Head of School Blog

Education Matters - One Head of School's reflections on education, Jewish education and the Jewish world

The Critical Role Hebrew Language Learning Plays in Identity Development

This past Sunday, I participated on a panel for Hebrew at the Center’s annual Hitkadmut Hebrew Educators Conference. The group’s focus was on “systemic strategies for integrating Hebrew through schools” and on the head’s role in this work.

As I prepared for the discussion, I found myself initially thinking a lot about supporting teachers and programs and about the research on language learning for students. All of the heads on the panel are from schools working with Hebrew at the Center and, while at different stages, each employs a research-based teaching methodology recommended by the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) with a focus on speaking and comprehension. 

Numerous studies indicate that students experience cognitive benefits as a result of second language learning, particularly when the target language is so different from the native language with a different alphabet and directionality. Research shows that learning a second language improves your performance in other academic areas, enhances your memory and other brain functions, and can help increase your understanding of the languages you already speak. 

All of these are excellent reasons why learning Hebrew is important. At the same time, these benefits are available from learning other languages, so why is learning Hebrew so important in a Jewish day school environment and why should schools and families be investing in learning Hebrew? 

Hebrew is the essential connective thread to Jewish Civilization, Jewish peoplehood, Israel and its people, and to most Jewish literature. Hebrew provides a sense of belonging and familial connection, and offers access to the historical references and meanings conveyed in classical Jewish ideas, texts, constructs, and memories. Hebrew competency is an essential element in understanding modern Israel and its people and culture.

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry, wrote over a century ago that "reading a poem in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil." With apologies for his analogy, Bialik was expressing that every language conveys feelings, nuances, and the emotional domain that are unique to itself. It is impossible to have a full appreciation for Hebrew texts and literature in translation.

Only the Hebrew language links us to the past, present, and future of the Jewish people, and to a specific land. No other language – and Jews have spoken many Jewish languages throughout our history – bonds us to the soul of our history, textual tradition, people, and the land of Israel than Hebrew does.

There are very compelling educational reasons for teaching Hebrew that relate to 21st century learning skills and brain research, but at the end of the day, Hebrew alone holds the potential to cement the union between Jews around the world with each other and our heritage, no matter our geography or our religious outlook. Hebrew enables students to be part of our over 4,000 year history as a Jewish people.

For these reasons and their application to identity development, it is vital for schools and families to commit themselves to supporting research-based methods of Hebrew instruction and evaluation. (And it does not hurt that students will be advancing their academics and brain functioning too!)

Mask Optional With Kindness Must Be Our Mantra

Just over a week ago, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) moved to a mask-optional policy as we began to ease the COVID protocols that had been in place since March 2022. After two years of risk mitigation measures established to prevent infection and transmission, we are pulling back slowly and thoughtfully as we move forward, hopefully, to a post-COVID era. As students and faculty/staff are beginning to remove their masks, now is a time to reflect on where we have been, where we may be going, and how we are getting there.

When the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, schools all over the country moved quickly to keep students and faculty connected despite the significant threat and disruption that COVID presented. By the 2020 school year, the focus had shifted to being open for in-person learning as much as possible, keeping the connections of school however atypical, and preventing transmission of the virus. With the advent of highly-effective vaccines and now medications and the recent CDC guidance on mask-optional policies, schools are moving to ease the protocols we have put in place and moving forward.

As schools ease restrictions, the way we handle this process is just as important as the fact that we are finally (!) able to do so. At the start of pandemic, CESJDS’s sense of community was celebrated and also challenged as we sought ways to remain connected in a world where isolation was the norm. One way we maintained community was to comply with the communal norms of masking and physical distancing even when we were not in school. When we announced that we were beginning to ease the restrictions, we also called on our community to embrace one of our School’s core values of V’ahavta l’rei’a’kha (Love Your Neighbor) and exhibit kindness as every member of our community made a decision if they would remove their mask or not.

One thing that I noticed and that was planned throughout CESJDS is that just as teachers initiated lessons to explain the mask-optional policy to their students, the primary teaching has been about the kindness and respect to each other we want to exhibit as both students and educators decide if they will individually mask or not. As I was discussing with a group of Jewish leaders this past week, this may be the primary Torah that emerges from the transition to masks-optional policies. While in some places mask-optional will be celebrated exclusively as the easing of a personal restriction and a return to “normal,” in Jewish day schools and other settings, we should also be celebrating and respecting the choices that different community members make and extending kindness to every person as they make and live through this decision. 

I believe the need for kindness and respect around masking optional policies will continue into the coming weeks and months as more schools and communities adopt the CDC guidance. In meetings with other independent and Jewish day schools in our region, currently about 25% of schools have gone to a mask-optional approach and many others plan to move in this direction within the next month. At CESJDS, my unofficial observation is that approximately 30% of our school community is continuing to wear face coverings. I have observed students interacting as usual, some with masks and some without, with no difference in how each is treated. This kindness and the sense of community that it brings will be essential in schools throughout the country as we move forward. 

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