Our Stories

Why do we teach Hebrew in Religious Schools?

By Michal Lucent, Jewish and Hebrew Educator and Tutor, SF Bay Area.
Reading time: 3 minutes.

Recently, a father who just celebrated his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, said to me: “I had a great Bar Mitzvah service. I can still read Hebrew well, but I never understood a word I read when I was 13 and I don’t understand a word now”. The father wanted his daughter’s Hebrew experience to be different from his own. He told me, “I want my daughter to grasp the meaning of the Hebrew words she reads”. By “meaning” he referred to the translation of the Hebrew words and phrases.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard from parents, that although they had successfully celebrated becoming b’nai mitzvah, they didn’t understand the Hebrew they had read.

I’ve met many people from different faiths and cultures who wanted to learn their ancestors’ language. My close friend, Mia, whose grandparents immigrated from Italy, has been spending years studying Italian. The Italian language had been lost in Mia’s parents’ generation and, in all her visits to Italy, she hadn’t been able to speak nor understand Italian. It is understood that people would be interested in learning their family roots and history. No one has ever questioned Mia why she is interested in studying her ancestors’ language. Being eager to speak and read, Mia spends a few hours a week to learn and practice Italian, so that when she visits Italy once again, she will be able to communicate in Italian.

There are numerous benefits in teaching the literal and contextual meaning of Hebrew.

I believe we are missing an opportunity to help our b’nai mitzvah students not only prepare for their ceremony, but also to inspire a stronger relationship to Jewish culture, traditions and history and to form closer bonds with Israel. A meaningful Jewish education should also include literal translation and contextual translation of Hebrew words, sentences and phrases. The question isn’t why we teach Hebrew in Religious Schools; the question is How: How can our students become Hebrew Literate? How can we inspire a deeper bond with Israel?

Most Religious schools are affiliated with local synagogues and they provide both Jewish and Hebrew education. In my experience, most children, of any age, are keen to learn the translation of the Hebrew they learn to read. Understanding the language motivates students on their road to become b’nai mitzvah, brings them joy and a greater sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, they are curious and enthusiastic to learn the origin of Hebrew words. There are several sources for Hebrew words and these include the Torah, Talmud, prayer liturgy, and contemporary texts. When Eliezer Ben Yehuda revived our heritage language in the 19th century, Hebrew lacked words for modern life. Ben Yehuda undertook the immense and profound task of inventing new words and he is often called the father of modern Hebrew. Ben Yehuda used other sources such as Germanic, Greek and Latin. Since his time and for the past 140 years, Hebrew, a living language, keeps evolving with new words and phrases.

Our religious schools have wonderful and dedicated educators. Clergy devote their skills and knowledge and also give their hearts to students of all ages. They guide students in the deeper understanding and interpretation of Jewish morals and values. The early years in a religious school provide preparation for the powerful Jewish experience of becoming b’nai mitzvah. As they reach 6th and 7th grades, clergy and teachers help the students feel and be successful in their Bar or Bat Mitzvah training and beyond. Teaching decoding, nikkud (the equivalent of vowels) and the phonetic sounds are all about technique in reading Hebrew. The purpose of becoming Hebrew readers is clear; it’s part of the b’nai mitzvah teaching and it constructs a familiarity of Jewish rituals in local and with the Jewish community at large. Often, the religious school focus isn’t on acquiring Hebrew language skills, i.e. the emphasis is not on the process of building the ability to understand Hebrew, gain the ability to understand it and also produce and use words and sentences to communicate. Recognizing Shabbat services, Sh’mah and blessings make b’nai mitzvah feel at home at any synagogue, whether they understand the Hebrew words or not. However, is mastering the methodology of reading Hebrew all we should undertake?

Being an Israeli-native, parents of my private students and also a number of families I meet in religious schools ask me to teach their children Israeli ways-of-life, Israeli culture and modern, rather than Biblical Hebrew, so that when their kids visit Israel, they will be able to converse in this language. The idea of a possible trip motivates the children to learn Hebrew.

As it stands, religious schools have time and budget constraints and it is likely to be impractical to extend the hours of instruction. The approach of integrating b’nai mitzvah preparation with Hebrew acquisition might be a familiar practice to some Hebrew educators and for others it might be a shift. Implementing such programs might necessitate more resources.

If you have ideas on how we can include in our teachings a broader approach to “meaning” of Hebrew texts, I invite you to send me your suggestions. You can contact me at Hebrewboost.com.

In building the ability to understand and communicate in Hebrew and learning the origin of words, Jewish educators can channel their students’ excitement towards a strong connection to everything Jewish and arouse admiration to the marvel called The State of Israel.

About Michal Lucent

Born and raised in Israel, Michal has been teaching and tutoring Hebrew in the San Francisco Bay Area. Michal loves working with children of all ages. She currently teaches at Congregation Beth Jacob and Congregation Beth David. Michal is a graduate of Tel Aviv University.