I can't seem to get out of my head a recent email announcing the 90th anniversary celebration of Boston's Hebrew College. Mention Hebrew College today and the rabbinical school is probably what first pops into mind. But for those of us who graduated from its high school and college during the '60s or before, it is the Hebrew language.
Like the Herzlia Hebrew Teachers Institute in New York and a dozen or so such schools across the US, the former Hebrew Teachers College was an outgrowth of the Hebraist or tarbut ivrit, Hebrew culture movement of the early 20th century. Inspired by the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-Am, the European-born intellectuals who founded the movement aspired to preserve Hebrew language and culture in America, and viewed Hebrew as the vital spiritual link to Eretz Yisrael. The result was a network of schools and camps based on the educational philosophy of ivrit b'ivrit, the Hebrew-in-Hebrew method.
Our curriculum reflected a deep-rooted commitment to Zionist ideals and Hebrew language and culture.
Through the Hebrew language, lashon hakodesh, we forged an inextricable bond to Eretz Yisrael. Hebrew was the exclusive language of our classes, text books, written assignments and even hallway conversations. We studied the Hebrew poets Rahel, Shlonsky, Bialik, and Tchernichovsky as well as Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Ha- Am, A. D. Gordon, and Y. L. Pinsker. We knew nothing of Deir Yassin or Palestinian refugee camps, but neither did our classmates at the secular universities where we simultaneously pursued full-time studies.
The 20th-century Hebraists worried about preserving Jewish identity. Who knows whether they would have been surprised by shifting attitudes toward Israel among young Jews? Probably, though, they could not have predicted the abundant wealth of Jewish educational and cultural opportunities, Israel programs, college-level Judaic studies programs, and online resources available in the 21st century or foreseen that young Jews would visit Israel more frequently than previous generations.
In any case, there are valuable lessons we can learn from the Hebraist movement and its singular curricular focus on Hebrew language and Zionist thought. It's also where the contemporary American-Jewish community sorely misses the point.
As American-Jewish leaders wring their hands on how to engage young Jews with Israel, Israel advocacy continues to be prioritized. Lectures on the Arab-Israeli conflict, media training for campus activists and social media workshops on how to combat anti-Israel voices remain the rule of thumb.
There's nothing inherently wrong with advocacy per se. But we need to face current realities. In today's highly charged politicized atmosphere, a strong focus on pro- Israel advocacy does not offer broad appeal to young Jews seeking to engage comfortably with Israel on their own terms.
The emerging field of Israel education represents a step in the right direction. Initiatives such as the Jewish Agency's Makom and the iCenter offer significant promise.
But to achieve lasting success, Israel education must emphasize Hebrew language skills.
Nothing binds us to Israel like the Hebrew language. I still remember the exhilaration of speaking Hebrew on my first visit to Israel many years ago.
However, what percentage of American Jewish young people can conduct a conversation in Hebrew, understand an Israeli radio or television broadcast, or read an Israeli newspaper? Yet it is through the Hebrew language that we gain insights into the complex intricacies of contemporary Israeli culture, society and politics - from the raunchy humor of Israeli reality TV to the raucous Knesset debates.
Hebrew language learning must be prioritized from an early age. Take my two-year-old granddaughter who speaks Hebrew fluently, recognizing how it distinguishes her from most of her New York playmates. She loves to point out the Israeli flag and read that children in Israel speak Hebrew (just like me!) as we read one of her favorite Hebrew storybooks. Already, Hebrew is the basis for her identification with Israel.
Granted, she has the advantage of parents committed to raising a bilingual child. But today several Hebrew immersion programs designed for the early-childhood set exist in America such as "Hebrew in America," sponsored by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the "Ma'alah" program, developed by the Melton Center with a Covenant Foundation grant.
The challenge: There are numerous initiatives to improve Hebrew language instruction in Jewish day schools - Hebrew at the Center, Tal Am (Tochnit Limudim Ivrit Umoreshet) and NETA (Noar Letovat HaIvrit). But most elementary-age American Jewish children receive their Jewish education in supplementary settings where there's little time for serious Hebrew language instruction. And while teenagers in large metropolitan areas can learn Hebrew at supplementary high schools such as the Prozdor of Boston's Hebrew College and the Ivry Prozdor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, they represent only a fraction of the population.
Nearly a century ago, Hebraist visionaries - and not without engendering significant controversy - called for teaching Hebrew in America. Today the challenges are different but we also have trained teachers and a wealth of technology tools, including Skype and online courses, which make our task significantly easier.
If we want to link young Jews to Israel, the Hebrew language can and should play a pivotal role. If Hebrew is to become imprinted in the DNA of our Jewish youth, it's never too early to begin. Nor should it be reserved exclusively for those with access to an intensive Jewish education.
It's time to issue a wake-up call to the 21st-century American-Jewish community. Make Hebrew language learning for Jewish youth a communal priority. Promote its value. Invest the financial resources to ensure success.
Begin today because Israel cannot wait until tomorrow.
The Jerusalem Post, 2012