Hebrew & the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution
by Rabbi Nicki Greninger
Do you know Hebrew? If you ‘know’ Hebrew, what does that mean? Does it mean you know the letters of the aleph-bet and can sound out words? Does it mean that you feel comfortable with modern, spoken Hebrew? Does it mean that you understand basic Jewish life vocabulary in Hebrew? (i.e. words like shalom and tzedakah or phrases like tikkun olam or b’tzelem Elohim) Does it mean that you know most of the words of the prayers we say and can recite them with the community, even if you could not necessarily translate the prayers word for word?
When it comes to learning Hebrew, it seems to me that most of our congregations struggle enormously. We strive to provide the best Hebrew education we can, yet most – if not all – our students come out of their K-7th grade years with a rudimentary ability to sound out words in Hebrew that they do not comprehend. We teach them how to decode (mostly for the purpose of ‘success’ at their b’nai mitzvah), but for understandable reasons (including lack of time, unreliable attendance, insufficient teacher training, etc.) they do not learn much more than that. More importantly, the experience of learning Hebrew is, in my estimation, not a very positive one for most of our kids.
This point was driven home for me last week, when I spent time with a recent high school graduate whom I hired to help me do some filing in my office. Molly (not her real name) has been one of the most active high school students in our congregation for the last several years, serving as a teacher’s assistant in religious school, working as an aid in our education office, staffing junior youth group events, singing in our teen choir, and participating in NFTY. As we were going through the materials to be filed, we came upon a lot of Hebrew resources (textbooks, Mitkadem packets, etc). Molly asked me how I thought things were going with our new Hebrew program (since we began Mitkadem about 3 years ago), and I said that while I thought it was better than what preceded it, I am still not satisfied.
On a whim, I asked Molly what she remembers from her own Hebrew learning, and she told me that while she eventually learned basic decoding skills, she didn’t really get the hang of it until her one-on-one bat mitzvah tutoring began in the months before her bat mitzvah. To my surprise, Molly had actually “dropped out” of religious school at the end of second grade because of her experiences with Hebrew. The class was learning the aleph-bet, but Molly had a difficult time keeping up with the other students and felt lousy about herself as a result. Moreover, she didn’t have any good friends in the class, which made her feel lonely and bad about her Hebrew skills – a double whammy. She therefore dropped out for a little while before coming back to religious school about a year later.
Thinking back to her later years of religious school, Molly remembered a teacher who would conduct Hebrew games with the kids that were competitive in nature, such as “Around the World.” She hated those games, as she’s not a competitive person and those games reinforced the insecurity she already felt about her Hebrew skills. She also found it frustrating that the Hebrew she didn’t “get” was simply sounding out letter/vowel combinations, and that even if she learned how to do that, she wasn’t really learning Hebrew as a living/spoken language.
Speaking with Molly reinforced my excitement about the URJ’s new initiative, B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. For the last couple of years, the staff and lay leaders of my congregation have been thinking deeply about why and how we teach Hebrew in our educational program, and we are considering making drastic changes to Hebrew education in our congregation in the next year or two. However, we recognize that one cannot make changes to Hebrew learning without considering prayer learning and b’nai mitzvah training as well. These three components (Hebrew learning, prayer learning, and b’nai mitzvah preparation) are like the three strands of a Havdallah candle – distinct from one another but interwoven and inseparable. Therefore, as we consider making major changes to one strand (Hebrew education), we must re-evaluate how we approach the other two strands as well.
Getting back to my conversation with Molly: When she left my office, I thought, “Here is a student who became deeply connected Jewishly through her high school years (and is even considering becoming a cantor), but that happened despite her experience learning Hebrew in Religious School.” It shames me to think that due to our current methods and goals of Hebrew education, we might have ‘lost’ such a wonderful young woman in our community. I’m hopeful that the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution will help congregations like mine to re-think how we teach Hebrew and prayer in a way that will engage and inspire our students rather than turning them away from Jewish learning as a whole!
Rabbi Nicki Greninger is Director of Education at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. She is also the author of “Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Tefillah Education in the 21st Century.”