|Odelia Fried and Joseph Yudelson, students at Ben Porat Yosef, address the Hebrew Language Council of America last month.|
When the new Hebrew Language Council of America held its first meeting last week, two eighth graders from Yeshiva Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus opened the event.
The students were chosen to show off their Hebrew. They did that by reciting a chapter of Psalms, delivering a Hebrew speech they wrote themselves, and then talking in Hebrew with the gathered Hebrew teachers and advocates seeking to expand Hebrew literacy in America.
“They were amazing,” said Diti Bechor, who works for the World Zionist Organization and arranged for the New Jersey students to speak at the gathering.
She brought them to demonstrate that “it’s possible” for American-born students to become fluent in Hebrew after years of dedicated education.
“Their ability to speak to the people around them in fluent Hebrew was very exciting,” said Ms. Bechor, who heads the American office of the WZO’s program to send Israeli teachers to teach in the diaspora.
That ability is due in large measure to Ben Porat Yosef’s use of those teachers as the backbone of the school’s Judaic studies department, starting in kindergarten.
Ben Porat Yosef employs 11 WZO teachers – or shlichim – representing nearly 10 percent of the 130 educator shlichim in North America. (Another 110 work in South America, Europe, and Australia.) The school has 372 students.
“We’ve made the decision to hire teachers who can teach fluently in Hebrew,” said Rabbi Tomer Ronen, who heads the school. “That’s why the model of the shlichim really works well for us,” he added.
BPY is unusual among day schools across the country because its entire Judaic studies faculty is made of shlichim. Two other Paramus day schools have hired shlichim. Two of them – a married couple – work at the Yavneh Academy, and there are four – two couples – at Yeshivat Noam.
Ms. Bechor said the program recruits experienced Israeli teachers for the American teaching positions, which last up to four years. Last year, she said, there were 400 applications for 70 positions.
The WZO looks for whatever sorts of teachers schools want; while the bulk teach Hebrew and Jewish subjects, “We have music teachers and have been asked to recruit movement and theater teachers,” Ms. Bechor said.
Although the WZO recruits the teachers, they are selected and hired by the schools.
Rabbi Ronen said that he is not adverse in theory to hiring Americans, but “it’s very rare” to find an American-born-and-trained teacher who can speak with the Israeli fluency he wants for his students. He believes, though, that such fluency can be taught, “if you try and insist on it and not give up.”
Immersive Hebrew education – known as Ivrit b’Ivrit – has been both an ideal in American Jewish day school education and the topic of debate. Is it possible?
“When children are immersed in Hebrew, they can have a conversation about any topic,” Rabbi Ronen said. As the school, founded in 2001, has expanded, he has found this is true even in junior high. (The current eighth graders will be the school’s first graduating class.)
“The beauty of it is that they can really understand the text of the Chumash, the Mishnah and the Gemara at a much higher level because they are fluent in Hebrew,” Rabbi Ronen said.
“I’m speaking to them exactly like I spoke in Israel. Maybe a little slower,” said Rabbi Pinchas Yarhi, who teaches Jewish studies in Ben Porat Yosef’s junior high school. “I usually don’t translate into English. If we see a really hard word we’ll use mime or I’ll draw on the board until they understand the correct meaning of the word. I speak fluent Hebrew.
“Even the jokes are in Hebrew.”
Rabbi Yarhi’s wife, Tehilla, teaches kindergarten at Ben Porat Yosef. Technically she is not an a WZO emissary – shlichim do not teach children younger than first grade. Like at least one teacher in each of the school’s early childhood classrooms, Ms. Yarhi speaks to the children only in Hebrew.
Odelia Fried, one of the students who spoke to the Hebrew Language Council, said she has been learning Hebrew since she was 2 years old and began Ben Porat Yosef’s early childhood program.
“Teachers always spoke to you in Hebrew,” she said. “We figured out on our own how to translate and think in Hebrew.”
Speaking to the Hebrew Language Council “was really cool. It’s something you don’t get to do every day,” she said, noting that she got to meet Israeli Knessset members and diplomats while she was there.
The Hebrew Language Council meeting coincided with the WZO’s annual training session for its teachers.
It’s part of an increased effort by the WZO to train the shlichim, both before and during their educational work here.
“We want to prepare them more,” Ms. Bechor said. “We try to send people here who will teach the children, but will learn the environment” they are working in. The WZO looks for shlichim “who will be a little bit humble,” who will “work with the Americans,” not just tell them what to do.
Ms. Bechor knows about working as an Israeli emissary in America firsthand. “Twenty-something years ago, I was the Young Judea shlicha for the Midwest,” she said. “I have many friends from Ann Arbor from that time.”
Before coming to New Jersey, Rabbi Yarhi taught in high school and junior high in Israel. He applied for the WZO program because he was fascinated by Jewish communities around the world.
“I really wanted to go overseas, meet new people, and be part of the influence on Jewish education,” he said.
He found the variety within the north Jersey Jewish community eye-opening.
“Every shul is so different from the other,” he said. “Every school has its own agenda. It’s beautiful to see how there’s so many colors and together they’re creating a beautiful picture.”
When he returns to Israel at the end of this year, “I really want to introduce this world to my friends and colleagues, to show them what a beautiful thing there is here that I didn’t know about,” he said.