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Easy as ‘aleph-bet’

New JUF Foundation promotes the study of Hebrew and Israeli culture in the public schools 

Blocks hebrew in schools image

What if learning Hebrew in public schools was as common for Jewish students as studying French or Spanish? 

With that in mind, in April, JUF established a first-of-its-kind foundation focusing exclusively on promoting the study of Hebrew and Israeli culture in the public schools. Its goal: to make Hebrew education as easy as  aleph-bet .  

SAFA: Foundation for Promotion of Hebrew Language and Israel Culture in Public Schools, named for the Hebrew word for "language," hopes to maximize the number of students taking Hebrew language classes. While efforts will begin locally, the ultimate goal is to expand the foundation's work nationally. 

Hebrew language in the public schools is aimed at those Jewish students not enrolled in a Jewish day school, who may have had some exposure to Hebrew in a congregational setting, while attending a Jewish camp, or during a trip to Israel. A public school curriculum enables these students to become proficient in the language through daily study. 

"We believe there is untapped potential for expanding Hebrew education by offering it as an option for an existing requirement for college-minded students-study of a foreign language within a public school setting," said JUF President Steven B. Nasatir, a founding member of the foundation. "This is a skill that is important for deepening ties to their Jewish identities, to their local community and to Israel."

 The study of Hebrew in public schools is paid for through public funds at no additional cost to parents, just like Spanish, French, or any other foreign language course. Currently, there are only 21 known public schools-19 high schools and two middle schools-throughout the U.S. offering Hebrew language courses as a foreign language choice. 

Of the estimated 2,000 students enrolled in Hebrew classes in public schools nationally, nearly 600 of them are studying Hebrew in seven high schools throughout the Chicago metropolitan area: Evanston Township, Niles North, Deerfield, Highland Park, Glenbrook North, Stevenson and New Trier. Throughout the years, JUF has worked with organizations such as Shorashim, and more recently the iCenter, to promote and enhance the impact of Hebrew in public schools in the Chicago area. 

SAFA will heighten the visibility of Hebrew in the public schools by bringing together organizations, students, and parents involved in existing Hebrew programs; advocate for expanding Hebrew programs to more school districts both locally and throughout the country; and raise and allocate funds in support of these efforts. 

The foundation is also collaborating with local educators to explore introducing Hebrew language study at the middle school level. 

"Bringing Hebrew language programs to local middle schools would ensure continuity of language study from middle through high school and more consistent enrollment in high school programs," said Arnie Kanter, another founding member of the foundation.

Other founding members of SAFA include Anne Lanski, executive director of the iCenter, Peter Friedman, JUF's senior planning advisor, and Andrea R. Yablon, a JUF board member.   

"Students who study Hebrew as a foreign language in schools show a greater interest in other Jewish and Israeli cultural activities both within and outside of the walls of the schools," Yablon said. "These students are more likely to engage in extracurricular Hebrew and Israel-focused activities like Israel clubs, youth groups, teen philanthropy and Israel advocacy programs, which create long-lasting connections and entry points into Jewish life and our local community." 

For more information about Hebrew language offerings in the public schools please contact SAFA@juf.org




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