The many advantages of learning Hebrew

A student learning Hebrew at Kachol Lavan. (Schwartz/Reisman centre photo)

One day, Naomi Shaw found one of her coworkers at Camp Ramah in Northern California crying because she couldn’t speak Hebrew. Not speaking Hebrew meant she couldn’t integrate the language into her conversations with her campers, or lead services – two activities that camp counsellors were encouraged do to.

On the other hand, Shaw, who was 21 at the time, could speak Hebrew. She wasn’t fluent, but after spending most of her academic career in Vancouver’s Jewish day school system, she was at least familiar with it.

“It’s definitely helped me a lot in terms of just how involved I’ve been in the Jewish community.… When I go to that camp, I feel very privileged to have had the education that I did,” she said. “Without my Jewish day school background, and USY (United Synagogue Youth), I would’ve been done for. And I really believe that.”

According to the 2016 census, over 28,000 Canadians speak Hebrew in their homes, including over 8,000 people living in households that mainly speak Hebrew, of which more than 3,000 people only speak Hebrew at home. And those numbers don’t include the thousands of Canadian Jews who have learned some Hebrew throughout their lives, but don’t speak it at home.

As Shaw’s experience attests, Canadian Jews don’t need to be fluent in Hebrew, or speak it regularly, for it to have an impact on them. Likewise, many people learn Hebrew, or have their children learn Hebrew, for cultural reasons.

Pamela Cytrynbaum of Markham, Ont., is one such person. She doesn’t know much Hebrew herself, but her husband went through the Jewish day school system in Toronto, where he learned the language. Jewish day school wasn’t an affordable option for them, so a few years ago, they signed their five-year-old daughter up for a Jewish educational program at Chabad in Markham.

“Then, last year, we didn’t put her in Hebrew school and she actually really missed it,” said Cytrynbaum. “When we were lighting the Shabbat candles or saying the brachot, or whatever it was, she constantly kept saying, ‘But I want to go back to Hebrew school.’ ”

At their daughter’s request, the Cytrynbaums enrolled her in JRoots, a program at the Schwartz/Reisman Jewish community centre in Thornhill, Ont., because the timing worked better with their schedule. JRoots focuses more on the Hebrew language than the Chabad program did, according to Cytrynbaum, and less on some other aspects of Jewish culture. But what’s most important to Cytrynbaum is that her daughter enjoys her time in a Jewish learning environment.

“Ultimately it comes down to whether my child seems engaged, happy to go, excited about doing her homework,” said Cytrynbaum.

She and her husband plan to send their young son there, as well, “to help preserve our Jewish culture,” she said. “I mean, it’s an extra thing I can give to our children that I don’t have – having some Hebrew.”

JRoots is one of two main supplementary programs that the Schwartz/Reisman Centre offers for children. The other is called Kachol Lavan (which means “blue white,” the colours of the Israeli flag). It teaches similar Jewish cultural lessons as Jroots does, but entirely in Hebrew. It’s aimed at Israeli children who are living in the community. The Schwartz/Reisman Centre also offers a less-structured summer program called Kochavim that immerses campers in Hebrew.

Israeli families who have moved to Canada have learned that they can’t take their children’s Jewish identity and knowledge of Hebrew for granted, as it can be difficult for children to adopt or understand a culture if they only encounter it within their homes.

One Toronto-based Hebrew teacher who opted to send her children to public school saw the results of assimilation firsthand. Her eldest child learned to speak Hebrew fluently early on, but it took progressively more time and effort for her two younger children to learn the language. That’s because the eldest child was born into a fully Hebrew-speaking household, but when her younger children were born, they spoke more English in the home.

That same Hebrew teacher, who asked that her name be left out of this story, also does some work for Kachol Lavan. She described the students there as similar to her own children, in that they speak the language well, but can’t read and write at the same level.

“It’s a whole different ball game because they’re not exposed on a daily basis,” she said. “Therefore, their retention is smaller.”

The goal of JRoots, Kachol Lavan and Kochavim is to immerse the students in Hebrew, in order to make them as comfortable with the language as possible.

The goal of schools like JRoots is to immerse students in Hebrew.

The two supplementary programs teach around 750 students combined for three hours a week, while 100 students participated in Kochavim last summer and more are joining every year, said Andrew Levy, the CEO of the Schwartz/Reisman Centre.

“We see ourselves as a hub of community and our vision is to inspire people to live the Jewish lives they want to live, so we’re always looking for opportunities to inspire that Jewish life. And what we’ve learned is Hebrew has become an incredible vehicle for us in community building, because it’s something that really appeals to, and is a common thread amongst, most of these Jewish families,” he said.


