From Hebrew Infusion to Acquisition: Unleashing the Power of the Hebrew Language

When Charles Dickens, a somewhat repentant purveyor of antisemitic tropes, opens A Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he might be describing the contemporary Jewish experience. In every generation, our people confront new opportunities, but also new and historic challenges. Today is no different. With a rise in antisemitism, many young people are choosing to move towards the exit of the Jewish community, and the growing gaps between both Jews of different orientations and between the two largest Jewish communities, Israel and North America, are of critical concern. As more Jews begin to define themselves as “Just Jewish,” “Culturally Jewish,” or consider removing “Jewish” from their identities, we must unlock strategies and interventions that creatively weave both the old and the new in ways that engage, inspire, and connect.

Read the full article by Rabbi Andrew Ergas in the winter 2023 Jewish Educational Leadership, Building the Jewish Experience issue by The Lookstein Center

HATC Newsletter: Hitkadmut Workshops, Hebrew Musicals, and More!


Our Big Fat Greek Chanukah by Dr. Jeremy Benstein, HATC Senior Advisor

Elections And Politics – Hebrew Style

By Dr. Jeremy Benstein

The Choosing People

Both the Israeli and American publics are going to the polls this month, to take part in that supreme ritual of democracy – elections. The word for “elections” in Hebrew is bechirot, from b-ch-r (בחר), “choose.” We are able to choose our representatives because politically we have zechut bechira (זכות בחירה), “the right to vote.” Some might argue that even more fundamental is the belief in bechira chofshit (בחירה חופשית), “free choice” (or “free will”).

While a mivchar (מבחר) is simply a “range” or “selection,” something nivchar (נבחר) is “chosen” or “select.” For example, the nivcharim (נבחרים) are “those chosen to represent,” for instance in Knesset; and a nivcheret (נבחרת) is an “all-star team” in sports.

In Israel, though, we vote for party lists, not individual candidates. This sounds more fun in English: it’s about parties! Here we have miflagot (מפלגות),“political parties,” from p-l-g (פלג), a root meaning “to divide, split.” The rabbis called the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) “Dor Hapelaga” (דור הפלגה), “the Generation of Division” (or divisiveness). In its own babbling way, with twenty-some-odd parties (and some are quite odd!) and the likes of Bibi and Benny, Yair and Yvet, Merav and Betzalel (and Ayman and Mansour), Israeli politics is indeed plagued by palganut (פלגנות), “disputes” and “divisions,” “fracas” and “fray.”

Affairs of city and state

But not all election related words are Hebrew in origin. For instance, the word “politics” itself, in Hebrew, politika (פּוֹלִיטִיקָה). Coming from the Greek for city, polis, it refers to running civic affairs. In Hebrew, it can appear in a number of forms: a politician is a politikai (פּוֹלִיטִיקָאִי), and if an issue or organization has become politicized, it has experienced politizatzia (פוליטיזציה). There was even once a political commentary television show called Popolitika (פופּוֹלִיטִיקָה), whose distinctive and very vociferous combination of politics and populism made it very, well, popular.

Another Greek contribution is demokratya (דֵמוֹקרָטִיָה). There is no single Hebrew word that means democracy, though it is usually defined or glossed as shilton ha’am (שלטות העם), “the rule of the people” (as in the Greek roots: demos, “people,” kratos, “rule”). Here, too, we see a variety of forms: there are states which are demokratyot (דמוקרטיות)(plural), and others undergoing demokratizatziya (דמוקרטיזציה).

In elections, the parties struggle for every seat in the Knesset, known as mandatim (מנדטים). This time from the Latin, a mandate is a commission or authorization (from manus and datum, “given over into the hand”), and elegantly expresses the idea of representative democracy – demokratya yitzugit (דמוקרטיה ייצוגית)– that the MKs are there because we sent them there: they are emissaries on our behalf.

Let’s make a (democratic) deal

Sometimes in order to wangle a place on a party list that is considered reali, that is, “realistic,” or likely to get in, a politician will need to wheel and deal, finagle or otherwise coax and cajole his – or her – way there. This may involve a promise of quid-pro-quo arrangements known in Hebrew as dilim (דילים) (“deals”). Though it’s all part of playing the political game, the shadier dilim may be, or become, quite scandalous. These are two more loan words you may be likely to read on the op-ed pages: intrigot (אִינְטרִיגות) and skandalim (סקנדלים). Even though skandal has a lovely Hebrew equivalent – sha’aruryah (שַׁעֲרוּרִיָה) – it has not been completely replaced.

Unite and rule

The ruling coalition of parties who form the government is called – what else?  – the koalitziya (קוֹאָלִיצִיָה). Those not in the koalitziya from the opozitziya (קוֹאָלִיצִיָה), the opposition (whether loyal or not). These are examples of words for which the Hebrew Language Academy has proposed Hebrew equivalents, but which simply have not stuck. Impress your Israeli friends with the words yachdah (יחדה) and negdah  (נגדה) which are the official Hebrew terms for “coalition” and “opposition,” respectively, from y-ch-d (יחד), “together” (see here), and n-g-d (נגד) “against, opposed.”

