I was walking home after my first meeting with my Mentor, Rabbi Ed Harwitz, from the Jewish Education Project in NYC. In our meeting, we spoke about the status of Hebrew language acquisition in North America. As a leading figure in Jewish educational leadership, Rabbi Harwitz strengthened my observation that Hebrew language teaching has a lot of catching up to do.
As an Israeli who has been living in NYC since the summer of 2012, I found it surprising how so few people, if at all, are trying to align Jewish education with 21st century learning standards and how desperately Hebrew teachers are sought for.
Our conversation made me curious, and I decided to surf the net and see how many people speak Hebrew in North America. I knew that some American Jews know how to speak Hebrew but I never saw this one coming: out of approximately 5,500,000 Jews only 216,343 speak Hebrew.
That is less than 4%!!!
This brings me back to my days at graduate school, where I learned about the various factors influencing second language acquisition. My professor, a language maintenance adherent, explained that because the majority of immigrants to Israel (i.e. Jewish refugees from Europe and Arab lands) favored Hebrew over their first language, a gradual language shift occurred whereby Hebrew became the dominant language. For this first generation of Israelis, Hebrew was an expression of patriotism.
But the situation in North America is quite different: the dominant language is English, a prestigious lingua franca, and few Jews know how to speak Hebrew. Let's be honest: Why learn Hebrew? There are few situations in which Hebrew can come in handy: If you live/travel in Israel, communicate with an Israeli family, and or read the Torah. Besides that, why should they learn Hebrew?
In fact, a study shows that a majority of U.S. Jews believe that being a Jew means remembering the Holocaust and leading an ethical life: Hebrew was not considered essential to Jewish identity.
So what does this mean? Are Jews in the U.S. giving up on Hebrew?
For three thousand years, Hebrew has formed the basis of Jewish life: Hebrew has served as a unifying force in Jewish life and as the vessel for our cultural, religious, and intellectual values.
"Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going" -Rita Mae Brown
It is time to make a change before it is too late...