There’s a reason you may remember the aleph bet from Sunday school but don’t feel comfortable ordering shakshuka from a beachside cafe in Israel. According to the 2013 Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans, only about one in 10 American Jews can carry on a conversation in Hebrew.
“Historically, schools have taught Hebrew with the alphabet and single-syllable sounds, and they don’t start until at least third grade,” says Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, co-founder of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. Phonetic reading is prioritized above spoken Hebrew, she says.
Along with fellow Kavana parent and Israeli teacher Einav Peretz, in 2009 Nussbaum launched Gan Kavana, a Hebrew-English preschool that strives to make language learning natural and treat Hebrew as a living language. Gan Kavana hosts 10 to 15 students between ages 2 and 5 during the school year and runs a weeklong Hebrew summer camp in June.
“Some parents feel a little intimidated when they see a completely Hebrew classroom, especially if their children have never heard Hebrew before,” says Nussbaum. But through Hebrew songs that accompany daily routines and story time with Israeli children’s books, students learn quickly. By year’s end, they perform a play completely in Hebrew.
A self-described “Israeli style” also permeates the school. When it comes to teaching Jewish tradition, Gan Kavana embraces a pluralistic approach that mirrors most secular preschools in Israel. Every Friday, the students make challah, and parents join a child-led Shabbat celebration.
Israeli-style also means teachers may be more direct. “We don’t need to tiptoe around our interactions with parents,” says Brit Shlessinger, who has taught at Gan Kavana for eight years. “Sometimes we ask hard questions, but there’s also a general atmosphere of trust, love, and respect for one another.”
Over on Mercer Island, a similar initiative is taking shape. Since 1980, the Stroum Jewish Community Center has offered early childhood education for children between the ages of 3 months and 5 years. This past fall, it launched its first Hebrew-English classroom for 3- and 4-year-olds, taught in the Reggio Emilia student-led learning style.
“Parents are motivated to send their kids here — even if they’re not Jewish — because a bilingual preschool is great for brain development,” explains Carrie Stull, director of the Early Learning Center.
In addition to wanting more Hebrew in the preschool, Stull wants to inspire community involvement around Jewish holidays. The new classroom has motivated other teachers to implement Hebrew literacy activities, and community engagement surrounding Jewish holidays has also increased.
But what happens after preschool if families don’t pursue Hebrew skill building? Stull is confident that the bilingual approach has lasting results. “Even if the children don’t continue learning Hebrew, it will be part of their lives forever,” she says. “They’ll always be able to recognize the language, because it was taught to them at such a critical point in their development.”
“On more than one occasion we have had a child return from a trip to Israel very proud of their fluency,” Shlessinger says. “In Israel, they are suddenly confronted with the idea that the language is useful to them and not just something they use during school.”