach Hebrew as a second language, based on standards at the highest level? Over the next two years, Fain and Soleimani spoke to experts, learned that indeed, international standards (called ACTFL) existed, tried various approaches, and concluded that their most promising path to bringing Hebrew language instruction to the same level of professionalism as general studies subjects required a long-term, deep, and committed relationship with Hebrew at the Center.  Changing the paradigm also required funding over several years to receive Embedded Educational Services from Hebrew at the Center.

Currently, Hillel Day School and Hebrew at the Center are in the midst of the third year of that fruitful relationship. It has not been without its ups than downs. It took time to learn what the possibilities were, to galvanize the Hebrew faculty, secure funding, and build trusting relationships with the Hebrew at the Center pedagogues. “When we started we did not know that there is a real field of second language acquisition and that Hebrew is a part of it. We had to educate ourselves at many levels – the administration, the teachers, the parents – about what’s out there,” says Rabbi Fain. This past week, Hebrew at the Center’s Dr. Esty Gross, Chief of Staff and Director of Education, and Meirav Levy, Hebrew pedagogy coach, spent three energized and impactful days at Hillel Day School, working with the Hebrew faculty as a whole, grade levels, and individual teachers. 

What is Rabbi Fain most proud of? That Hillel now has clear standards for Hebrew that they can measure and hold themselves up to. He is also proud that the Hebrew faculty has a pedagogical language around second language acquisition and Hebrew learning that they did not have before. Most of all, he is proud of students’ Hebrew language outcomes, and that joy and enthusiasm has mushroomed up around Hebrew throughout the school. 

Elyse was one of seven Hillel students honored at the 2024 Heseg ceremony

Hillel’s parents and recent alumni delighted in their harvest, and the Hillel Hebrew faculty and administration celebrated the fruits of their labor at the International HESEG Ceremony on January 14th. (Tu B’Shvat-inspired metaphors are hard-to-resist at this time of year!) For the first time in the school’s history, seven Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit’s 9th alumni scored high enough on the AVANT Stamp assessment while in 8th grade to be honored at the Annual HESEG Ceremony, having met the international standards to earn the Global Seal of Biliteracy. This credential has a unique serial number for each awardee and can be presented on college applications and for college credit. 

Mazal Tov to the students, their parents, the strong and heroic Hebrew faculty, and the visionary administration of Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit! 

(Is your school thinking about taking a deep dive into Hebrew language standards? Contact Rabbi David Fain at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit to get his perspective, or Dr. Cindy Dolgin, Director of Membership at Hebrew at the Center.) 

Professional Development for Hebrew Language Instruction: The Long Game

Recent Member Highlights have focused on new (first year) members of Hebrew at the Center, but this week, we point the spotlight on Bialik Hebrew Day School of Toronto, a large early childhood through 8th grade school with whom Hebrew at the Center has enjoyed a three-year relationship through membership and additional educational services. By focusing in on just one specific curriculum development project of just one member of Bialik’s large Hebrew language faculty, Member Highlight readers will more fully grasp the intentional model of professional development (PD) over time, from large group PD to small group learning, to one-on-one coaching. 

Yasmine Merri, born and raised in the Haifa area, is a veteran teacher at the Bialik Hebrew Day School. In addition to engaging in professional development offered through universities and other professional develop (PD) providers, over several years, Yasmine participated in various webinars, as well as small group curriculum development projects with Hebrew at the Center. As Hebrew at the Center Members who have added some additional educational services, Yasmine had also participated in some small-group coaching with Hebrew at the Center’s coach, Meirav Levy in the past.  Yasmine thought she – and ultimately the Hebrew department and its students – would benefit from a more intensive coaching experience between Yasmine and Meirav to develop a 4th grade complete unit of study, from beginning to end.  

