HATC in the Community
עברית במרכז בקהילה
September 28, 2022
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, by Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni, has just been awarded a National Jewish Book Award in the category of Education and Jewish Identity. View Hebrew at the Center’s Skira session on the research with all three authors or enjoy the Sicha conversation with co-author Sarah Bunin Benor and Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. To learn more about the book and the awards, read the press release from the Jewish Book Council.
IVRIT: A Joint Venture
Since 2012, Yom Ha’Ivrit (Hebrew Language Day) has been celebrated each year on the 21st of Tevet; it was created in order to promote the Hebrew language in Israel and around the world. In Israel, this day is marked by celebrations in schools, lectures and community events. In North America only a handful of Hebrew enthusiasts and scholars note this day. Ivrit (Hebrew) is not only the language and responsibility of the State of Israel; it is the language of the Jewish People—a joint venture of Israel and the diaspora.
In order to appreciate the connection of Ivrit to the Jewish people, one can look at the origin and meaning of the word itself. The word Ivrit is derived from the word Ivri (a Hebrew). A common definition of the word Ivri is a descendant of Eber, עֵבֶר, who was an ancestor of Abraham, the first person to be called an Ivri (Genesis 10:24). To be an Ivri, is to be a descendant of this lineage, to be a part of this family. Further, Ivrit comes from the root עבר which has several meanings including to “cross over” or “pass through,” indicative of the nomadic life of Abraham and his descendants –true even today. In essence, Ivrit is a reflection of who we are as a nation, genealogically, historically and culturally.
Language is a tool that informs the way that we think, enabling us to make meaning of the world around us and better navigate within it. Hebrew is an integral tool in developing Jewish identity both as individuals and as a collective; it is the language of the Jewish People. Knowledge of and proficiency in Hebrew is empowering and allows for engagement and connection to Jews worldwide.
Hebrew is an expression of Jewish Peoplehood. In most educational settings, teaching and learning Hebrew is rarely linked to the process of Jewish identity development and therefore many students do not understand the relevance of Hebrew in their lives as Jews living outside of Israel. Reframing the acquisition of Hebrew as being critical to developing one’s identity and as a tool to connect to other Jews and Jewish communities, will transform Hebrew language teaching and learning. We must be mindful of the broad range of motivations for learning Hebrew—bar/bat mitzvahs, travel to Israel, Jewish history, spiritual needs, etc.—and focus on helping learners maximize their proficiency in light of their motivations and what would be most meaningful to them.
Hebrew is a connector; it ties us to our history, provides a sense of belonging to the Jewish people and to the land and country of Israel. Like the etymology of the word Ivrit, Hebrew bears historical weight and reflects Jewish culture and values.
Having a shared language has unified us as a nation for over 3000 years and should continue to be a critical tool that connects us to one another. As we pause to celebrate Yom Ha’Ivrit, let’s reclaim Hebrew as a joint venture and embrace its historical and cultural role in the lives of the Jewish people around the globe.
Tal Gale is the Chief Program Officer of Hebrew at the Center. She serves on the Board of the North American Council for Hebrew Language and Culture.
Reflections from Rabbi Andrew Ergas, CEO at Hebrew at the Center
Since March, educators and philanthropists alike have rightly been focused on the “pivot,” meeting challenges that social distancing has put on our school administrators, teachers, students, and families. This nimbleness is essential in a crisis, and it appears uncertainty will continue to demand deft adaptations that integrate safety, learning outcomes, social-emotional needs, finances, and government policy.
Hebrew at the Center (HATC) and other peer organizations have responded quickly and effectively in light of the moment to address the particular requirements of the Hebrew language educator community. HATC served over one hundred schools with free online workshops and seminars on delivering Hebrew education in the virtual context. Further, in responding to issues raised by teachers, HATC retooled its professional development summer offerings. These efforts, like those of so many in the educational ecosystem, dictated a concerted increase in work, new learning and thinking, and a shift in organizational culture.
But, being nimble enough to productively respond to the present tectonic shifts in education cannot completely consume all efforts or preclude commitments to strategic initiatives. It would be a significant mistake to use all our resources to put out fires, undermining the ability to also support pre-COVID strategic goals and delay executing key initiatives.
The feedback we are receiving from the field confirms this dynamic thinking and action. The hundreds of Hebrew teachers and leaders that participated in our free online programs responded in almost one voice that we were helping alleviate many of the challenges At the same time, our investment in CJDS led to positive support from the organized community, with Lonnie Nasatir, President of the Jewish United Fund, stating “We could not be more pleased to see this bold initiative come to Chicago, building upon the strong engagement with Hebrew education that has always been a hallmark of our community.”
Even in the midst of these extraordinary days, it is important to step back from the Zoom screen on a regular basis and reflect. In reviewing our activity and my own practice since late March, I have identified at least five principles that are helping us coordinate and prioritize our efforts, allowing us to navigate these rough seas:
This multi-pronged approach is also aligning with our supporters. Manette Mayberg of the Mayberg Foundation shared that “The Mayberg Foundation believes now more than ever, that we need to boldly innovate and shift paradigms in the delivery of Jewish education. Those who are already pursuing innovative initiatives know that these take time to build lasting impact. To transmit Jewish wisdom and values for generations to come, we need to maintain our efforts and continue to innovate, even as we respond to the immediate needs that we face.”
I hope very much that we can at some point aggregate our gleanings from these pivots while we continue to assess how big initiatives moved ahead during this difficult time. Our collective sharing and learning can help so many organizations ensure the structures we are rushing to save become bridges to an exciting and meaningful future.
