The Council for Hebrew Language and Culture in North America is a little organization with a big mission: It seeks to persuade Jews in North America, especially in the U.S., that Hebrew-language proficiency ought to be a high priority on our communal agenda. The council’s vision is that North American Jews will come to regard Hebrew proficiency as fundamental to their Jewish identity.
I spoke at length with the council’s chairman, Rabbi Andrew Ergas, who serves as executive director at the Harold and Elaine Shames JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown, N.Y. He explained that the council was launched at a retreat in Newark over six years ago. The participants, whom he described as “meshuga l’davar” (meaning, people fervently devoted to the Hebrew thing), decided on three initiatives: formal establishment of a non-profit organization (aka the council); creation of a professional association of Hebrew teachers; and convening of local and regional programs that celebrate the joys of the Hebrew language and culture.
“Since the retreat, we have worked to put the organizational pieces in place in order to function, identified key partners, and succeeded in getting the teachers association up and running,” Ergas said. On June 12, the council held a day-long conference in New York City and members agreed on a short-term goal of producing 10,000 non-native Hebrew speakers in North America with an intermediate-to-high proficiency level in the language. “This level of proficiency,” Ergas said, “means possessing the ability to have a conversation with a native Hebrew speaker — who won’t automatically switch to English — and the ability to read and listen to Hebrew with significant comprehension.” (He acknowledges that it will take some time to reach that 10,000-target figure.) The strategy is, first, to win allies among influencers in key sectors — the federation movement, religious community, the campus, philanthropists — and then to build out from there.
I asked Ergas how they intend to make the case for Hebrew to the Jewish community. “Knowledge of Hebrew,” he observed, “strengthens Jewish identity not only by connecting us more directly to our Jewish texts, but also by serving as a bridge to a thriving Hebrew culture and by building bridges to Jews all over the world.”
We discussed the challenges facing the council in accomplishing its mission. “The connection to Israel, especially among younger Jews, is not as strong as it was in the past,” he said. Another factor working against the goal of advancing Hebrew proficiency, Ergas said, is that many of our sacred Jewish texts, and much of Israeli Hebrew literature, are now available in English translation. “We’re also dealing with an American society that celebrates monolingualism, the perception that [the only language] one needs to function well in this world is English.”
On the other hand, Ergas said, some things are working in their favor, “such as a growing desire on the part of parents to provide their children with foreign-language skills and neuroscience that underscores the benefits of learning a foreign language.” The popularity of Israeli television shows like “Fauda,” he said, may also light a spark of interest in Hebrew. And the many thousands of young American Jews who have participated in Birthright and MASA programs (MASA is affiliated with the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel) may be a potential constituency for Hebrew-language study, he said.
I reached out to Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, a self-described “Israeli and fluent Hebrew speaker.” Echoing Ergas’s point about Hebrew serving as a building block of Jewish peoplehood, Ben-Shimon wrote in an e-mail to me, “I’ve traveled far and wide to Jewish communities around the world, from Cuba to former Soviet republics and beyond. In practically every country I’ve ever visited, I’ve met with someone from the local leadership who speaks Hebrew. If we want to deepen these partnerships — and strengthen Jewish identity on all sides — learning Hebrew is one of the best, most effective, and most powerful ways to do it.”
The federation, according to Ben-Shimon, is deeply committed to the Hebrew language. “When you come into our Federation main campus in Whippany,” he wrote, “you see Israeli television playing in the lobby, and you can hear Hebrew spoken in every corner. The more programs and partnerships we develop with Israelis, the more delegations and shared projects, all help turn Hebrew into a vibrant living bridge and language here in our community.”
Ravit Bar-Av, a council board member and resident of East Brunswick, was born in Israel and is a native Hebrew speaker. Even though the council’s efforts are directed primarily toward non-native Hebrew speakers, she sees great value in its work for the Israeli-American Jewish
“We are challenged to maintain the connection to Hebrew and Israel among our children and grandchildren,” she said. “Expanding the use of Hebrew in the broader American-Jewish community will help us to achieve this goal.” While there is a need to cultivate Israel-diaspora relations, Bar-Av said, “elevating Hebrew proficiency is likely to result in greater integration of Israeli-American Jews into the wider Jewish community.”
But is there broad Jewish-communal-leadership support for the council’s ambitious agenda? Currently, I’m afraid, the answer is no. Ergas told me that he has worked in the Jewish community for some 25 years, and in only one job interview was he asked about his capacity for speaking Hebrew as relevant to his getting the position. “There is no expectation that our leaders have command of Hebrew, so how can we expect our laity to strive for it?” he asked.
This lack of leadership, we agreed, is somewhat surprising. “At a time when American Jews are seeking to build stronger bridges to Israel and have greater influence over what takes place there, I believe our opinions would be given more weight if we could communicate in Hebrew.”
Where do I stand? I wouldn’t describe myself as a meshuga l’davar, but I prize my fluency in Hebrew, the product of spending some six years in Israel in the 1970s studying law at Hebrew University and working in various positions in Israel’s Ministry of Justice. I can still remember how proud I felt when my dreams shifted from English to Hebrew. It’s funny — in the dreams I always spoke Hebrew much more effortlessly than I did when I awoke the next morning.
Since coming back to the states in the late 1970s, I’ve had opportunities to use my Hebrew in a variety of ways, particularly since most of my professional career was devoted to Israel advocacy. I often spoke in Hebrew to Israelis such as government officials, diplomats stationed in the U.S., and academics. Did they take my opinions expressed in Hebrew more seriously than if I had spoken to them in English? You would have to ask them, but my hunch is that they did.
American Jews have a lot of pressing issues on our collective plate. We ought to make room on it for Hebrew, lashon hakodesh, the language of the Jewish people.
Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.