Before beginning this unit development, Yasmine had participated in curriculum development with her peers and Hebrew at the Center coaches, including Meirav. Yasmine was already familiar with Hebrew at the Center’s templates for Hebrew language curriculum development, available in HATC’s Members-Only Member Zone. Yasmine recognized Meirav as a systematic and organized thinker and approachable person who showed respect for the scope and sequence already in place at Bialik, and for the experience and humanity of its teaching faculty. Now, in the third year of working with Hebrew at the Center, Yasmine was ready and eager to get to work one-on-one with Meirav as her expert “guide-on-the-side,” who would not think of this as a one-unit project, but would truly help Yasmine grow, experiment, learn from mistakes, try again, extend, and internalize all of the disparate elements of becoming an embedded expert in Hebrew curriculum development for Bialik. 

What does “beginning to end unit development” entail? Systematic, customized curricular development begins with a deep understanding of students’ prior knowledge and the development of the school and department’s high level goals before defining more granular objectives for a grade and unit. It entails taking the time for overall design before beginning to develop lessons and activities.  

Although Meirav had already been coaching at Bialik for several years, she reviewed Bialik’s scope and sequence documents, this time through the lens of how the new 4th grade unit would fit in, build upon, and complement the overall objectives of the school. It took five coaching sessions over the course of time between Yasmine and Meirav to undergo high-level planning and design for the new fourth grade unit. During that time, many practical and creative ideas surfaced on the micro level on how to implement the high-level plan, so these ideas for activities were documented and put aside, so as to be accessible after the curriculum design phase, during the actual lesson plan writing stage.  

As of now the design phase has concluded. Yasmine is currently working on writing lessons, activities, and formative and summative assessments of students’ attainment of knowledge and skills in reading, oral understanding, writing, and speaking. Yasmine is consulting with her fellow teachers and her direct supervisor, and when ready, coaching with Meirav will resume, which will also involve final editing.  

Adi Barel, Associate Director of Jewish Studies, who oversees Hebrew language teaching and learning at Bialik, is clear that the right way to achieve proficiency is by creating in-house curriculum, based on Bialik’s goals, resources, and everything that comes before and after. The right people to develop that curriculum are Bialik’s own teachers, and to do so properly, they need scaffolding and professional support. During this, the third year of working with Hebrew at the Center, those who were most actively engaged in the previous two years of professional development were given the opportunity to work one-on-one with a Hebrew at the Center coach, to take the theory and experimentation of the past two years and to develop new units for Bialik. Yasmine is one of those ambitious members of the Hebrew faculty. Says Adi, “Yasmine paved her own way.” Yasmine previously completed a Master’s Degree at Middlebury College’s Hebrew language school, where on a theoretical level, she internalized what the proficiency approach to language learning should be. Back at Bialik, Yasmine expressed interest in taking on more responsibility and leadership. This year, Yasmine’s career took a mighty step forward when she became a full-time curriculum developer for Bialik. It took years for the school to get to a place of readiness to embrace the proficiency approach, and all along the way, Yasmine was preparing to be a leader of that change. Hebrew at the Center, and Meirav Levy in particular, are honored to participate in bridging the theoretical concepts to the practical underpinnings of the proficiency approach, for Yasime Merri and for other members of Bialik’s Hebrew language faculty. 

For more information about Bialik Hebrew Day School’s intentional approach to Hebrew language professional development, curriculum development, and proficiency approach, reach out to Adi Barel, Associate Director of Jewish Studies. For more information about educational services provided by Hebrew at the Center, reach out to Dr. Cindy Dolgin, Director of Membership and Data. 

Hebrew Immersion Brings Judaism to Life at Richmond Jewish Day School

“I’m not sure I’m the right person for you to speak to. You see, I don’t speak Hebrew.” Thus began a delightful conversation with Sabrina Bhojani, Head of School of the Richmond Jewish Day School, who was immediately assured that she is in excellent company, as more and more Heads of Jewish schools are brought onboard to the top leadership positions following strong and successful careers in public or independent schools. 