But despite all this, there’s more Hebrew than not in political palaver. The main ancient political institution that the State of Israel revived with its founding is the Knesset, taking its name from “the Great Assembly” (k-n-s (כנס)– “assemble”) of the first return to Zion from Persian times almost 2500 years ago. For a discussion of “Knesset” and related words, see here.

Going behind the curtain

To insure privacy in the voting process, we go into a booth behind a curtain, which is called a pargod (פַּרגוֹד). Coming into Hebrew from Greek back in Talmudic times, the pargod was a sort of metaphysical partition between humans and the deity, and hearing something from meachorei hapargod (מאחורי נפרגוד), “behind the curtain” (or screen) meant eavesdropping on God, hearing something from the heavenly sphere. More recently (1969-2005), the word began referring to a more theatrical curtain – for example, the Pargod club was an edgy fringe theater and jazz nightclub in Jerusalem.

But the cultic association continues in the voting process. While behind the curtain, we take one of the many slips of paper, representing the different parties, put it into an envelope and slip it into a slot of a big box – which is the kalpi (קַלפֵּי) (or kalfi). Also a Greek term from the rabbinic period, kalpi originally meant an urn for drawing lots, such as the lots to decide the fate of the two goat sacrifices on Yom Kippur. One was to be sacrificed on the altar, the other driven out to a place called Azazel (which has since become an epithet for “hell,” as in “go to…”) – becoming the original “scape-goat”. So, where our forebears removed slips of paper from the kalpi, we put ours in, but perhaps the result – choosing a scapegoat – isn’t all that different…

The some of its parts

Once the process is complete, the votes are tallied, and the mandatim are apportioned. The head of the party with the best chance of creating a coalition (usually the biggest party) will be approached by President Herzog, the nasi (נָשִׂיא) (another Biblical word) to engage in harkavat hamemshalah (הרכבת הממשלה), the process of “forming the government,” literally assembling it, using the same verb as putting together a puzzle.

The classical associations continue, for this is often known in the press as ma’aseh merkavah (מעשי המרכבה), meaning “the act of assembly,” but referencing a Jewish mystical concept meaning something like “the works of the chariot.” This is a theosophical doctrine, also stemming from the rabbinic period, based on Ezekiel’s vision of the divine throne or chariot (Ezekiel 1). Because this is indeed a complex mystical idea, colloquially, it has also come to mean “no easy feat.”

And indeed translating the will of the people (or the range of wills of the range of voters) and coming up with a group of people who can govern the country is exactly that.

HATC Updates: Call for Proposals for Hitkadmut, Denver Jewish Day School Highlight, and More

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:

  • 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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Hebrew Infu­sion Wins National Jewish Book Award

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 – Yom Ha’Ivrit 2021

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.


Balancing the Urgency of Now with Renewed Efforts Towards the Future

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. 

  • At Hebrew at the Center, this balancing act meant providing new tools to the field that matched the needs of the moment while still announcing the selection of the Chicago Jewish Day School (CJDS) as the second Leading in Hebrew school, joining Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital in our more than $1,000,000 investment to support demonstration schools to become paradigms of excellence in Hebrew education.
  • It meant restructuring our staff so we could continue to support embedded services as part of our core business while building out a long-term direct service approach for professional development. 
  • And it informed our decision to both allocate budget and staff towards continued work in the day school space while launching new efforts to engage the Jewish community in conversations about Hebrew, to create a platform to bring new research on Hebrew education to the field, and to begin efforts to strengthen the Hebrew agenda in informal education settings.


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:

    • Attend to Your Core Purpose: While HATC is no different than many other organizations in that we had neither fully detailed plans nor surplus staff on call to react to the pandemic, we have focused our efforts first and foremost on those activities at the heart of our mission, enabling the revolutionizing of the teaching and learning Hebrew. 
    • Lean into the Work: This is not a time for slow reaction or paralysis through analysis. Our staff quickly jumped into the fray with new online programming, reallocation of staff time, professional development offerings even when we were only a few weeks ahead of our learners in terms of acquiring expertise, accepting that we would get it wrong sometimes. 
    • Unleash New Assets:  All people working in nonprofits typically have a wider range of expertise and skills than defined by their primary operational functions. We have activated talents within our team that have allowed us to do things we hadn’t considered in the past. 
    • Strengthen Connective Tissue: Things are changing too quickly to go it alone. There is tremendous wisdom in thoughtful crowdsourcing and the strengthening of networks provides information, effective correctives, and some sense of personal and professional sanity. 
    • The Moment Demands Boldness: In addition to rapid shifts in our operations and our outputs, we dedicate time each week for big thinking so we can support our major initiatives and generate new opportunities for impact during and after this pandemic. This energizes us and helps remind those we serve and our supporters that Jews have historically triumphed by framing the challenges of the day in the context of a higher purpose.

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.