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Yeshiva University high school students participate in a video conference with Israeli author Chana Bat Shahar. courtesy yeshiva university

Teaneck residents Daniel Schwartz and Yonatan Zolty are among seven honors students from Yeshiva University’s two high schools participating in a new independent study Hebrew literature course mentored by Israeli author Chana Bat Shahar. “Meet the Israeli Author,” the first program of its kind in a North American Jewish high school, aims to foster Hebrew-language creative writing skills.

Monthly video conference sessions with Bat Shahar, which began this month, are conducted entirely in Hebrew. The author of nine books and the winner of a 1994 Prime Minister’s Prize is acquainting the seven teens with her background and approach before starting to guide them in honing their talents. Between meetings, the students and their mentor keep in contact via e-mail.

“In addition to affording these students the opportunity to meet and interact with a famous Israeli writer, this unique workshop will introduce them to modern Israeli culture and help them develop the skills and self-confidence required to write excellent Hebrew stories of their own,” said Tova Rosenberg, coordinator of the workshop and director of Hebrew language studies at the YU high schools.

“I believe that competence in – if not mastery of – the Hebrew language is critical to a young person’s aspiration to become a Jewish scholar,” commented Hillel Davis, YU’s vice president for university life, who sat in on the first virtual meeting.

Daniel said his desire to participate in the inaugural workshop grew out of his experience in a six-week student exchange program with Yeshivat Mekor Haim in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in Israel last winter.

“Being in Mekor Haim, without the mastery of Hebrew that I would have liked, drove me to seek an advanced course of study in the language of my forefathers,” he told The Jewish Standard. “One thing I learned there is that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it; to read, write, and speak only that language.”

His day school background did not give him that ability, he added. “Teachers in the school I attended stick with the basics, having students memorize vocabulary while practically ignoring the vocal aspect of the language. At the completion of this course, I hope to have learned enough to be able to really experience Judaism in the fullest sense. I also hope to gain a mastery of the language that will permit me to interact with my Israeli peers in a way that my previous education did not permit me to when I was in Mekor Haim.”

Yonatan, whose language skills are more advanced thanks to his many Hebrew-speaking relatives, said he welcomed the opportunity to participate even though his 11th grade schedule is replete with SAT, SATII, and AP exams on top of a rigorous learning schedule. “I believe that learning Hebrew is critical to my education, and I wished to improve my grasp of the language,” he said. “Although I have read many Hebrew newspapers, and several novels that have been adapted from the originals during Hebrew classes, I have not truly read any real novels in Hebrew.”

Last year, Yonatan asked his Hebrew teacher, Liora Haibi, if she could give him more advanced books to help him increase his fluency. As a result, Haibi began planning a weekly lunchtime Hebrew-speaking and reading program for him and a few other students. The workshop was an outgrowth of that initiative.

Yonatan suggested that primary day schools make a greater effort to teach Judaic studies classes entirely in Hebrew. With few exceptions, this is not the standard in area yeshivot. “In addition,” he said, “I would recommend for there to be a greater role in the speaking of Hebrew, as I believe that there are many who have a sufficient level of understanding, but are unable to speak the language.”