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School offers Russian for immigrants’ children
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School offers Russian for immigrants’ children

Weekly class helps youngsters maintain parents’ mother tongue

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

With children from the Russian language immersion class are, from left, parent Julia Benz, teacher Luiza Finberg, and head of school Moshe Vaknin.
With children from the Russian language immersion class are, from left, parent Julia Benz, teacher Luiza Finberg, and head of school Moshe Vaknin.

Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County is helping to close a gap between Russian-speaking parents and their first-generation American children.

The Jewish day school in Randolph, a beneficiary of the UJA of MetroWest, is offering a three-month immersion program in Russian, responding to those who would like their children to be more comfortable speaking in their parents’ mother tongue.

A group of four- to six-year-olds recently spent 45 minutes twice a week in an after-school class taught by Luiza Finberg, one of at least four HAMC teachers from the former Soviet Union. The children learn Russian through play, songs, poems, story-telling, and arts and crafts.

“Many Russian families are striving to keep their children’s Russian language skills current and have to hire a teacher for Russian classes several times a week,” explained Julia Benz, a HAMC parent who came up with the idea for the program and organized the classes. “It is not easy for working families both logistically — arranging for teacher time, getting baby-sitters versus leaving children in the aftercare school programs — and financially; those services are not cheap.

“We hope that affordable programs right at a child’s school may help solve this problem,” she added.

Parents of the youngsters taking the class have found that their children are more comfortable speaking Russian and more willing to dabble in it.

“I see a noticeable difference in my son’s ability and willingness to speak Russian at home, and also to his grandmother, who he calls daily on the phone,” said parent Yana Faynstein.

Benz, who grew up in Russia and Prague, came to the United States 17 years ago. A resident of Morristown, she is among an estimated 12 Russian immigrant families in the school, seven of whom have children in the four- to six-year-old age group.

“We’ve always had a few families from Russia, but we never offered this kind of class; we never knew people were interested,” said Naomi Bacharach, HAMC director of marketing and development.

Benz said the program not only helps bridge the communication gap between generations, but also provides the general educational benefits of learning a second language — or, in this case, a third, since the children also learn Hebrew at HAMC.

HAMC’s approach to Jewish values are incorporated into the class. In one project, children decorated teddy bears with Israeli and Russian flags and donated them to a local hospital. They also donated toys and books to children in Cherkassy, a Ukrainian community supported by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.

Inna Serebro-Litvak, the cantor at Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, has a four-year-old daughter in the program.

“When I used to speak to her in Russian, she would answer me in English,” she said. “Since she started attending the class, though, her Russian vocabulary expanded and she is trying to insert some Russian words and even phrases into her speech. It is obvious that she feels more comfortable, knowing that there are other children who speak Russian.

“Children in the group have fun learning a language that most of their parents speak and create a bond with each other,” said Serebro-Litvak.

The enrichment classes will begin again the week of April 11.

In addition to the Russian language immersion class and a Russian club, all children at the school can choose from a wide variety of offerings. Among the choices is something Benz created for all students called Go Geography that involves “traveling” to foreign countries.

It launched in January with an imaginary “trip” to Russia and will continue in the spring with “visits” to Morocco, South Africa, and England.

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