Three years ago, Bhojani made the move from leadership at a public school in British Columbia to a whole new world of Jewish day school education, bringing her wealth of experience with the BC curriculum, enthusiasm for child-centered teaching and learning, love of children, respect and appreciation for teachers, and commitment to fostering a warm and welcoming Jewish community.  

Richmond JDS offers a robust half-day immersion program in the primary grades, kindergarten through fourth grade, where in addition to learning Hebrew and Judaic studies in Hebrew, specials such as design skills and technology, physical education, music, and art are also taught in Hebrew by Israeli teachers. The Judaic and Hebrew faculty members have been with the school for quite a few years and while recruitment of new teachers in the greater Vancouver area can been difficult, RJDS benefits from strong teacher retention and professional satisfaction. 

How does a Head of School observe and assess classes being conducted in a language she does not understand? After many years of supervising teachers in English language classrooms, Bhojani is fascinated by the opportunity to focus on body language of both teachers and students, gauging the engagement, enthusiasm, and joy of learners. She described that since Hebrew isn’t just any language but also such a rich source of identity, a source of a sense of belonging, and a sense of safety, observing the students while blocking out the meaning of the words gives a visceral analysis of a teacher’s efficacy. 

Working with Hebrew at the Center through the Pacific Northwest “Cascadia Project” has been tremendous for the Richmond JDS’s Hebrew teachers, who now have a professional community of like-minded professional Hebrew educators from whom to gain new and fresh ideas. The exchange of tips and techniques from fellow Hebrew teachers from other schools in Greater Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle is as valuable as the learning from Hebrew language coaches and experts. This combination enables the teachers to upgrade and sharpen the Hebrew curriculum across all grades. Sabrina Bhojani is also happy to have met a cohort of colleagues in Jewish day school leadership, from whom she, too, can learn, while also sharing from her deep well of experience in general education. While RJDS is a small school, almost 100% of its graduates matriculate to the King David High School in Vancouver, which makes the relationships among the teachers and educational leaders across schools all the more valuable in their corner of the continent. 

War Brings Shift from ‘Love and Interest’ to ‘Pride and Intensive’ in Hebrew Learning at Portland Jewish Academy

Hebrew has always been a highlight of the day for students at PJA, the Portland Jewish Academy, in Portland, Oregon, but ever since Hamas’ inconceivable, evil, and vicious attack on Israeli civilians along the Gaza border, triggering a war between Israel and Hamas, creating connections to Israel through joyful Hebrew learning has become even more important and relevant.  

At PJA, the formal Hebrew language acquisition happens through immersive play, song, movement, and all forms of joy. For that, PJA is grateful to their dynamic, active, and joy-filled Hebrew Kindergarten teacher, Maya Katri, who communicates with the students through Hebrew language and broad, happy smiles. 

As was the case in many Jewish day schools, PJA’s original model had Hebrew and Judaic studies subjects taught by the same teacher in all lower school grades. Over time the administration has come to see the benefits of matching the right-fit teacher for each subject, and that in some cases, it is preferable to have native Hebrew speakers teaching Hebrew but not necessarily teaching Judaic studies, and visa versa.  Adopting this flexible mindset was a significant philosophical and programmatic switch, and one that has proven to benefit both Judaic knowledge and identify, as well as Hebrew language education of PJA students.  This year, the best fit is for 1st, 2nd, and 4th grade classes have separate Hebrew and Judaic studies teachers, while in kindergarten, 3rd, and 5th grades, the best fit is having the same educator teaching both Hebrew and Judaic Studies.  

On a recent visit to PJA, Hebrew at the Center Senior Education Consultant, Dr. Carmit Burstyn, was wowed by the energy and vibrancy of Maya Katri’s first grade classroom. “The students are active every single moment, they are fully engaged in their learning, and Hebrew is everywhere!” reported Dr. Burstyn. 

