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In Memphis, Tennessee, Israeli Music Soothes Bornblum’s Soul

Music quite naturally stands at the core of learning at the Jewish day school in the heart of Memphis, Tennessee. After all, the city of Memphis is anchored by “Graceland,” the legendary home of Elvis Presley, of blessed memory, arguably one of the greatest American songwriters, singers, and performers of all time. The Bornblum Jewish Community Day School is nourished by both Israel’s and Tennessee’s deep wells of lyrical and liturgical inspiration.  

Since Israel was brutally attacked by Hamas on October 7th, many new Israeli songs of inspiration, determination, mourning, and hope have been written and recorded. As fast as Israeli radio stations get new songs out to the public, Bornblum’s Hebrew faculty members integrate the new music into the teaching of Hebrew, particularly in the Middle School.  Member School Highlight sat down with Michal Almalem, Bornblum’s Judaic Studies Principal and the Hebrew teachers, Rinat Kremer, Sapir Pinto, and Maya Sharabi, to learn how Israeli music is utilized to build Hebrew language and Israeli cultural proficiency, as well as strengthen Jewish identity. MSH wanted to know more about how learning emerging Israeli music over the past 6 months has benefited the teaching of Hebrew language and touched Bornblum’s students, their parents, the wider Memphis community, and even the Israeli community of Memphis’ sister city, Shoham. 

Whereas instinct guides many good Hebrew teachers to believe that learning the Hebrew words and the beautiful melodies of Israeli music will bring students closer to Israel, and that learning some of the vocabulary will bring them even closer, the Hebrew teachers at Bornblum were able to add grammatical constructs, sentence composition, and perfecting multiple drafts for deeper student learning. As first-year Members of Hebrew at the Center, they requested of their coach, Nili Pinhasi, to help the teachers connect the teaching of Israeli songs, in Hebrew, to ACTFL’s standards for second language acquisition. Once these techniques were applied to the first song, the teachers became increasingly adept at teaching Hebrew language and Israeli culture through music. 

In middle school, Rinat, Sapir, and Michal first play the music, then pull out vocabulary words that are already familiar, then add some new Hebrew vocabulary. Students then orally express and write in simple Hebrew their understanding of the meaning of the song, all while listening to the song again and again. Then the teachers introduce and teach one or two new grammatical structures that appear in the song. The next step is for the students to translate the song from its original Hebrew to English. At this point, students go back to their first Hebrew draft of the meaning of the school and improve upon it, writing a brief description of the song in English, to share with non-Hebrew speaking audiences. 

Emergent Israeli music has been incorporated into daily prayer and into community-wide Kabbalot Shabbat at Bornblum, attended by parents and grandparents. Before a song is sung at Kabbalat Shabbat, one or more of the middle school children make a short presentation, in English, about the origins and meaning of the song. The songs taught this year include: 

  • Yeish Lochamim (יש לוחמים) 
  • Im Machar Ani Meit (אם מחר אני מת) 
  • Giborai Al – (גיבורי על) by HaTikva 6, full of Hebrew vocabulary about different professions that the students already knew. 
  • Hai – the original version by Ofra Hazzah, compared and contrasted with the remix by Noa Kirel. 
  • LaTzeit MeiDika’on (לצאת מדיקאון) 

After one Kabbalat Shabbat, the song LaTzeit MeiDika’on (לצאת מדיקאון) organically became something of a schoolwide anthem, together with the video clips of soldiers coming back to their families after long stints in Gaza. The students were then challenged: the first student to memorize the entire first verse would get to sing it the following week as a solo. By the following week, the entire school had learned the chorus and one student sang the first verse as a solo. Today, every student at Bornblum can sing the entire first verse. In March, when visitors came to Memphis from their twin city of Shoham, they were invited to hear the Bornblum students sing this song and were overcome with emotion to hear these American children singing this song. 

At another Kabbalat Shabbat assembly, there was a display of ceramic hearts, created by the students, engraved with the names of each of the hostages, with a red balloon attached to each heart. When over 100 hostages returned home, each ceramic heart was given to the freed captive, creating a powerful and meaningful bond. The distribution of the hearts to returning hostages were coordinated through Bornblum’s “sister school” in Shoham. 

The war has tightened ties between Soham’s and Bornblum’s middle school students, who have been paired up as WhatsApp buddies. To practice correct writing skills, the Bornblum students write in Hebrew and the Shoham students write back in English. They also make voice recordings to send back and forth, recording, blushing, erasing, and recording again, until their messages meet their own expectations of what is acceptable to send. When the Bornblum 8th graders travel to Israel in May, they will spend 2 full days with their friends in Shoham. 

Maya Sharabi is the only member of the Hebrew department who does not teach in the middle school. As an early learning specialist, she wants her 1st and 2nd grade students to experience the emotions of the war through music without scaring them. She returned to a classic Israeli childrens’ song, “Eretz Yisrael Sheli.” While teaching the vocabulary, grammatical structures, and music of this Hebrew song, she focused on the educational messages, including the need to rebuild, repave, and replant what was destroyed by Hamas in Israel, and that our brothers and sisters in Israel do these things with love and filled with hope for the future. 

Much of what Bornblum’s Hebrew teachers undertook would have happened whether they were Hebrew at the Center members or not. Their faculty is dedicated and strong, their relationship with the city of Shoham is well-established, and music is deep in the souls of every resident of Elvis’ hometown, Memphis, Tennessee. However, learning and incorporating the ACTFL scale and mindfully teaching Hebrew through authentic Israeli cultural materials has given the teachers a professional framework upon which to turn this terrible moment in Israeli history into specific growth opportunities in Hebrew language acquisition. 

2024 State of the Field of Hebrew Language Education Report

We are excited to share the new 2024 State of the Field Report: Hebrew Education in North American Jewish Day Schools.

This report brings together significant work of partners and stakeholders to better understand, recognize and leverage advancements in Hebrew education throughout our field. The 80-page report features aggregated and curated knowledge acquired from our field over the past 12 months.

Join Hebrew teachers, Hebrew leaders, and other school leaders for an intensive, virtual conference on Sunday, April 3, 11:30 – 3:30 EDT. 

Click here for more information and to register