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Lookjed Digest XXI:17

In this issue:

| Lookjed Classic: On teaching Hebrew –

Adventures in Literacy-Land (Aster, Unterman, Rosen, Silver, Cohn)
| Through the Looking Glass (Aster)

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One ongoing lament among day school educators is the inability to successfully teach Hebrew language skills to the students in their schools. Ivrit be-Ivrit instruction, once commonplace in many day schools in North America and across the globe, is in use less and less frequently. Even schools that were once bastions of Hebrew language instruction are begun to despair about its effectiveness.

This issue was revisited recently when the new chairman of the Jewish Agency called for Israel to devote resources to teach Hebrew to Jews around the world.

Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog has announced a new plan to teach Hebrew to Jews worldwide as "a Jewish national value and birthright privilege."

Herzog was laying down his vision as the agency's new leader in a speech to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly.

"If Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora do not seek common ground … to courageously confront together the challenges of this new age, we are in danger of losing a significant part of the Jewish people," he said.

"Our first act should be to find a common language. When I say common, I mean both literally and figuratively. We have a rare and sacred national treasure: the Hebrew language.

"In order for us to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another and to debate, discuss, and delight one another, we must return to our national treasure. In order for us all to be able to embrace our rich history and dream of a flourishing future, we must enable every young Jewish person in the world to learn Hebrew."

The full article can be accessed at

This topic has been discussed on Lookjed a number of times, with the most powerful statements coming from Professor Shawn Zelig Aster – then at Yeshiva University and currently at Bar-Ilan – who penned two articles on the subject. The first refers to an article that Professor Aster wrote for the Commentator, the Yeshiva College student newspaper, where he relates how he discovered that students entering YU -many of whom had studied in day schools for 12 years before spending a year or two in Israel - were functionally illiterate when they entered his Bible courses. The Lookjed post lays out a planned intervention program to assist those students in reaching a level of competency in the language.

Aster’s first Lookjed post, entitled “Adventures in Literacy-Land” introduced the challenge and the suggested responses.

The second Lookjed post, entitled “Through the Looking Glass” was written a year later. It describes how the program was implemented and take-aways from the experience.

I will share excerpts from each of the posts below, together with some of the comments that they engendered.

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Lookjed Classic: On teaching Hebrew –

Adventures in Literacy-Land (Aster, Unterman, Rosen, Silver, Cohn)
(Back to Top)

Professor Shawn Zelig Aster’s initial post can be read in full at:,18183,18183#msg-18183

Selected responses:

Jeremiah Unterman
September 03, 2009 03:31PM

From 2001-2006 I taught Bible part-time at Yeshiva College and the Azrieli Graduate School.I was stunned by the limited knowledge of Hebrew of most of the Yeshiva College students.

While Dr. Aster and his colleagues are to be highly commended for their attempts to teach Biblical Hebrew, they are not dealing with the elephant in the room (Hebrew fluency) but rather with its trunk or a leg or an ear (understanding Biblical Hebrew). However, I am not persuaded that that type of learning will be remembered after graduation, down the road.

The key to understanding a civilization is its language. The vast majority of our day schools and yeshiva high schools - mostly due to a lack of will - have decided that they do not need to produce students who are fluent in Hebrew. I certainly agree that Yeshiva University cannot abrogate its responsibility to teach Hebrew to its students, but courses such as that of Dr. Aster are not the way to fulfill that responsibility. Until our day schools implement the teaching of Hebrew fluency, YU needs to do so itself. The only way that can be done at this educational stage of the game is through an ulpan-type program. Ideally, that program would take place during the year in Israel (half a day text study, half a day ulpan), but, if that is not possible, then it has to be done in New York.

As the director of the now defunct Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools and Yeshiva High Schools, I can tell you horror stories of the ignorance of Hebrew both among students and teachers in our schools. However, I prefer to mention a success story. I went to Yavneh Academy (now in Paramus, then in Paterson). Not only did we learn Hebrew every day, and were drilled in both grammar and vocabulary, but our limudei kodesh subjects were taught in Hebrew - ivrit b'ivrit (unfortunately, this is no longer the case at Yavneh). At the end of 8th grade, I had the worst educational experience of my life - I went to MTA for 9th grade, where Hebrew was indeed a foreign language. At the end of that year, I left by mutual agreement - they wanted me to go, and I wanted to go. I then went to public high school for three years (without taking any additional Hebrew), graduated, and enrolled at Rutgers. At the orientation, since I wanted to take a course in the Hebraic Studies department, I was tested first as to my knowledge of Hebrew. I tested out as equivalent to 3rd year college Hebrew and immediately went into a class in Hebrew literature, taught in Hebrew, without missing a beat - all due to my Hebrew education at Yavneh. I recently talked to a fellow graduate of mine from Yavneh (now living in Israel) and she confirmed the same type of experience.

Until our day schools and Yeshiva University adopt intensive Hebrew education with the goal of fluency, we will be raising generations of students who will always be distanced from key elements of Jewish civilization. Ultimately, they really won't have an in-depth understanding of Torah. We are creating, and we have been creating, a new generation of the desert.

