Some of us live in communities where there are five Jewish day schools and yeshivot within a mile’s radius, while some of us live in states or provinces with only five such schools. Few of us, however, are part of a Jewish day school or yeshiva that is the only game in town and within a five-hour radius! Welcome to the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, a pluralistic Jewish day school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only K-12 Jewish day school in Western Canada, and a proud member of Hebrew at the Center.
For those who are unfamiliar, Winnipeg is on the Prairies, 536 kilometers (about the length of New York State) due north of the US border, between North Dakota and Minnesota, halfway between Vancouver in the West and Toronto in the East.
Hebrew language educators at Gray Academy of Jewish Education may be few, but they are mighty! The school was founded in 1997 as the result of the amalgamation of three founding Jewish day schools. Today, Gray Academy is the crown jewel of the Winnipeg Board of Jewish Education, supported by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, accredited by the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, and a member of Prizmah.
Winnipeg’s P2G region in Israel is the Gallil and this relationship has run deep over 25 years. Gray’s grade 10 & 11 students provide home hospitality to their Israeli-teen counterparts from Danciger High School in Kiryat Shmona, and then travel to Israel touring, going to school and living in the homes of their host brothers and sisters in the Galil. Real bonds of friendship are formed and often last a lifetime. Many of the parents of today’s students are themselves graduates of Gray Academy or one of its predecessors, including Ronit Amihude, Gray’s Director of Learning and Innovation. Ronit says that approximately 25% of her childhood classmates made aliyah. The Zionist-Jewish community of Winnipeg wants their children to see Hebrew language as a prominent and intentional feature of Jewish life.
As part of a recent accreditation self-study, focus groups with various stakeholders – including with high school students – revealed that attention needed to be paid to revitalizing Hebrew language instruction at Gray Academy. The love of Hebrew was there in the lower grades, but older students in the middle and high school were looking for more when it came for learning the language. Said Ronit, “We learned from teen students that joy and excitement around the language wasn’t what it could be. The structure of the program did not make them understand what is so amazing about Hebrew. Students said they want to be able to have real conversations with their Israeli peers. They want connections.” Gray Academy’s students were able to clearly articulate the sentiments we suspect exist in Jewish students around the globe. Their school’s leadership and teachers decided to take on the challenge to help students find the intrinsic motivation to use and love Hebrew language.
Thus was born a new partnership between Gray Academy and Hebrew at the Center, a non-profit that envisions a world where Hebrew is vibrant, celebrated, and pivotal to a thriving Jewish identity and the global Jewish community. Gray Academy became an HATC Member School, applied for and received a grant from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba to invest in a two-year deep dive into making Hebrew language instruction more communicative, relevant, contemporary, and youthful.
Teachers entered this process with enthusiasm and excitement and have gotten more clarity about the goals of teaching and learning Hebrew. Says Ronit, “we don’t want our students to learn content through Hebrew, rather, to learn Hebrew as a communicative language.”
At the same time, the process of change has been challenging. While all members of the Hebrew faculty are licensed teachers, none were formally trained as foreign language teachers. With guidance from HATC, they are learning the theories, experimenting, and tweaking their techniques and lessons. At one point or another, each of these dedicated and professional teachers has hit bumps in the road, yet the remain committed to the process.
Because Gray Academy’s leadership recognizes that this kind of deep, nuanced work never happens on a straight, upward-bound trajectory, each of their 13 Hebrew teachers receives individualized coaching from a member of the HATC team. Additionally, HATC’s Chief of Staff and Director of Education, Dr. Esty Gross, has twice visited Gray Academy and she collaborates with Ronit Amihude. However, since Ronit’s responsibilities at Gray Academy span both General and Jewish education, her dream is to one day have an in-house Hebrew language leader at Gray Academy.
Ronit Amihude and the dedicated Hebrew faculty on the prairies of Manitoba continue to grow, persevere, and develop as a team and as individuals, with their eye on their students’ desire to communicate in Hebrew, with authenticity and joy.