That desire for connection is a constant in Jewish communities across the country. In Halifax, where Joanna Mirsky-Wexler teaches Hebrew and other Jewish classes, the two synagogues work together to ensure that local children have access to a Jewish education through the Halifax Joint Hebrew School.

Aside from being one of the teachers, Mirsky-Wexler is also on the school’s education committee, so she has an in-depth knowledge of how the school operates. The school uses its five hours of class time each week to build on what Mirsky-Wexler calls the major pillars of Jewish identity. That means ensuring they have a functional knowledge of Judaism and the community, which includes preparing the students to be b’nai mitzvah.

To accomplish these goals, the school teaches a multitude of Jewish subjects. Mirsky-Wexler alone teaches introductory Hebrew to grades 2 and 3, Israeli culture and Hebrew to Grade 4 students and Jewish history to grades 6 and 7. She uses games and activities with the younger students to make learning fun, so they associate Jewish school, and by extension their Jewish identities, with feeling good.

“In small communities, you have to really engage with them as Jews, as much as about Hebrew language,” she said.

The same is evidently true in large communities, as well, at least according to Jonathan Levy, the head of school at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (TanenbaumCHAT). He views the high school as a place where students learn to involve themselves in the broader Jewish world.

“I think it’s incredibly important, becoming engaged with the community, starting to figure out what you believe and where you want to be and where you see yourself down the road,” he said. “We want to help our students through this time and help them discover who they are and support and prepare them for life in the Jewish community.”

A vital part of that preparation is learning Hebrew, which is one of the four pillars of TanenbaumCHAT’s Jewish studies program (along with Jewish history, bible studies and oral law). Levy said the school has made adjustments and improvements to its Hebrew program in recent years, to keep pace with the living language that’s used to communicate in Israel.

That status as a living language is important to take into account when teaching Hebrew. Modern conversational Hebrew is filled with slang and looks little like the grammatical Hebrew that TanenbaumCHAT used to teach almost exclusively.For example, the words “chaval al hazman” literally mean “it’s a waste of time.” But in Israel today, the phrase is used to denote something amazing. A person possessing a purely grammatical knowledge of Hebrew with limited or no understanding of Hebrew slang would likely think the phrase means the exact opposite of what it actually does.

That’s why TanenbaumCHAT has updated its Hebrew program with a focus on more casual and diverse uses of the language. Aside from a standard Hebrew class, the school now offers Hebrew drama and newspaper courses. It also runs programs designed to stimulate conversational Hebrew use by simulating Israeli environments. In one such program, the lunch room is set up like an Israeli cafe, complete with Hebrew menus.

“It’s like sitting in a restaurant in Israel and ordering and dining in Hebrew. That certainly enhances the conversational aspect of things and makes it a fun and realistic experience,” said Levy.

Thanks to Avital Aharon, the school’s director of educational technology, TanenbaumCHAT is also updating its Hebrew resources to better suit 21st-century students. That includes using online chat software, games and books.

“That is not something you take for granted, because a lot of things that get produced out there are not always thinking about the right-to-left languages,” Aharon said.

Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg is also working to meet the evolving challenges of teaching today’s youth, said Lori Binder, who serves as its head of school and CEO. Twenty-two years ago, two Jewish elementary schools and one Jewish high school merged to form Gray Academy, which is located on the Asper Jewish Community Campus. The school now teaches students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12.

Binder said there are many tangible benefits to teaching students from K-12: it provides opportunities for collaboration and mentorship between older and younger students; and it allows the school to determine how the curriculum builds on itself, in order to, as it states on its website, “prepare students to reach their full potential as empowered global citizens by providing educational excellence framed by Jewish identity, community and values.”

An important component of Jewish identity, of course, is the Hebrew language. In junior kindergarten, students at Gray Academy begin to learn the modalities of Hebrew: language comprehension, speaking, reading and writing.

Teachers at Gray Academy use a spiral curriculum, which means that each subsequent lesson is built upon what the students have already learned. So students don’t learn the different modalities of language in isolation, but as connected parts that inform how they understand the language as a whole.

“I think that’s the beautiful part of learning,” said Binder. “All of the modalities of language learning are in action.”

Binder said that one of the school’s biggest challenges is helping students and their families see the value of Hebrew learning in their day-to-day lives. She pointed out that scientific research has shown that learning a second language has a positive impact on the brain.

“We are teaching kids at the age while their brain is in development, from birth all the way to the early 20s,” Binder said, and she takes that responsibility seriously.

“The future of our community is ensuring that we have strong community members who are educated. And so I believe there’s a direct correlation between the strength of a school and the strength of its community.”