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This Week, Millions of Jews Will Not Understand the Words They Are Saying

Wonder Woman and the second gentleman are getting ready to do it.   

Chuck Schumer and Drake will most certainly do it.  

Isaac Herzog, Judy Blume, and Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz cannot wait to do it.   

I, and likely you, will probably do it as well.   

We are all getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, preparing ourselves once again to read, sing and make heart-felt declarations in Hebrew. And for far too many, there is little to no understanding of those words coming out of our mouths.    

So, is understanding Hebrew truly even important to the future of the Jewish world?   

Hebrew is certainly important as a connector of world Jewry. I am not the only person surfacing questions about Hebrew. There is a Stand With Us YouTube of Elon Gold’s currently making the rounds where the comedian asks, Have you ever wondered why most Jews don’t actually speak Hebrew?. Beyond the humorous but biting critique of his own experience as both a student and a parent of a Hebrew language education, Gold rightfully notes that these Jewish educational settings focus too much on what we are not supposed to do and not enough on teaching the actual language of Hebrew. He then brings home the real message: “It is so crazy to know laws and not be able to communicate with my people in our homeland.” If we want to be real partners with global Jewry and capable of having a sophisticated conversation about the Jewish future with Israelis, we must ensure we are competent speakers of the Jewish people’s language.   

Hebrew is certainly important to our experience of our holy days. Whether sharing a simple “Shana Tova,” or chanting aloud from the machzor throughout the yamim nora’im, the High Holidays reflect a moment when we look to the future and when most North American Jews encounter and use Hebrew as the language of their people. Like the blast of the shofar, the use of our sacred tongue between family and friends or within a congregation creates the soundscape of these holy days as our people wrestle with powerful word concepts such as t’shuva and slicha. And in our culture, every day has the power to be holy, an ordinary day that can and should be set aside for extra-ordinary actions and transcendence.  

Hebrew is certainly important to Jewish education. On the short list of well-known Jews that opened this piece, the name Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz was included both due to the tremendous work she has been doing over the arc of her career in Jewish education and due to the important essay she shared last week in eJewish Philanthropy, Hebrew learning in synagogues: A call for change. Moskowitz rightly challenges our congregations and our community to rethink how we introduce children to their sacred language, drawing both from historical approaches and research-based insights on how someone learns to read and engage with a language. She is correct to critique a tradition that is ineffective and counter-productive, knowing that this leads to too many turning away from finding the beauty and spirituality in Jewish worship. Breaking one’s teeth over a language that can elevate and penetrate is bad for young Jews, for the Jewish future, and most definitely for Hebrew. And if we are failing in congregational schools, the first step in most young people’s Jewish educational journey, we are bequeathing to the next generation nothing but a future of more Jews reciting Hebrew words they do not understand.  

Hebrew is certainly important as a tool for leadership. One of the entities that consolidated into Prizmah was Ravsak, boldly stated, “Our client is the Jewish future.” Fifteen years ago, Hebrew at the Center was founded in reaction to a call to action similar to Moskowitz’s in the Jewish day school world where, as one of our long-time supporters quipped, “In no place is more time and money spent not teaching Hebrew than in Jewish day schools.” We understood we needed to be disruptive in our approach, drawing from language learning science, a deep commitment to training Hebrew speakers to become Hebrew language instructors, and the establishment of proficiency standards and assessment systems that could ensure data-driven instruction. However, as important as pedagogic and programmatic interventions are, we know that fundamental work must be done in creating a culture of seriousness and commitment to Hebrew learning on the part of parents, school leaders, and the community. Given the high percentage of Jewish communal leaders that come out of the day school world, it would be a tragedy to continue wasting the hours being spent on Hebrew language instruction without ensuring that we were seeing a true return on this investment of time.  

Hebrew is certainly important – because Hebrew is important! The Hebrew language is fundamental to Judaism, Jewish culture, and identity. Hebrew is a shared inheritance and tool that transcends the diversity of theological and ideological differences during a time of growing fractures. Hebrew is a living bridge that connects global Jewry and opens access to our sacred text and contemporary Israeli film, television, and literature. And in this particular moment when Israelis are wrestling the fundamental dilemmas of building a Jewish and democratic state, Hebrew language provides opportunity for the rest of the Jewish family to be able to have an insider’s understanding of what is taking place rather than remaining dependent upon translated OpEds, news articles, and demonstration placards.  

On Rosh Hashanah, a new year begins and the opportunity for us to individually and collectively be written in the book of life is renewed again, creating the opportunity for us to both improve ourselves and ensure our future. We believe that the revolution that Nachama is calling for in congregational and part-time schools, our efforts in day schools and summer camps, and the critical work our field colleagues are doing in these settings and more demand communal attention, finding ways to unleash the power of Hebrew in North America. Together, we can ensure that the largest Jewish community outside of Israel does not give up its commitment, ownership, and love of the Jewish language.  

While we can forgive and  be forgiven throughout the year, something we will be reminded about during these upcoming days, we will not be forgiven for not taking this message about Hebrew seriously, only to bemoan ongoing Hebrew illiteracy in the future. We can make a difference in the level of Jewish literacy, offer a point of unity to a fractured people, and reverse the expanding gap between Israel and us. Our tradition teaches that sha’arei t’shuva, the gates of repentance, are always open. Let us use this moment to reflect on what we can do to better Hebrew language education and repent our misguided way, collectively stepping through the gates of Hebrew. We will soon read in the Torah that our world was created through speech, and we know humans make meaning through language. Let us pick up Nachama’s gauntlet and respond to Elon’s taunt, launching a strategic and collective effort to strengthen the ability of the members of our community to feel truly at home in Hebrew. As we use Hebrew words to pray for ourselves and our community, let us pray for true understanding and then take a big step towards change.  

Rabbi Andrew Ergas is the Chief Executive Officer of Hebrew at the Center, with its vision of a world in which the Hebrew language profoundly enhances the joy and richness of Jewish identity and connects Jewish communities around the world. The organization works to revolutionize Hebrew language education and engagement as it advocates for Hebrew as a more prominent and intentional feature of Jewish life. 

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