Jeremiah Unterman


Daniel Rosen
September 05, 2009 07:10PM

I read through the study and analysis of the YU students and I think that while this is a good start, it begs certain questions. Assuming that we feel that a yeshiva can be an effective school where all talmidim can khop, we still need to wrap our brains around what a student has to know and be able to do in order to prove that he is ready to leave. The mix of cultural literacy and applicable skills needs to be codified and agreed to. Can we have a shared standard which demands the ability to parse an unfamiliar Rashi with no English help or would that be too much to ask because even the great thinkers carry a “Rashi to BLA’Z” dictionary with them? Do we have a master list of “What every Jewish student needs to know and be able to do” which is broken down by discipline, age and ability level? My list would be different from yours, but an institution which is trying to standardize the performative level and fluency of exiting students should be able to state explicitly its expectations. Maybe that list is what should separate yeshivas as an expression of the particular pedagogical approach and hashkafa.

Maybe, one would argue, that list is impossible to create because of the myriad possibilities and constantly changing societal demands, but without it, how can we be sure that students are prepared for what we think they need to know and what the “real world” will expect that they can do?


Leah Silver
September 05, 2009 07:19PM

Thank you for posting such an interesting and insightful article.

As a limudei kodesh teacher in both Junior high school and high school I suspect that there is another puzzle piece to account for in the waning of textually capable students, and I'm afraid that it is the insistence of some schools and communities, to have students learn Chumash Ivrit b'Ivrit. I find that many students can give formulaic right answers, can break down a shoresh or break down a verb into smaller Hebrew units, but they still do not understand what the passuk means. I also find that at a certain point, if a student does not have a mature, fluent Hebrew, then there is a limit to how maturely they can understand a passuk, or ideas discussed in parshanut. I was brought up with an Ivrit b'Ivrit education, but I don't remember learning how to really take apart a passuk. It was almost as though it was treif to try to translate the passuk-- that was never our goal. Either the assumption was that we understood it already, or that saying it in English would be like giving up on "really" understanding what's going on.

I am wondering if this is all a part of the same problem. What type of yeshiva day schools were the students in the study coming from?

Kul tuv,
Leah Silver


Joel Cohn
September 08, 2009 05:55PM

I read Dr. Aster's article with sadness. It is indeed a shame that students arrive at the doors of YU with such a limited background after 12 years of being in the "system". While I commiserate with Rav Blau's concern that the primary goal of our "system" is to ensure that our students remain/become fully observant, I do not believe that quality Jewish Education and an inspiring and meaningful Jewish experience need be mutually exclusive.

What amazes me the most is that almost all of these very same students have attained competence in science and mathematics. These very same students have passed NY State biology and math regents, and many have done quite well on their SAT exams. How do they master trigonometry but do not master basic Judaic Studies skills?

The answer to this riddle is quite obvious, commitment. The commitment of the school to excellence, the commitment of the parent to the educational goals and ultimately the commitment of the student to the subject at hand. If a student in NY State is in danger of failing the biology regents, parents will be summoned, tutors will be hired and all will be done to allow that student to advance-because there really is no other choice. New York State mandates a certain level of competence in biology, and somehow the vast majority of students will meet that expectation. In Limudei Kodesh the bar is set so low, and upon the first sight of difficulty we immediately abandon any intensive attempt to re mediate the situation and instead everybody is satisfied with a C (being generous) level education.

In my opinion, schools have to set real goals for their students and have to "sell" those goals to the parent body and the students. It has to become part of school culture that excellence in Limudei Kodesh is as important (or even more important) then the biology regents. This does not have to be nor should it be Draconian, but just an honest attempt to grant a real Judaic Education to the students who are all deserving of it, and the parents who are paying top dollar to receive the best.

Rabbi Joel Cohn
SAR Academy 1983-2005

Through the Looking Glass (Aster) (Back to Top)

Shawn Zelig Aster
June 26, 2010 09:21PM

In the summer of 2009, I published an essay entitled "Adventures in Literacy-Land" on the Look-Jed website. In it, I detailed my experiences and those of my colleagues in our first attempt at teaching a Hebrew literacy skills class at Yeshiva University, in the Fall of 2008. At the time, our efforts seemed naïve and the task Sisyphean.

But during the 2009-10 school year, Aaron Koller, Shlomo Wadler, and I ran a second pilot of this class, drawing on our experiences from Fall 2008. The class was geared to students with the very lowest scores on Yeshiva College's Hebrew Placement Test, and it succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. I can honestly say that this has been my most fulfilling experience in nearly 20 years of teaching. A student who came in unable to accurately sound out a Hebrew word with nequdot can
now read and translate, unseen, most pesukim from Genesis. Other students, who could not accurately translate simple pesukim, can now read and translate more complex ones. More importantly, we received many unsolicited and emotional comments from our apparently-jaded
students, emotionally thanking us for giving them access to Torah. Students who considered themselves incapable discovered that "yes we can." This is a class that "made a difference."

My goal here is to outline what we did right (and what we did wrong), in order that others may learn from our experiences. The need is great. We have hard data showing that large numbers of students
graduate from our Yeshiva Day Schools, and from a year of yeshiva in Israel, unable to accurately translate simple verses from Chumash. This has serious implications for these students learning and
motivation, for their self-perception as Bnai Torah, and for the social character of the Orthodox Jewish Community in America.

Continue reading Professor Aster’s post at,18718,18736#msg-18736

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