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Why Don't More American Jews Learn Hebrew?

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

In a recent blog post, Michael Weingrad, Associate Professor at Portland State University, asserts that the reason more American Jews don't learn Hebrew is that they don't want to. Weingrad argues that there is an "active pressure of the American Jewish psyche. American Jewish identity is based on feeling outside, on the threshold knocking at the door but never quite entering. Knocking at the door of Jewish identity, knocking at the door of American identity. To enter fully would be to lose one's identity and become something different." The reason that more American Jews don't learn Hebrew, according to Weingrad, is that we have a psychological impediment that makes it unthinkable for most American Jews to do so.

I have spent significant time studying the research and thinking about teaching Hebrew language in the United States. I was not sure that I agreed with Weingrad's thesis, so I asked a few educators at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School what they thought about this argument. Ortal Wikoff is an Upper School Hebrew language teacher and has been working closely with Hebrew at the Center on the school's move to a proficiency model of language instruction. Ortal responded that she disagrees with the author. She believes the reason that Jews in America are not motivated to learn the language is two-fold: 1) they don't see the benefit of learning Hebrew, and 2) it's not a language offered in public schools. Unlike Spanish, Japanese, or Chinese, there is no clear professional or societal benefit to learning Hebrew for American Jews—and that doesn't even get into the issue of American Jews having less of a connection with Judaism or Israel with each passing generation. In her experience, Ortal does not see self-doubt or the challenge of the language as the real obstacles. Many American Jews learn Chinese in high school, even though it's a far more challenging language to learn than Hebrew, because they think there will be future benefits for them professionally. Spanish is a less difficult language to learn, but the same could be said for the American Jews who choose to learn Spanish over Hebrew—it has professional application and it's a language that is spoken by a large number of people in the U.S.

Ortal says that CESJDS makes a point to convey the connection between Hebrew, Judaism, and Israel from the time of our student's first academic exposure. The school constantly expresses to students how important it is to learn the language, to be connected to Israel, to strengthen our community, and to maintain and enhance the very important connection with our cultural heritage. If Hebrew's worth were conveyed to the American Jewish community outside of a Jewish day school framework the same way it is expressed to our students, Ortal believes it would have a significant impact on the numbers of American Jews learning Hebrew.

I also spoke with Aileen Goldstein, the Upper School Academic Dean and a CESJDS alum, about her perspective on why more American Jews don't learn Hebrew. Aileen believes that Weingrad left out any mention of key areas in Jewish life—beyond the Orthodox community—in which Hebrew is a core value and is elevated as such. She expressed to me that Zionist camping movements such as Habonim Dror require Hebrew as a core component of the day; all announcements are made in Hebrew, half of the songs are in Hebrew, and it is the frequent incorporation of Hebrew words throughout daily life that begins to help young minds absorb, learn, and master elements of the language. Aileen feels that schools often fall short in our Hebrew language goals because we teach the language as both language and culture, without the core guiding principles of effective language instruction that are present in the study of other languages.

Aileen also shared that she agrees with Weingrad in his assertion that as a Jewish community we are somewhat threatened by Hebrew: why do we need a language to set us apart when we often feel more a part of the American community than part of the world Jewish community? She believes we would be better served to think of Hebrew as a connector, as a means of communicating with the Jewish people worldwide. As Eliezer Ben-Yehuda so frequently noted, language is part of the essence of what brings people together; were we to highlight Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people and to truly use it to connect with Jews worldwide, we might see an increased value in learning it, shifting the conversation from the fear Weingrad identified to a matter of pride and connection.

In my work on the advisory board of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education, we have looked to seed research that will give practitioners guidance on what factors constrain and inhibit the learning of Hebrew by 21st century American Jews. In a panel discussion of Hebrew language experts, we found three potential factors. One was that there is a general indifference in American culture to learning other languages and studying other cultures. Another reason was that changing attitudes to Israel and Zionism, alongside a historic disdain for Hebrew in many sectors of the Jewish community, contributes to the lack of desire to master Hebrew. Finally, some of the experts expressed that psychological factors such as Hebrew being connected to Jewishness, and Hebrew as a disconnected communication vehicle, work against students feeling confident and capable of learning Hebrew.

As a field, there is much more to study and understand about why more American Jews, beyond Jewish day schools, do not learn Hebrew.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @mitchmalkus

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