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What schools here can learn from an Israeli program

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“The Giant’s Book” served as the opening event for the seventh annual read-a-thon sponsored by A.H.A.V.A., an English literacy program based in Ma’aleh Adumim. Adam Ross

Despite last summer’s “tent protests” against the high cost of food, shelter, and items such as baby formula, Israel is a child-centered culture and it always has been – long before Israeli branches of Toys R Us hit the malls.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2010 there were 2.52 million children up to age 17 in Israel, accounting for approximately a third of the state’s population. That year, 166,000 babies were born, 120,700 of them Jewish.

Our adopted hometown of Ma’aleh Adumim, which is roughly the same size as Teaneck, has 22 elementary and secondary schools serving 10,400 kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, plus 77 daycare centers and preschools.

That’s right: 99 schools in a city of 38,000. That should give you some idea of this city’s vitality, if one can measure vitality in terms of the number of children. And we’re not talking about a particularly religious population with 10 kids per family. The majority of Ma’aleh Adumim residents are secular or traditional Israelis, with pockets of immigrants speaking Russian, Amharic, French, Spanish and English.

In the latest kid-friendly news in our town, children from 13 schools recently attempted a Guinness-like feat: creating Israel’s largest book ever. The 294-word story is about a giant who can’t find a book big enough to read, and it stands at about six-and-a-half feet tall and 3¼ feet wide.

Now here’s the kicker: “The Giant’s Book” is written in English. Its production served as the opening event for the seventh annual read-a-thon sponsored by A.H.A.V.A., an English literacy program based in our city. The acronym, which spells the Hebrew word for “love,” stands for Anglit Hanilmedet B’Shita Hativit (English learned in a natural manner).

A.H.A.V.A. Director Gaila Cohen Morrison, who made aliyah from Montreal 30 years ago, offers an easy reader, Reading Rocks, for third-graders to adults all over the country.

She explained to me that if they want to earn an academic diploma, Israeli high school students must pass a battery of exams that make the SATs pale by comparison, and one of the most difficult of these tests is in English comprehension. Some fields of higher education, particularly in the sciences, require a fairly advanced ability to read English material.

Morrison wants every Israeli child – especially those handicapped by social and economic factors – to be literate enough in English to enable them to pursue whatever career they dream of.

According to A.H.A.V.A. stats for 2010, less than half of all eligible 12th-graders even attempted the English matriculation exam, and less than half of all high school students (32 percent of Jewish Israelis, and 11 percent of Arab Israelis) go to college.

Our municipality threw its financial weight behind the giant initiative, along with the local branches of Bank Hapoalim, Steimatzky bookstore, Re/Max real estate, and Рbecause no Jewish event would be complete without food РBurgers Bar and Aroma caf̩.

I applaud this project and it makes me wonder why the day schools in Bergen County – at least when my children were young – never attempted a similar program in Hebrew. The failure to produce solidly Hebrew-literate graduates doesn’t affect SAT scores, but it does negatively affect the ability to attain greater Jewish literacy. And it seriously hampers the ability to assimilate into the Israeli society and workplace for those who choose to make aliyah.

A similar point was recently made by American-born Israeli author David Hazony in The Jewish Daily Forward. In an op-ed column titled “Memo to American Jews: Learn Hebrew,” he argues that becoming acquainted with the Jewish mother tongue is “frankly…the only way forward if this peoplehood thing is going to work.”

As a language-handicapped American émigré, I couldn’t agree more. It’s important for Jews on both sides of the ocean to have the linguistic skills to communicate and learn from one another.

I am proud of Ma’aleh Adumim for putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to the educational prospects of its many resident children. When our neighbors’ two young sons appeared at our door with sponsor sheets for the read-a-thon, I pledged a shekel per book. Since they are bilingual kids with English-speaking parents, I may end up writing a bigger check than I bargained for. But it’s all for a good cause.

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