According to PJA’s principal, Merrill Hendin, that love of Hebrew is evident throughout the school, not just in Maya Katri’s classes. “The Hebrew teachers are quite skilled, and the student in all grade levels are genuinely happy when the Hebrew teacher comes into their classroom. During Hebrew learning, there is rigger, but it is not intense.” “This is why,” according to the Jewish Life and Judaic Studies Director, Amy Katz, “Hebrew is such a joyful time of the day for our students.” The result is that students remain interested in Hebrew language learning all through their years at PJA. The goal is for PJA students to have a deep connection to their Jewish identity and to Israel, and Hebrew language is the vital connector to both. PJA prides itself on a high percentage of alumni who spend a semester in Israel during high school or during college, and when they study abroad in Israel PJA alumni arrive at Ulpan with a strong foundation of Hebrew upon which they can build. 

PJA students’ “love and interest” in Hebrew language accelerated to “pride and intensity,” exactly one month ago to the day. As details of the surprise attacks on Simchat Torah emerged, the joy associated with Hebrew language fell under a veil of sadness and darkness, particularly for the older students who are more aware of the shocking triggers to Israel’s war against Hamas. Students’ usual positive vibes for Hebrew, combined with deep engagement with Israel and Judaic studies, melded into a different kind of high energy, more akin to determination than to joy. PJA Middle School students became highly driven to do their best work when writing letters of solidarity and encouragement, in Hebrew, to peers in Israel. They are proud that among all the Jewish children in Portland, Oregon, they – the students at PJA – are the lucky ones who can step up in comforting and encouraging the children of Israel, in Hebrew. 

Amy Katz and the Hebrew teachers in her department are excited and appreciative to be first-year members of Hebrew at the Center, and truly treasure the well-developed, well-thought-out, and research-based professional development and coaching that they are now receiving from their project leader, Hebrew at the Center’s, Dr. Carmit Burstyn. Amy has wanted PJA to work with Hebrew at the Center for several years, but the administration found that doing so was financially out of reach for a school of 170 students. Thanks to the Cascadia Project, which includes 12 schools from the Pacific Northwest located in the cities of Portland Oregon, Seattle Washington, and Vancouver British Columbia, PJA has been receiving professional development services from Hebrew at the Center for their Hebrew language faculty since June, 2023. 

Stay tuned as over time we track the Hebrew language trajectory of Portland Jewish Academy. 

Luria Academy of Brooklyn Students Share Messages in Hebrew, Straight From the Heart

On the first day back to school following the horrific attacks on October 7, 2023, teachers, staff, students, and parents were in shock. Perhaps none more than Hebrew language teachers, most of whom are Israeli and have loved ones back home in Israel, in danger’s way. The dilemma of how to keep one’s composure in front of students, continue to teach at an appropriately high level, and monitor the well-being of family members was a lot to juggle.

Bright rays of light have been emerging and continue to emerge through projects initiated by Hebrew language teachers that incorporate living Jewish history and developing more and more Hebrew language skills in real-time. 

Take, for example, Luria Academy of Brooklyn, a member-school of Hebrew at the Center, whose middle school approached its response to the crisis in Israel in a way fully aligned with the school’s ethos, under the leadership of Hamutal Keinan, Instructional Leader for Upper School Hebrew at longtime Hebrew at the Center Coach. Read on for words from Luria’s website, in italics, interwoven with the mission-aligned steps they took to create and send to this video of love to children in Israel. 

We champion questions over quiet, and initiative over inaction.  

On October 10, students had a lot of questions, mostly asked of their Hebrew teachers in English. At Luria, one Hebrew lesson per week is dedicated to Israel history, conducted in Hebrew, but October 10th was a different kind of day, so teachers welcomed questions in English. After school hours, Luria’s teachers recorded their students’ questions, translated them to Hebrew and planned the next few days’ lessons, incorporating vocabulary they never imagined the need to teach. 

We teach children not to be afraid to stumble because they are learning to pick themselves back up. 

