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So bear with me about this short tangent … it is relevant to the point. I promise.
In 2007, the Ben Gamla School opened in Hollywood, Florida.
It was the first Hebrew language charter school in the United States, that is, it was the first government funded school (as their website asserts) whose primary purpose was to:
deliver a first-class academic program that offers a unique bilingual, bi-literate, and bi-cultural curriculum, which prepares students to have an edge in global competition through the study of Hebrew as a second language.
Wow on two counts. First, I was going to make a joke about the long list of “bi”s in the above statement, working in a reference to Bi-Con, or perhaps Bed, Bath and Beyond but then a friend told me that B,B & B is really not a hangout for bisexuals – just people, both gay, straight and switch-hitters looking for bedding and bath tchotchkes…
So I dropped it. On to the second Wow!
I was a bit befuddled as to how the study of Hebrew will give Hebrew-speakers an “edge in global competition“… ? Yikes. This takes the whole Elders of Zion thing to a different level, doesn’t it? (And besides, I thought the Elders were Yiddish speakers…)
Nevertheless, to conceive of a school that puts Hebrew alongside English (and not as its hand-maiden, gofer or token Jew) is pretty invigorating and exciting… and considering how quickly Hebrew Charter Schools are proliferating across the USA (there are about 20 up and running), it may be one of the more salient directions in which Jewish/Hebrew education (that is, the education of the Next Jew-ish generation) is heading…
And now back to Thought 2.
So once we have a topic of conversation (i.e., the Torah, for starters…), how shall we talk about it?
In Hebrew, of course!
However, as Deborah Lipstadt, among others, have observed: “We are a people of the book who cannot read the book in its original language.” Ouch. (…Which reminds me of another joke about why God could never get tenure at the Hebrew University… (wait for it…) because He only wrote one book and He wrote it in Hebrew!)
By 2020, the majority of Jews in the world will be Hebrew speakers. If we take this notion of peoplehood seriously, can we (that is, US, that is North American Jews) afford to be part of the substantial minority that cannot function in Hebrew? (And I am not talking about having a passable facility in siddur Hebrew or a mastery of twee dialogues between Israeli convenience-store-owners/bus-drivers/baristas and various North American consumers… I am talking about bi-fluency. And no, that does not sound dirty. [See above failed joke.])
So what is to be done? Are government funded (or yes, privately paid-for) Hebrew language schools the answer? (Are you listening, John Tory?)
In my free moments, I sit with a cup of coffee and imagine what a full Hebrew immersion school would be like… modeled on existing French immersion programs across Canada, a school where every subject is taught in Hebrew… and then, when someone walks by and notes the vaguely ethereal smile on my face and asks me: “What were you thinking about?” and then I tell them, the look they shoot back… well, it’s just precious!