Changing the Focus: Embracing a New Approach to Hebrew Language Education

One of the many lessons that we have all learned from our global ‘experiment’ with online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic is that technological tools are not the key to real success in education. Students cannot learn effectively if they are just bombarded with information. Investing in digital educational programs is no substitute for investing in teaching techniques.

Language learning is particularly challenging. It is important to understand how language is acquired and – with reference to Hebrew language education – how learners learn a second language. Whatever digital and paper resources are chosen for each class, the success of their Hebrew language acquisition will always depend on the teacher. If we want students to become literate in the Hebrew language, Jewish schools must invest first and foremost in properly equipping the most essential resource in the classroom: the teacher.

The Hebrew Literacy Challenge

Hebrew is the key to our Jewish heritage, a crucial element in promoting heightened Jewish identity in all Jewish day schools. It is also a valuable gift through which we can strengthen our relationships with Jews around the world and with Israel. However, we see that many students are not motivated to learn the language, and we hear complaints that, after many years in “Hebrew schools”, they still have very poor Hebrew!

If we take a look back over the past twenty to thirty years of Hebrew instruction, we see that there was a remarkable investment in a wide variety of programs designed to teach Hebrew. Various publishing houses and educational organizations produced highly creative and dynamic materials for use in schools around the world to teach Jewish children to read and understand the language. There is no doubt that these tools are valuable and professional, so why are they not working?

Three years ago, the Hirsch Foundation turned to the World Center for Jewish Education (WCJE) to investigate why Hebrew literacy is so poor in Jewish day schools. We surveyed hundreds of teachers and principals. They reported that the existing Hebrew language programs were helpful for unqualified and inexperienced Hebrew teachers, but experienced teachers felt invalidated and many were leaving the profession. Smart students were learning to ‘game’ the programs and guess the answers without ever learning the language.

It seems that the desire for high-tech programs has led publishers to invest more of their budgets in attractive technology and less in their pedagogical impact. At the same time, whatever money is invested in these Hebrew language programs, they cannot compete with the more advanced educational programs offered by the high-tech giants like Google and Microsoft. The schools complained that the huge sums that they are paying for these programs leaves them with no money in their Hebrew budget for the crucial requirements of differential teaching, in accordance with the “Every Student Succeeds” model that is used in other subjects.

We also found that most schools do not measure their students’ success in learning Hebrew in the same ways as they assess other subjects. Perhaps learning Hebrew is not treated as a priority because it is not required for university entrance!

Realigning Teachers with Technology

Based on the results of this survey, we clarified a new plan for improving Hebrew teaching in Jewish day schools. The first priority for schools should be to invest in the skills of their Hebrew teachers.

While it is clearly crucial that they know how to use technology in the classroom, we believe that they need to be empowered educators and not merely operators of computer programs, workbooks and textbooks. No program or book can effectively convey the beauty and nuance of the Hebrew language in the absence of a committed, professional and knowledgeable teacher. Nothing is more important than employing people who are inspired and equipped to ensure that every student succeeds in learning the language.

In order to teach Hebrew effectively, every teacher must understand how language is learned. Teaching Hebrew needs to be viewed through a professional lens, just like teaching math and the sciences.  Few educators would think you can just hand a math book to an untrained teacher and hope they will be able to effectively explain mathematical principles to a class of students.  Hebrew is no different. Like the sciences, there is also no “one size fits all” approach to instruction. Hebrew teachers need to know how to relate to individual students based on their specific strengths and weaknesses.

The race to update Hebrew learning programs has been wasting an unfair proportion of the Hebrew department’s budget. We recognize that schools are already using the most advanced tools developed by the world’s leading technological companies, like Google Classroom and Microsoft Meet. So, rather than trying to invent new EdTech tools for Hebrew teaching, we should be focusing on training the teachers and finding the right curriculum materials to suit the needs of each school. After all, even Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, acknowledges that technology should be used to serve the needs of people and not the other way around!

Cost Effective Tools for Schools

When we founded the World Center for Jewish Education, we did so with an understanding that the Jewish educational community needs to change its focus. Acting on the basis of the consistent feedback from our survey, we looked around to find the most effective tools to assist our Hebrew teachers, and the most successful experts to advise them. We offer several different ranges of programs, textbooks and workbooks that are engaging and fun, and we can help teachers choose the best option for every age and learning stage. We know that

The Hebrew language department of the WCJE offers Jewish schools around the world guidance in building their own customized Hebrew curriculum that conforms to their school’s vision, culture and needs. For example, one of the programs that we have found to be effective in empowering Hebrew teachers (and cost-effective for schools) is the Language Proficiency Approach according to the guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Our online training course was developed by Idit Ben David, the Director of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at the Epstein School in Atlanta, who has taught in Hebrew in schools throughout the US for the past 20 years.

The course shows educators how language is acquired and how to convey the very technical aspects of Hebrew language in the classroom, while ensuring that language acquisition is combined with that passion for tradition, history and culture which helps make the Hebrew language relevant to the students’ lives. Idit also works with teachers to develop tools for evaluating the individual students, so teachers can see how best to work with each student in order to improve their skills.

Investing in our Teachers

At the WCJE, we are constantly talking and listening to the principals, administrators and teachers from Jewish schools around the world. We are training intelligent and passionate teachers and equipping them with effective tools and guidelines for success. Recognizing the centrality of our ancient language to our modern identity, we welcome the chance to help update methods of Hebrew teaching in line with our radical new approach to Jewish education. We need to be sure it’s being done with the right vision, the right tools, and by skilled Hebrew teaching experts, who understand both the challenges and opportunities involved in language acquisition.

Mickey Katzburg is the Founder and Director of the World Center for Jewish Education. (