After oral and written lessons, students worked independently on writing and speaking their questions, stumbled to understand the answers, and compose spontaneous prayers in their hearts. They stumbled more, tried again, and they each worked with at least some different words than their peers, because they each wrestled with their own thoughts, fears, and reactions. Teachers circulated, guiding each student to put their feelings into Hebrew words. 

Our job is to create a strong framework, then peel back the scaffolding as the children become more independent – this way we can turn potential into power and growth into strength. 

While coming to grips with their emotions and the ever-growing language skills to express their feelings about this catastrophe, the students at Luria recorded spoken messages to children in Israel, in Hebrew, messages to children they do not know, and made the point of saying their names and sending their love and support to the children of the Gaza Envelope, from a faraway place called Brooklyn.

We have created a community where diversity is a chance to learn, and empathy replaces judgement. We are a community of warmth, confidence, and understanding. 

While watching the video, you will see the empathy and emotion on the faces of the Luria Academy students which is clearly visible. These are not stiff children, parroting back what they had learned. These are empathetic emerging Hebrew speakers expressing their warmth and understanding, yes, with confidence, but first and foremost with fluency and empathy.

We want every child to feel empowered to learn and grow freely, and we are dedicated to building the curious and courageous leaders of tomorrow. 

Luria teachers taught an array of vocabulary and grammatical structures, based entirely on the students’ questions and giving students the tools needed to uncover answers to their own questions, in Hebrew, sharing their empathy with those in Israel who have been traumatized. Their hearts are broken for the children in captivity who are not currently empowered to learn and grow freely, and they create this video to give strength to children currently displaced from their homes, trying to learn while school is disrupted by war. Questions, so many questions. 

Luria Academy students were then video-recorded, saying their own words of comfort. Some stumble, and that’s okay. Accents differ from the girl who arrived from Israel this past summer, to the boy who has never been to Israel and has no Israeli relatives. No one reads or memorizes a script written by their teachers. Their Hebrew words have been embedded in their hearts and come back out from their mouths. They are living the Luria Academy ethos of becoming young leaders of the Jewish people, which includes developing fluency in the language of the Jewish people, one step at a time, in times of joy, and in times of sorrow. 

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.”

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.

See A Teacher Who Inspires His Students by Becoming One of Them at Milken Community School

We are honored to welcome Milken Community School, a middle and high school in the Bel Air area of Los Angeles, as new Members! Enjoy reading (and watching a video) about the inspiring Hebrew language journey of Milken’s esteemed History Teacher, Maxime Gilbert, and his Hebrew tutor, Dr. Carmit Burstyn, who serves as Hebrew Instructional Leader at Milken Community School.  

Watch a video about Maxime’s Hebrew Language Journey with Dr. Carmit Burstyn, Hebrew Department Chair and Instructional Leader at Milken Community School.

Maxime Gilbert, a French-born history teacher, came to the US to teach 11th and 12th grade history at Milken. When he accepted the position, Maxime was not even aware that Milken was a Jewish school, only that it was a private school in LA. Landing a teaching job at Milken turned out to be serendipitous in so many ways. 

Since his parents are completely secular, Maxime grew up knowing the “linguistic codes” of Judaism but without any formal Jewish education. However, Maxime possessed a strong intellectual affinity for Judaism that existed in his soul as a void for over 30 years. At Milken, Maxime met many inspiring faculty members, including “Rabbi BK,” (Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunan), who Maxime describes as “an intellectual power-house” and Maxime began to fill that void. He devoured many books about Judaism but quickly concluded that without knowing the Hebrew language, there was a significant barrier to delving deeply into Jewish texts and knowledge. Maxime quietly let it be known in the Milken faculty room that he was interested in learning to read the Torah in Hebrew. In jumped Dr. Carmit Burstyn, Chair of the Hebrew language department, offering to become Maxime’s tutor. 

However, Carmit rejected the premise of Maxime’s initial request to teach him to read Hebrew, with no regard for learning the other language competencies. Carmit shared that, “Hebrew is a living language and in order to read it, you need to really KNOW it, including how to orally comprehend, write, and even speak the language.” Carmit should know. Her doctoral research was on high school students’ motivation to learn Hebrew language, and for 90% of the 11th and 12th grade student participants in her study, connecting to identity, and specifically to Jewish identity, was a primary motivator.  

