Which is why I was surprised to read the April 8 cover story in J., “Hebrew not required.” How can Hebrew and Jewish education be separated from one another?
I understand why some are trying. Jewish day schools are also businesses. Schools need to end the year with balanced budgets, have cash-flow issues and need to make payroll. They have customers who want what they want — and these days, with the overabundance of offerings and opportunities, parents let their children’s schools know what they think they should be teaching more than ever before.
But is it really possible to deliver a Jewish education stripped of the Hebrew language?
In just about every synagogue in the world, Jewish prayer is done in Hebrew. If you ask a random Jewish person on the street, “What is the language of Judaism?” the answer will be “Hebrew.” Hebrew is not simply a second language. Hebrew language skills are the keys that unlock doors to participation in communal prayer and enable deep engagement with the central texts of Judaism. These are essential elements of a meaningful Jewish education.
At Edah, a small Hebrew immersive afterschool program in Berkeley, we struggle with similar issues. Our families want us to achieve more for their children in less time. We started requiring children to attend four days a week. The market wouldn’t support that, so we reduced the minimum number of days to three, and next year the minimum will be two days. We also have a business to run and are worried about many of the same issues, though on a smaller scale. We move in response to what our constituents and customers ask for, just like any other school, and struggle with the tension between our educational philosophy and market trends.
The question is: What is Jewish education without Hebrew? And what does a generation of Jews look like who don’t speak the language of our civilization?