HEBREW IN AMERICA
"Hebrew in America", one of the most bold and innovative undertakings of the Foundation aimed at more effectively propagating the use of Hebrew in the United States, was launched at our Executive Committee meeting which took place on May 24-25, 2005.
Our partner in this enterprise is the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey. For this reason we chose to meet in Bergen County, New Jersey to enable our executive committee to participate in the community-wide meeting which launched the program, to see first-hand what the first phase of the program entails and to meet with the leadership of the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey to discuss the next steps.
The impetus for undertaking this herculean challenge is the accelerating and radical decline of the use of Hebrew in the United States and the rest of the Diaspora. Jewish peoplehood is achieved by the transmission of our collective memory and culture, rooted in our common language and culture. With the serious decline of Hebrew in the Diaspora, not only are we lacking a common language, i.e. words, but also a common vocabulary of values, norms and ideals
After a series of symposia, consultations and the establishment of a committee of distinguished community leaders and scholars to review this issue, the Foundation, under the leadership of Professors Anita Shapira and Ismar Schorsch, concluded that it was critical for compelling national reasons to undertake a program in this area, despite the very serious constraints - both sociological and communal - that such an effort would confront.
The Foundation took a critical decision at the outset of our planning not to disperse our limited resources geographically, but select one pilot community to test the viability of the concepts and the program which we would develop. We also believed that the presence of a number of programs in one geographic area would more likely produce a synergy that would amplify the vitality of the program as a whole, thereby helping achieve one of the macro-goals of our endeavor, adding Hebrew to the cultural agenda of the Jewish people in the United States.
For the pilot community, as I have already indicated, the Foundation selected the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey. We did so because of its strong Jewish educational system; the quality of its Jewish institutions; the high level of support for study in, and travel to, Israel in the community; and the quality of its communal, educational, and rabbinical leadership, especially its professional staff, headed by Howard Charish.
The Foundation articulated three principles that would define this enterprise. Our focus programmatically would be primarily on Hebrew as a portal to Jewish culture, literacy and Jewish text, not on spoken fluency. The other methodologies utilized in the past were embedded in ideological frameworks and failed completely. Jewish culture is alive and well in the United States and has indeed been flourishing in recent years. Linking Hebrew with Jewish culture, we believe, enhances the probability of our success.
Secondly, our focus will be attempting to change the culture regarding Hebrew in the Jewish schools. Should we succeed in the schools, we will have taken a major step for helping trigger change on the communal level as well.
The fundamental organizational principle of the program is that all decisions regarding the program will not be made in Jerusalem or even by distinguished cultural bodies in New York City, but by the pilot community itself. If this program is to work, the "locals" must have full and complete responsibility for it.
Hebrew Language Immersion in Early Childhood Programs
The first phase of the "Hebrew in America" program will be launched next fall with the introduction and intensification of Hebrew language immersion programs in fifteen local early childhood programs in Northern New Jersey.
One of the highlights of our meeting was the visit by members of our executive to the Yavneh Academy in Bergen County to give us a flavor of what the first phase of the program entails. Our members, who were split in two groups, spent close to an hour observing two classes of 4 to 5 year olds in a proto-type Hebrew language immersion in an early childhood program.
Our visit did more than effectively demonstrate the "doability" of the first phase of our enterprise. It was thrilling to observe the children and their teachers very comfortably engaged in Hebrew, ofttimes using full sentences, in describing commonplace objects, and doing common tasks together. One could also perceive, notably among the Israelis present in our group, a subtle emotional jolt, especially visible while listening to the children enthusiastically singing the popular Israeli song "Eretz Yisroel Porachat" (Israel is Flowering). The sparks these 4-5 year olds were unwittingly generating lent credence to the potential significance of our budding enterprise for those concerned about our Jewish future in the United States and our connection with Israel.
The UJA-Federation wisely chose to begin this enterprise with programs in early childhood. Firstly, the use of Hebrew in early childhood programs has received very scant attention in the United States and is a virgin area with considerable potential for development. Beginning with early childhood also makes possible the expansion of the base of the pyramid of Hebrew instruction in the schools which, if successful, could generate interest among parents, students and schools for the second stage of the program, the community's elementary schools.
Mobilizing the Community
The critical innovation in our program for the propagation of Hebrew was making our program a community enterprise, not confining it to individual schools and institutions, or special segments of the community. Our most important success to date has been not only the articulation of this communal component, but the agreement of UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey to undertake the responsibility for the propagation of Hebrew in their community and to mobilize the community and its leadership towards that end.
The major event during our stay in Bergen County was therefore the community-wide meeting which took place on Wednesday evening, May 25, and which successfully concluded our meeting.
Prior to the community-wide meeting, Prof. Anita Shapira, the Foundation’s President and Prof. David Berger, Chairman of the Hebrew in America Committee met with the current and incoming presidents of the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey and the professional team which is responsible for "Hebrew in America" there. This was followed by a meeting between the Foundation's executive committee and that of the UJA-Federation. Both meetings, especially the former, provided us with the opportunity to talk in depth and detail about the next steps in the program and our mutual responsibilities in the future.
The community meeting featured opening remarks by Prof. Anita Shapira and an address by Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, who gave a muscular and passionate presentation about the role of Hebrew in Jewish culture and the necessity for its revival in the United States.
Wieseltier opened his presentation with the observation that "American Jewry has lived off the spiritual and historical resources of other Jews.” He added that “the impediment to taking our rightful place in the chain of our tradition has everything to do with Jewish language and Jewish books, and with the changing relationship of Jews to Jewish language and Jewish books."
The assumption of American Jewry that "it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedence in Jewish history, and this illiteracy will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin. Without Hebrew,"the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America, but most of it will certainly disappear." Though it is possible, to read Jewish texts in translation, "every translation is also a conversion, and it is hard to imagine that more is gained than is lost.
If the Jews in the United States do not make the commitment to replete ourselves by recovering our language, and thereby bring to an end, if not in ourselves, than in our children, this absurd helplessness before our own tradition, then we may dream of only a limited greatness in our literature and lives.” Wieseltier concluded that "there is no more lasting or more durable affiliation with our tradition than the connection with Hebrew. May historians record that Hebrew in America was the vanguard of a great change, a true renaissance."
The success of the evening can be gauged by the full hall - the 200 seat auditorium was filled to capacity, with some standees - and the enthusiastic response of the audience, composed of the leaders of the UJA-Federation, the parents, principals and staff of the major Jewish educational institutions in Northern New Jersey, distinguished communal personalities and amcha, members of the rank and file of the Jewish community of Northern New Jersey.
One of the leaders of the UJA-Federation told us at an earlier meeting that he was eager to see how the community would respond that evening. Although we have just initiated this project and still have a very, very long way to go, the successful community-wide meeting was a hopeful omen that our partnership may accomplish what has the possibility of reverberating across the cultural landscape of America and even hopefully of Diaspora Jewry
Best wishes for a pleasant summer.
Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President