Hebrew as a Primary Language

0816lewisI don’t remember when it began, but for the longest time I held the desire to learn more Hebrew. I promised myself that if I attended a college that offered any Hebrew courses, then I had to enroll. While completing my undergraduate degree at UC Irvine, I had the opportunity to make my dream a reality. After completing my first year, the program was sadly cancelled. Even though my plans for Hebrew literacy were cut short, I learned enough to communicate during my Birthright trip (or even eavesdrop). I even learned how to identify roots of words. During Shabbat service, if there was a word I didn’t know, the root helped me figure out its meaning. Learning the beautiful language of my ancestors has brought me even closer to Judaism.

With the knowledge I have now, I often look back on my time in religious school and wonder: Why wasn’t I taught more Hebrew? For my Bat Mitzvah, I would have loved to have been able to understand as I read from the Torah. Sure, I realize that I am being unrealistic in wishing that at thirteen I had the mentality that I have now, but it still makes me wonder.

For answers, I went to University Synagogue’s Director of Congregational Learning, who also happens to be a dear friend of mine, Sue Penn. She confirmed my initial thoughts on the lack of a focus on Hebrew literacy in religious school: time, resources, and the students attitudes are all reasons for why Hebrew is not taught as extensively as it could be. There is so much, too much, focus on college. It’s not the parents’ fault, but a fault of society’s expectations. If students are absent from religious school, it’s because of an AP exam, or some other form of college preparation. Unfortunately, there isn’t the option yet to have Hebrew count toward college credit. For now, Sue wants her students “to be able to go to any shul, open the text, and follow.” Students often come to her, after returning from a Birthright trip, wishing to learn more Hebrew. For those seeking to advance their knowledge, a few options are offered right in Orange County at University Synagogue. Younger students are able to attend enrichment classes on Monday evenings during the academic year. For older students who, like me, pine for the language of our people, there is an adult education class also on Monday evenings. This summer there are even more opportunities to learn! A one-day Hebrew marathon and a two-week Hebrew boot camp will be offered in September.

For more information on any of these offerings, you may contact Sue Penn at spenn@universitysynagogue.org or call (949) 553-3535.

Until then, l’hitraot!

Dvorah Lewis is a contributing writer.

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