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Is Hebrew at the Center?

Is Hebrew at the Center?

Nov 01, 2011

By Arnee R. Winshall

Admittedly, I am a language junky. I find nothing more exciting than being able to go to a foreign country and talk to people in their own language instead of their having to talk to me in my language. (I have always been bothered by the measure of arrogance and inherent limitation associated with the view we, as Americans, have developed that the whole world should and will learn to speak English.) Of all the languages I can speak, understand, and read none share the status and importance of Hebrew.

As Jewish educators, we strive to provide students, staff and families with the opportunity to develop and strengthen their Jewish identity and connection to Israel, to create their own stories as members of the Jewish people. We have a secret weapon, a national treasure, so to speak—the Hebrew language. Wayne L. Firestone, President of Hillel, wrote, "We need to recognize the Hebrew language as a valuable portal for self-exploration and Jewish identity building."

When I reflect on the key links in the chain that connect the past to the present and are an essential element for preserving the Jewish people well into the future, the first one that comes to mind is Hebrew,  our national language, and for some our mother tongue.

As I wrote in my column in the spring issue of HaYidion, RAVSAK's journal of education, in Indonesian they have an expression: Bahasa jiwa bangsa. Language is the soul of a nation. As an American who can function fairly well in Hebrew, like many others, I feel like I belong to a "special club". When I hear Hebrew being spoken, whether it is on the subway in New York City or on the streets of Tel Aviv, I know I have a connection to the speaker and want to reach out, in Hebrew. When I am presented with a text in Hebrew, there is a thrill in being able to access it directly and not have to rely on someone else's translation. When my children meet Israelis, they immediately assume they will connect in Hebrew and not rely on the Israelis being able to speak English. We value our access to Hebrew as a gift, a benefit and distinction of membership as Jews that can connect us with Jews throughout the world.

Last year, in Israel, was designated as the year of Hebrew. The Academy of the Hebrew Language wrote, The Israeli government has decided to honor the Hebrew language by issuing a stamp that highlights Hebrew's uniqueness: its continued existence even after it ceased to be spoken, the treasures that were added to its vocabulary throughout the ages, and its modern revival as the everyday language of Israel.

In my mind, every year should be the year of Hebrew when we can celebrate our beautiful and rich language and call attention to the importance of elevating the study of Hebrew in the Diaspora. Whether this happens in charter schools or Jewish education, a serious investment in Hebrew language educators, as is being done by the BJE, the Jewish Federation and day schools in LA, will provide learners with the opportunity to not merely study Hebrew, but to experience the joy and pride that comes with truly acquiring Hebrew and making it their own.

Just the thought of this brings a smile to my face and Israeli music to my ears.

Arnee R. Winshall is Founding Chair, Hebrew at the Center and JCDS, Boston's Jewish Community Day School
Vice-chair, JESNA and Chair, RAVSAK, The Jewish Community Day School Network and Board Member, Foundation for Jewish Camp

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