How to learn Hebrew
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How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews' linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

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Dr. Richard Gertler of Teaneck now feels more confident participating in Hebrew conversations after studying the language through Ulpan-Or computer courses. Rabbi Mark Bauman

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land – as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

Nationwide, many communities are considering how to incorporate Hebrew language more fully in family education, bar and bat mitzvah training, and Israel programming.

The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has offered ulpan (Hebrew instruction) sessions on beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels for many years. The classes meets once a week for 28 weeks at locations including the federation’s Paramus office, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township, and the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.

Liran Kapoano, director of the federation’s Center for Israel Engagement, says the sessions begin in the fall after the Holy Days, and average 80 to 100 people each year.

“It’s always good for a community to have a language to tie them together,” he said. “Hebrew is a great unifier, and allows us to reach people in the community who are interested in learning Hebrew and may be interested in Israel as well, so it’s an opportunity for us to bring them into our Israel-related committees and programming.”

Many other North Jersey residents take advantage of a variety of Hebrew courses they can work on from home, whether they are kits with CDs and workbooks, prerecorded podcasts, or live sessions with teachers via Skype or a similar platform.

Dr. Richard Gertler of Teaneck said he began studying with eTeacher about eight years ago, and knows several other local people who use this live online service.

“I’ve always loved Hebrew and majored in it in college, but that doesn’t make me a Hebrew speaker or fluent reader,” Dr. Gertler said. “I wanted to build my vocabulary. So when I got a solicitation on email to learn Hebrew with eTeacher, I took a free trial class and decided to enroll.”

At first he was part of an online class, taught by a teacher in Israel, which began with eight students and dwindled down. “For a period of time there was me and an anthropology professor from Fairleigh Dickinson whose Hebrew is very good, but once his schedule changed and he couldn’t make that time slot, I switched to a one-on-one weekly session,” he said.

Because of his work schedule, the classes begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time, 4 a.m. Israel time. Dr. Gertler and his teacher read Israeli newspapers and have started on modern Israeli literature. He prepares for two hours before each session.

“It has improved my Hebrew a lot,” said Dr. Gertler, who has visited Israel about 20 times in those eight years – two of his children and their families live there.

“I used to hold back from serious Hebrew discussions because of vocabulary I didn’t understand, and now I have more confidence to express myself,” he continued. “I still prefer doing contractual stuff, like renting cars, in English. But I’ve learned a lot of everyday terms I wasn’t familiar with.”

A few programs are tailored to give a Hebrew boost to visitors while they are in Israel.

Yoel Ganor, co-founder of Ulpan-Or in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, says it is possible even for people with no prior knowledge of Hebrew to learn basic reading, writing, and verbal communication in Ulpan-Or’s one-week Sabra Hebrew Immersion Program.

“Verbal communication is key, and our methodology is based on that,” he said. “We base lessons on audio, and more recently video, and then the reading and writing accompany it. By giving opportunities to use the vocabulary immediately in real-life situations, we saw this process does not have to take several months.”

The daily schedule consists of three hours of one-on-one study in the morning, and another two or three hours of interactive outdoor activities in the afternoon; those activities include, for example, visiting a café with the teacher and conducting all conversations in Hebrew.

Margot Reinstein of Teaneck, a day-school graduate who already knew some Hebrew, took the Sabra course before beginning her yearlong master’s degree program at Hebrew University.

“It was really fun, and included components of practicing writing and mainly practicing speaking, with a workbook you can download on your phone,” she said. “The teacher takes you to different places and pretends to be a tour guide, in Hebrew. It was a really good week. For somebody who already has a basis of Hebrew, it jogs your memory and helps you improve quickly.”

Ms. Reinstein went on to enroll in the university’s three-day-a-week ulpan. “If you’re looking to really improve, you need a long-term ulpan, but if you’re here on a trip or want to improve a little, the Ulpan-Or program gives you tools you can continue to use afterward,” she said. “They help you figure out what you need to work on, whether grammar or some other aspect of the language.”

Ulpan Aviv in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Ulpan Israeli in Netanya offer other rapid language-acquisition programs in Israel that are geared to tourists.

Keeping up language skills at home can be accomplished with a variety of online options.

Shimshon Young of Jerusalem started out a few years ago by offering Instant Hebrew, a two-hour instructional video available online and in CD form. From there, he expanded to a prerecorded online biblical Hebrew course, hebrewbible.co.il.

“Most people on the Internet wanting to learn Hebrew really want to read Jewish texts,” said Mr. Young, an American émigré. “It’s not that hard for an adult to learn to read Hebrew because the concept of reading is not new.”

More recently, Mr. Young and a colleague devised hebrewclasses.co.il, a prerecorded online series of lessons intended to “help you to learn both biblical and modern Hebrew much faster than you ever have before.”

He said that the overall majority of subscribers live abroad, and only about half of them are Jewish. “We have tested our new teaching methods with hundreds of people at live webinars and with dozens of paying students,” he said. “The feedback has been great.”

Among many other online and/or Skype options are Hebrew Podcasts, LearnHebrewPod, HebrewPod101, Hebrew-Courses.com, and Live-Hebrew.Net.

In 2012, Yoel and Orly Ganor introduced Ulpan-Or’s web-based Hebrew study program to educators from Torah Academy of Bergen County, the Frisch School, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, and the Moriah School of Englewood. This program is used in middle schools and high schools in several English-speaking countries.

Mr. Ganor believes Hebrew is vital for all Jews. “Hebrew is an objective by itself, but we see ourselves as ambassadors of Hebrew as the national language that brings Jews closer to their identity and to Israeli culture,” he said.

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