Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News September 2009

September 11, 2009

Hebrew in America

The Foundation several years ago strongly recommended the incorporation of the promotion of Jewish connectedness into the Foundation's mandate. A common language is undoubtedly one of the critical ingredients in achieving that end. Hebrew in America has, therefore, been one of the Foundation's boldest initiatives because it addresses a major problem of the Jewish people, the decline of Hebrew in Diaspora communities.

Despite the numerous difficulties and complexities associated with the undertaking, the Foundation believed that this is a crucial national need for the Jewish people that had to be addressed seriously. After careful deliberation, the Foundation decided to organize the project in one pilot community, the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey. This Board Briefing will report on the results achieved in that community during the four years of this pioneering program.

We made a number of critical decisions at the outset that have contributed considerably to the success of the project. We agreed that our major focus will be in attempting to change the culture regarding Hebrew in the Northern New Jersey Jewish community utilizing Hebrew as a portal to Jewish culture and learning. We would not focus on the traditional concerns of curriculum and other related pedagogical issues.

Secondly, we agreed from the very outset on one fundamental organizational principle and have adhered to it throughout - that is, all decisions regarding this program will not be made in Jerusalem or even by distinguished cultural bodies in New York, but by the Jewish community in Northern New Jersey. If the program was to work, the locals must have the full and final responsibility for it. This has indeed been the case.

We also believed, despite the naysayers (the conventional view both in Israel and the United States of the many individuals with whom we consulted before initiating the program was negative and not always politely so), that we would and could locate pockets of support within the community, meshugaim lioto davar, that could help launch the program and ultimately sustain it. This is indeed what has occurred in our pilot community. We were able to locate those individuals within the professional educational leadership of the Federation of Northern New Jersey, key educators in the local schools, and the parents of the children in the program.

The program was launched at the first level in the educational chain, in early childhood - at the pre-kindergarten level, where almost nothing has been done for the propagation of Hebrew to date in the United States and elsewhere. Both we and the community believed that this would be the most effective point of entry into the community, and the fulcrum with which we could begin to change attitudes about Hebrew in the educational system.

The first project director was Shoshana Glatzer, a veteran Hebrew educator. A new project manager, Dr. Drora Arussy, was hired this year to succeed Shoshana Glatzer who has now retired. Dr. Arussy received her B.A. in Theatre Arts, a Masters in Jewish Studies and a Doctorate in Education. She certainly possesses all the necessary qualifications and, may I add, charisma, for her role.

The Programmatic Results

Almost 4,000 students have benefited from Hebrew in America in Bergen County, New Jersey since its inception. During the 4 years of the project, the program has encompassed 110 classes.

This past academic year, 14 schools participated in Hebrew in America, including 6 day schools, 4 congregational and Sunday schools, and 4 private educational centers, representing the whole ideological and religious range of all Jewish schools in the community. In addition, a Hebrew speaking summer day camp was established last year. Children ages 4-7 this summer spent two weeks in August in a Hebrew speaking environment, building on what they learned during the academic year through Hebrew in America. Israeli teens from Nahariya, the UJA-Federation's partnership city, serve as the camp counselors.

This year, most significantly, the Hebrew in America program has expanded successfully beyond early childhood education, to which the first two years of the program were dedicated, to the first and second grades. To date, four day schools are participating in this phase of the program.

A major component of the program is teacher training, consisting of special training in the Hebrew language teaching techniques utilized in the Hebrew in America project, both in the early childhood and pre-kindergarten and the first and second grades. The teachers who attend these workshops report back to their respective schools, where they share information and techniques with the other teachers.

Over the four years of the program 180 teachers have participated in the teacher training workshops. The teacher training and best teaching practices workshops have utilized the TPR (The Physical Response) model Shoshana Glatzer introduced and that Drora Arussy has expanded. TPR is a method developed by Dr. James J. Asher, an academic psychologist, to aid in the learning of second languages. In TPR theory, language is internalized through a process similar to the acquisition of language by most infants from interaction verbally and physically with their parents. In practice in the classroom, the teacher and students take on roles similar to that of parent and child, in which students must respond physically to the words of their teacher.

Dr. Arussy is also creating an organized curriculum specifically for Hebrew, in the TPR, called Ivrit B'Tnuah. She is also developing a full theme-based curriculum kit for the Ivrit B'Tnuah program. To date, she has completed four curricula units for the first year of the program. She has also developed nine books for the second year, which includes the Jewish holidays and other materials. She is currently preparing six other kits. The ongoing workshops she has organized for the teachers include these materials and the TPR basics.

Looking back, our over-all strategy appears to have been successful. The enthusiastic response by the early childhood directors in the schools, as well as their teachers and the children themselves, has been reflected in the last four years in the buzz in those schools, now being concretely expressed in the preparations the Federation and the schools have made in the personnel and programs in the first grade and second grades, where most of the children who participated in our program are now enrolled.

The UJA-Federation of Northern NJ reported to us before this year that the Hebrew in America program had moved out of our incubator and a considerable distance towards maturity. In their judgment, they have responded to the challenge we presented to their community four years ago and developed a new approach to the teaching of Hebrew that works and can be replicated in the USA.

In our view, the critical innovation of this pilot program is that we have successfully shaped it as a communal enterprise, embraced by a major Federation in the U.S., not a project sponsored by one individual, school or institution.

Thus far, the good news. And now the bad news.

The critical issue we are facing at this juncture is continued funding for the Hebrew in America program. The UJA-Federation of Northern NJ earlier this year reported that their campaign had fallen far short of their fiscal goals because of the current economic crisis in the US. As a result, the Federation was forced to cut back drastically its personnel and funding of all of its local programs, including Hebrew in America. The role of Dr. Wallace Greene, the Director of Jewish Educational Services of the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey, who administers Hebrew in America, has been reduced to part time. Nonetheless, he had raised sufficient funds from private sources outside the Federation, with Memorial Foundation help, to carry the program forward this past year. Dr. Greene has informed us in the spring that unless Hebrew in America finds additional funding very soon, it may regrettably be compelled to end its program after this summer.

His staff has now also been greatly reduced. As a result of the recession, some schools this year have been forced to drop out of the program because they were unable to pay the participation fee. On the other hand, remarkably, several new schools expressed interest in joining the Hebrew in America program. However, the UJA-Federation does not presently have, nor does it appear, will be able to raise sufficient funds and staff to adequately accommodate them or the program in the future.

Howard Charish, Executive Vice President of the UJA-Federation of Northern N.J. advised, us that with great regret, the program will be terminated after this summer because of the fiscal crisis in their community.

We, however, agreed that the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey will prepare a final report of this pilot program (see attached), to disseminate to Jewish educators and the leadership of other Jewish communities in the United States in the hope that when economic conditions stabilize, other Jewish communities can seek to replicate this successful pilot.

Best wishes for a New Year of peace and good health.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President

Attached full report prepared by the Jewish Educational Services of the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey.