Want to Build Jewish Identity? for Group, It’s Back to the Aleph-bet

As a newly observant Jew, Mark Wilcox realized he’s got a problem.

He can’t read Hebrew.

Wilcox, 38, an Olney, Md., business consultant, and his wife decided to become Orthodox two years ago. But Wilcox said his Hebrew-reading skills had “deteriorated” since his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

So last month Wilcox started a five-week Hebrew reading crash course at his synagogue, Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah, in Olney, and two weeks into the class, Wilcox is a believer.

Instead of learning the “aleph-bet” like “in kindergarten,” he said, each 90-minute class teaches modern Hebrew phonetically and through mnemonics — using a formula or rhyme as a memory device — starting with commonly used letters and vowels.

“It’s been great,” Wilcox said. “I’ve already dedicated my life to serving God, but I wanted the language our religion is written in to be my vehicle.”

His re-introduction to Hebrew program is among 1,550 free classes the National Jewish Outreach Program is sponsoring this fall at 735 sites across North America aimed at 15,000 students, as part of its annual Read Hebrew America/Canada campaign.

Now in its fifth year, the Read Hebrew America program is the outreach group’s most ambitious effort yet at motivating unaffiliated and marginally involved Jews to reconnect with their heritage through Hebrew literacy.

The idea, according to the group’s founder and director, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, is that most Jews “feel like dummies” when it comes to reading Jewish religious texts or attending services.

That loathing grows into fear of Jewish involvement, he said.

Studies showing that only 13 percent of Jews attend services three times annually bear out those fears.

“We’re looking to cure the ‘dummies’ syndrome,” Buchwald said. “We’re looking to give them ownership.”

This year’s $350,000 campaign aims to rekindle Jewish identity at a time when Jewish activity has hit a new low, Buchwald said.

Buchwald’s organization cites a summer study by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and UCLA that found that 58 percent of Jewish first-year students don’t pray at all, as opposed to 32 percent of their non-Jewish counterparts.

Such Jewish indifference extends across age groups, Buchwald said. He cites the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which said only one-third of Jews are affiliated with any of the movements. One-third identify as Jews but do not affiliate, and one-third don’t even identify as Jews.

While Jewish identity statistics from the 2000-2001 NJPS are not due to be made public until November, Buchwald is among those who maintain that outreach to identified Jews is the only way to stave off a Jewish decline.

While teaching Hebrew is hardly the only way to reach Jews, he said, it remains “the lowest common denominator” approach.

Teach Hebrew America/Canada “will reach the largest numbers of people in a cost-effective manner,” he said.

His program costs a fraction of such outreach programs as Birthright Israel, which flies young adults to Israel for a free 10-day introduction to the Jewish state.

Read Hebrew America/Canada costs amount to $16.60 per person, he said, while Birthright Israel costs $2,000 per person.

His program has reached 165,000 people so far, and in 15 to 20 years should teach one million Jews to read Hebrew.

“For the cost of one year of Birthright — we could reach 600,000 people,” he said.

But Marlene Post, international president of Birthright, sees the Israel trips as “one piece” in the overall effort to build Jewish identity.

Read Hebrew America/Canada does “educate the masses,” she said.

But while Birthright Israel “does have a big cost factor,” she said, the program “connects you in a big way.”

Young Jews from around the world “bond” with one another during their Israel trips, she said, and even end up marrying.

“It makes kids realize the centrality of Israel for the Jewish people and that the Jewish people are everywhere.”

While proficiency in Hebrew might get Jews into synagogues, she said, it won’t teach young Jews about “Jewish peoplehood” and about their relationship with the Jewish state.

“I’m not saying teaching the Hebrew language isn’t powerful, but Birthright Israel gives them a jump start” to Jewish identity, she added.

Post suggested that people who complete Birthright Israel might participate in the Read Hebrew classes as a second phase in their identity building.

Because the Read Hebrew program is focusing on young Jews this year, 34 of the class sites are being held at Hillel foundations on campuses throughout the continent, Buchwald said.

Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel, said reading Hebrew is not the solution to Jewish identity building — but it can play a role.

“Is it a panacea? Certainly not. But anything that gives people a sense of confidence, a sense of comfort, is an effective means,” he said.

Rubin doubts that reading Hebrew will lead Jewish college students to prayer, since most Jewish students are starting with “little or no” Jewish knowledge.

“I’m sure many pray — before a test, before they ask someone out on a date — but there’s no question their Jewish knowledge is very weak.”

Yet given that many Jewish students are “confronting” Jewish activities for the first time in college, he welcomes the Hebrew reading campaign as one potential attraction.

“The more entry points and gateways you have, the better,” he said.

For his part, Buchwald agreed that the Jewish identity crisis on campuses is “horrible,” and outreach proponents face a “tough, tough struggle.”

“If a kid has an opportunity to go to Hillel on Shabbat, or spend the weekend in bed with a girl or with some beer — I don’t think God has a chance,” he said.

Yet he also has hope that once people get a taste of Hebrew, they will come back for more.

He maintained that 77 percent of those who take a beginning level Hebrew course take a follow-up course or another National Jewish Outreach Program class such as Shabbat Across America, which teaches people about Shabbat.

Ken Yager does not exactly fit the demographic Buchwald is talking about, but his is a Read Hebrew success story.

Yager, 51, of Marlboro, N.J., was widowed in May, and while his wife was observant, he was not. He began reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, for her daily, in part because he felt she would have wanted him to.

It was then he decided to learn Hebrew to read the prayer.

By the time he left his first class, he could read vowels, he said. And now he’s signed up for an intermediate course as well.

“First I started doing it for my wife, but now I want to do it,” he said.

NEXT STORY