Hebrew has always been a highlight of the day for students at PJA, the Portland Jewish Academy, in Portland, Oregon, but ever since Hamas’ inconceivable, evil, and vicious attack on Israeli civilians along the Gaza border, triggering a war between Israel and Hamas, creating connections to Israel through joyful Hebrew learning has become even more important and relevant.
At PJA, the formal Hebrew language acquisition happens through immersive play, song, movement, and all forms of joy. For that, PJA is grateful to their dynamic, active, and joy-filled Hebrew Kindergarten teacher, Maya Katri, who communicates with the students through Hebrew language and broad, happy smiles.
As was the case in many Jewish day schools, PJA’s original model had Hebrew and Judaic studies subjects taught by the same teacher in all lower school grades. Over time the administration has come to see the benefits of matching the right-fit teacher for each subject, and that in some cases, it is preferable to have native Hebrew speakers teaching Hebrew but not necessarily teaching Judaic studies, and visa versa. Adopting this flexible mindset was a significant philosophical and programmatic switch, and one that has proven to benefit both Judaic knowledge and identify, as well as Hebrew language education of PJA students. This year, the best fit is for 1st, 2nd, and 4th grade classes have separate Hebrew and Judaic studies teachers, while in kindergarten, 3rd, and 5th grades, the best fit is having the same educator teaching both Hebrew and Judaic Studies.
On a recent visit to PJA, Hebrew at the Center Senior Education Consultant, Dr. Carmit Burstyn, was wowed by the energy and vibrancy of Maya Katri’s first grade classroom. “The students are active every single moment, they are fully engaged in their learning, and Hebrew is everywhere!” reported Dr. Burstyn.
According to PJA’s principal, Merrill Hendin, that love of Hebrew is evident throughout the school, not just in Maya Katri’s classes. “The Hebrew teachers are quite skilled, and the student in all grade levels are genuinely happy when the Hebrew teacher comes into their classroom. During Hebrew learning, there is rigger, but it is not intense.” “This is why,” according to the Jewish Life and Judaic Studies Director, Amy Katz, “Hebrew is such a joyful time of the day for our students.” The result is that students remain interested in Hebrew language learning all through their years at PJA. The goal is for PJA students to have a deep connection to their Jewish identity and to Israel, and Hebrew language is the vital connector to both. PJA prides itself on a high percentage of alumni who spend a semester in Israel during high school or during college, and when they study abroad in Israel PJA alumni arrive at Ulpan with a strong foundation of Hebrew upon which they can build.
PJA students’ “love and interest” in Hebrew language accelerated to “pride and intensity,” exactly one month ago to the day. As details of the surprise attacks on Simchat Torah emerged, the joy associated with Hebrew language fell under a veil of sadness and darkness, particularly for the older students who are more aware of the shocking triggers to Israel’s war against Hamas. Students’ usual positive vibes for Hebrew, combined with deep engagement with Israel and Judaic studies, melded into a different kind of high energy, more akin to determination than to joy. PJA Middle School students became highly driven to do their best work when writing letters of solidarity and encouragement, in Hebrew, to peers in Israel. They are proud that among all the Jewish children in Portland, Oregon, they – the students at PJA – are the lucky ones who can step up in comforting and encouraging the children of Israel, in Hebrew.
Amy Katz and the Hebrew teachers in her department are excited and appreciative to be first-year members of Hebrew at the Center, and truly treasure the well-developed, well-thought-out, and research-based professional development and coaching that they are now receiving from their project leader, Hebrew at the Center’s, Dr. Carmit Burstyn. Amy has wanted PJA to work with Hebrew at the Center for several years, but the administration found that doing so was financially out of reach for a school of 170 students. Thanks to the Cascadia Project, which includes 12 schools from the Pacific Northwest located in the cities of Portland Oregon, Seattle Washington, and Vancouver British Columbia, PJA has been receiving professional development services from Hebrew at the Center for their Hebrew language faculty since June, 2023.
Stay tuned as over time we track the Hebrew language trajectory of Portland Jewish Academy.