Maxime accepted Carmit’s condition to learn Hebrew as a living language. Because Milken is in LA, outdoor spaces are used as classrooms. And because Carmit and Maxime had agreed to devote two of their prep-hours per week on Maxime’s studies, it soon became obvious to students and faculty members that Maxime had become Carmit’s Hebrew student. For Maxime, learning Hebrew is very personal, and very emotional. Doing so in such a public way has fueled the motivation of his students, and indeed, of the entire Milken Community.

Hebrew, Hebrew Everywhere at Ramah Darom

Chana knows and loves camp. And Chana knows and loves Hebrew. Now in her seventh year at Ramah Darom in Clayton, Georgia, Chana is combining these two things she knows and loves as the camp Amita Ivrit – Hebrew Fellow – to ensure that campers and staff find new ways to connect to the language of the Jewish people! The Ramah camping system has always prioritized Hebrew language learning since the establishment of the first camp in Wisconsin in 1947. Informed by the Hebraic movement afoot at that time, and inspired by the Hebrew-speaking Camp Massad in the Poconos, the educators who created the Ramah approach wanted to ensure that Hebrew was a living language for the camp community as well as a key to the Jewish learning that took place over the summer. This tradition continues on in its own unique way at each Ramah site and program, with all of the camps building on the idea that campers and staff alike should learn at least meah milim – one hundred words – of Hebrew that become a part of their working language vocabulary.

At Ramah Darom, Anna Serviansky, the Camp Director, wanted to ensure that this goal was accomplished in a manner that was joyful, approachable, and lively. Working with her Assistant Director, Ayala Wasser, who had been introduced to Hebrew at the Center’s Amitei Ivrit program at Ramah Sport, looked to the long time staff member Chana Mayer, as the person who could embody this love for Hebrew and use her unofficial role as the “mother of the Israel delegation” to empower the entire, forty-plus Israeli staff at camp with strategies for Hebrew engagement. In April, Chana joined camp educators from camps across North America for a two-day intensive seminar run by Hebrew at the Center to better understand how language is used both for communication and to build a shared sense of meaning, the different types of activities that could make Hebrew come alive, and ways to make this approach effective for the unique goals of Ramah Darom.

Chana also works closely with the three Israeli scouts at camp to bring this programming to the campers each day in the dining hall and in creative programming that connects these young people to Israel, Hebrew culture, foods, games, and music. Each night, Chana sends out to the entire staff the next day’s milat hayom – word of the day – and the mishpat hayom – the sentence of the day – so that the entire staff can reinforce the language learning throughout the day and in every area of camp. One of the scouts dresses as “Hebrew Man,” and is accompanied to the front of the room each day by energetic singing from the entire camp as he teaches both the word and the sentence of the days, units of language selected specifically due to their usefulness within the camp community. Chana makes certain these words are then put up around camp so that campers and staff alike can see how they are written, pronounced, and used.

Camp culture is typically shaped by both the leadership of the camp and the energy and interests of the college-age staff. Knowing this, Chana and her team also run staff training programs to help each counselor, specialist, and unit head reflect on why Hebrew is important to them, or to create opportunities like an Israeli staff dinner to connect the language with culture and experience. During the activities with the campers, this sense of buy-in is obvious as the staff join in with their own Hebrew skills and model positive engagement. Anna could not be happier about what is happening at her camp, sharing “Hebrew has really come alive and is experienced by everyone at camp as an essential part of our community.”

Hebrew at the Center is excited to be working with Ramah Darom and looks forward both to the ongoing growth of the program in preparation for the summer of 2024 and looks to help campers and staff alike connect with Hebrew when home from camp as this initiative moves to year-round settings such as congregations and youth programs in the communities served by Ramah Darom.