Spreading the word about learning Hebrew in public schools

This academic year, more than 600 Jewish and non-Jewish students in the Chicago area are learning Hebrew in seven public high schools.

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Niles North High School Hebrew teacher Anna Raiber (bottom row, second from right) and Niles North World Language department director Todd Bowen (bottom row, far left), with their students, just before leaving for Israel in 2017. The group traveled on an exchange trip to Israel, the only public school in the country to do such an exchange.

Abigail Lapins relocated to the Chicago area for high school from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where she had been one of the few Jewish students in her school.

At her new public schools--Stevenson in Lincolnshire--she was delighted to find many more Jewish students and Jewish-themed options.

When modern Hebrew as a foreign language became available to her as a sophomore, she jumped at the chance to take it. "I take pride in taking Hebrew because it's something really unique," said Lapins, now a senior. "A lot of people say they take Spanish, but not a lot of people can say they take Hebrew." 

Glenbrook North junior Caroline Cotler studied Spanish in middle school but switched to Hebrew her freshman year of high school. "I love learning the language," she said. "Our class feels like a community."

Lapins and Cotler are in good company in their love for modern Hebrew, spoken by nearly nine million people worldwide.

Modern Hebrew in the public schools has had a long history in Chicago. The language was first taught in Chicago public schools through the 1950s, and then moved to suburban Chicago schools in the early 1970s, launching in Highland Park and Evanston, and later others.

Over the decades, student interest has steadily grown. This academic year, more than 600 Jewish and non-Jewish students in the Chicago area are learning Hebrew in seven public high schools--Deerfield, Evanston Township, Glenbrook North, Highland Park, New Trier, Niles North, and Stevenson. Evanston currently offers independent-study and online classes in Hebrew: the school hasn't been able to recruit a qualified replacement following the retirement of its veteran Hebrew teacher.

The Chicago area boasts more public schools teaching Hebrew than any other community in the country, thanks in part to local families' and students' passion for Hebrew,  along with efforts by JUF's SAFA Foundation,  who value the global importance of Hebrew literacy. Proponents of studying Hebrew in public schools note that the majority of Jewish students attend public schools where they can become proficient in the language through daily study. 

"Continued Jewish identity building during adolescence is a high priority," said JUF President Steven B. Nasatir. "Almost all American teens study a language during high school. The fact that Hebrew can be studied at a number of Chicago-area public schools provides a huge identity boost. Studying Hebrew and learning about Israeli culture leads to many new connections, more often than not to a high school summer in Israel program, and lots more."

SAFA: The Foundation for Promotion of Hebrew Language and Israel Culture in Public Schools, a JUF-supported foundation, aims to maximize the number of students taking Hebrew in the public school system. SAFA, which means "language" in Hebrew, teams up with organizations such as the iCenter to promote school programs.

Hebrew enthusiasts say Hebrew study extends beyond the mechanics of learning the language, and stress that it's vital to expose students to Israeli culture too. Hebrew teachers incorporate Israeli current events, arts, and food into their curriculum, and some schools offer Israeli extra-curricular clubs open to all students. At Deerfield High School, veteran Hebrew teacher Yaffa Berman and her students plan a day devoted to Israeli culture, with Israeli music and dancing in the hallways, and falafel and hummus served in the cafeteria.

"My philosophy is that the language has to be relevant and touch the lives of the students," said Berman, who has been instrumental in growing the number of students studying Hebrew in Chicago-area public schools. "It has to be tied to the people and the land of Israel. When we learn Hebrew, we learn through the communication, the culture, the people, the food, the arts, the music--through all the senses. It's not just about the classroom."

Indeed, Hebrew learning reaches way beyond the classroom, and there's no substitute for visiting Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) itself. That's why, over spring break, Niles North High School Hebrew teacher Anna Raiber will escort her students to her hometown of Karmiel, in northern Israel. Then, in the fall, Israeli students will visit Chicago. Niles North is the only public school in the country that currently offers such an exchange program to Israel, now in its third year.

A cohort of passionate Hebrew students have the opportunity to spread the word about their love for Hebrew study. Students like Lapins and Cotler, along with nine other Chicago Jewish students, participate in Hebrew in the High, run jointly by JUF and Springboard, the Chicago Jewish Teen Engagement Initiative. Through this program, teens act as ambassadors to their high school Hebrew programs. "As ambassadors, these students are recognized leaders of their Hebrew program, and go out into the community to share their personal Hebrew story and the opportunity to take Hebrew," said Sam Grobart, Springboard Teen Engagement Specialist.

There is a push to offer Hebrew in area middle schools too, as child developmental research shows that the earlier a child starts a language, the easier it is to pick up. Right now, only one school district in Illinois--Deerfield 109--offers Hebrew at the middle school level, launching its Hebrew program at two Deerfield middle schools, Caruso and Shepard, in the 2018/2019 school year.

Osnat Lichtenfeld teaches Hebrew at both middle schools and at Deerfield High School. She said middle school language instruction lays the groundwork for high school language study. But for Hebrew, in particular, there is added benefit to middle school study because the tween years, for most Jewish students, coincide with bar and bat mitzvah preparation-and the learning in one setting reinforces the other.

"Middle school is the age that starts their Hebrew journey," Lichtenfeld said. "Learning to speak, read, and write the modern spoken language, alongside learning the language of the Torah, is beneficial to students and they see a lot of connections between the two." 

For more information about Hebrew in public schools, visit juf.org/teens and click on the "Community" section.

If you know someone interested in becoming a Hebrew in the High ambassador, contact Samuel Grobart at SamuelGrobart@juf.org or (312) 357-4982.

"My philosophy is that the language has to be relevant and touch the lives of the students. It has to be tied to the people and the land of Israel. When we learn Hebrew, we learn through the communication, the culture, the people, the food, the arts, the music--through all the senses. It's not just about the classroom."



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