The Board of Directors at Hebrew at the Center (HATC), a leader in Hebrew language teacher professional development and advocacy announces that Chicago Jewish Day School (CJDS) has been selected into the Leading in Hebrew national initiative to become the second model school for Hebrew teaching and learning.
The Leading in Hebrew initiative, a highly selective three-year plus program, was designed by HATC to create model schools of Hebrew excellence in regions throughout the country. HATC expects to develop truly exemplary Hebrew programs, with cohorts of master teacher leaders, that become national demonstration schools. Coaching teams with expertise in school change, second language pedagogy, leadership development, teacher mentoring, curriculum building, integration of technology, differentiated instruction, and early childhood will work with CJDS over the course of more than three years.
The comprehensive professional learning plan for school faculty and leadership includes on-site and online workshops and seminars; coaching and mentoring from HATC staff, expert teachers, and other field leaders; and faculty participation in prominent professional development opportunities for day-school and language teachers. Throughout the initiative, students’ Hebrew knowledge and skills are measured using tools developed by HATC and Avant Assessment, a leading language proficiency assessment provider. This effort will be led on the ground by Judy Finkelstein-Taff, Head of School, Tamar Cytryn, Director of Jewish Studies and Campus Life, and Penina Berdugo, Director of Hebrew Curriculum, with the HATC leadership of Tal Gale, Chief Program Officer, and Liat Kadosh, Director of Embedded Expertise. Rosov Consulting, a leading firm engaged in program evaluation in the Jewish community, will lead the effort to document and assess this groundbreaking initiative.
“We could not be more pleased to see this bold initiative come to Chicago, building upon the strong engagement with Hebrew education that has always been a hallmark of our community,” said Lonnie Nasatir, President of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Chicago. “This is a terrific opportunity to leverage both the expertise of Hebrew at the Center and CJDS’s wonderful faculty, leadership and families, and advancing our shared belief in Hebrew’s power to deepen Jewish identity and connection.”
According to the CEO of HATC, Rabbi Andrew Ergas: “We were very impressed by the outstanding commitment of the Chicago community to Hebrew. This played a crucial part in the selection of CJDS as a Leading in Hebrew school. The initiative will build upon existing expertise and embed pedagogic know-how in Chicago, and eventually in communities across North America, with the goal of enhancing the delivery of Hebrew language education and the corresponding student outcomes in Hebrew proficiency. Ultimately, this expertise will raise the quality of Hebrew language learning such that Hebrew becomes an integral and elevated part of Jewish life in a community.”
Given the complexity of the undertaking, HATC employs a highly selective process, choosing a school based on strong school leadership with a demonstrated commitment to the pursuit of excellence in Hebrew programs, a culture and track record of investment in staff professional development, and an expressed desire and intention to contribute to the field of Hebrew teaching and learning. CJDS is the second school to be selected into this national program. The initiative launched in Washington, DC in 2019 with the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital. “We are grateful to HATC for the pivotal role it plays in lifting the professionalization of Hebrew instruction in the day school world to the next level. Milton has benefitted from working with HATC for almost a decade to make the school a leader in Hebrew instruction in North America,” says Naomi Reem, outgoing Head of School at Milton.
Judy Finkelstein-Taff, Head of School of CJDS said: “We are honored and thrilled to be selected for the Leading in Hebrew initiative and look forward to participating in a program which is designed to benefit CJDS and the entire Chicago Jewish Community. Our CJDS Educational Leadership Team will work with the HATC professionals to enhance and develop our vision of the role of Hebrew in our program throughout the grades, and will engage in an in-depth audit of our school’s Hebrew teaching and learning.” “Given our teachers, students, and our community, we are poised to become a center for Hebrew learning in Chicago and nationally.” said Tamar Cytryn, Director of Judaic Studies and Campus Life at CJDS.
“The task of truly transforming Hebrew language education in North America is one that commands us to think big and implement bold new initiatives with lasting and sustainable impact,” said Arnee Winshall, HATC’s Board President. “HATC’s Leading in Hebrew initiative exemplifies our commitment to revitalizing the teaching and learning of Hebrew and to make it a priority in the diaspora,” she said.
The Board of Directors at Hebrew at the Center (HATC), a leader in Hebrew language advocacy and teacher professional development, today announced that Rabbi Andrew Ergas has been named as Chief Executive Officer. Arnee Winshall, who has held the CEO position since 2015, will continue as President of the Board and lead thought partner.
With more than twenty-five years in Jewish leadership and professional experience in both Israel and in North America, Rabbi Ergas brings a deep commitment to the field of Hebrew. For the past three years, he has served as Chair of the Council for Hebrew Language and Culture in North America. He was the Executive Director of the Shames JCC on the Hudson and spent seven years as Head of School at Beit Rabban in New York City. He is currently finishing his doctoral studies in Jewish education, with a focus on Hebrew, identity and pedagogy.
“Having had the pleasure of working with Andrew to elevate the status of Hebrew for the last seven years in connection with the Hebrew Council, I cannot imagine a more fitting candidate,” said Arnee Winshall. “With Andrew’s arrival, HATC is poised for growth as the Jewish community develops an appreciation for the importance of the revitalization of Hebrew in the Diaspora.”
“The task of truly transforming Hebrew language education in North America is one that commands us to think big and implement bold new initiatives with lasting and sustainable impact,” said Andrew Ergas. “I am happy to be joining the volunteer and professional leadership of Hebrew at the Center to expand upon its historic successes and help lead both the organization and the field to bring the Hebrew language to the forefront as a communal priority.”
Arnee Winshall will continue her leadership role in her capacity as President of the Board of Directors of HATC. This change will allow her to focus further upon strengthening and expanding the Board, growing the visibility of HATC in the education field, and increasing philanthropic support.