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Hebrew Immersion Programs Help Young Children Learn Language Fast

May 23, 2002
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It’s 10:30 on a sunny spring morning at Ben Porat Yosef: The Sephardic Yeshiva of Bergen County, and the 3-year-olds are seated at low tables, nibbling on animal crackers.

Surrounded by books, toys and colorful laminated displays with Hebrew and English letters, the children at the Leonia, N.J., school chat among themselves in toddler English.

When their teacher, Sara Pearl, walks by, a girl in red overalls requests, “Od mayim,” Hebrew for “more water.”

Another girl asks in Hebrew for oogiot, or cookies, and a boy in a red baseball cap announces, “Gamarti,” Hebrew for “I finished.”

The children, most of whom come from English-speaking families, are part of a new experiment in American Jewish education — Hebrew immersion nursery schools.

Amid a growing body of research showing the benefits of teaching foreign languages to young children, a small but growing movement is taking hold to offer intensive Hebrew education for the pre-kindergarten set.

So far, the number of communities other than Leonia with full-fledged Hebrew immersion preschool programs can be counted on one hand — Baltimore, Washington, suburban Philadelphia and suburban Detroit.

The programs face great challenges, ranging from difficulty finding qualified instructors to the dearth of curricular materials to skepticism from parents worried that the programs will interfere with other learning.

Proponents of Hebrew immersion say the programs offer several advantages:

They introduce Hebrew at an age when children readily absorb foreign languages, giving students a head start on Hebrew school and day school.

They spark early connections to Israel.

Recent research has shown that studying a foreign language early boosts a child’s brainpower, vocabulary and self-esteem.

Learning Hebrew does not seem to hinder children’s English language development.

Immersion programs “deliver not only language, but also culture. It’s a very powerful model,” said Frieda Robins, early childhood project director at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s William Davidson School of Jewish Education.

Robins, who is writing a doctoral dissertation on Hebrew immersion, has helped several Conservative synagogue preschools start such programs in the past few years.

At the Ben Porat Yosef program, which is Orthodox and began this fall, 3-year-olds spend about an hour each day speaking Hebrew. Administrators hope to gradually expand the Hebrew time as the children get older.

The school plans to add a grade each year and become a full day school that will be “Ivrit b’Ivrit,” meaning that the Judaic curriculum will be taught entirely in Hebrew.

Rather than translating or using textbooks, as in traditional foreign language classes, immersion programs teach Hebrew using only Hebrew. Teachers use body language and context clues to convey the meaning, and most children pick it up quickly.

Pearl, Ben Porat Yosef’s Hebrew teacher, uses songs and stories, and covers much of the typical preschool curriculum — such as colors, days of the week and weather — in Hebrew.

“Whoever sits nicely gets a butterfly,” Pearl explained in Hebrew, quieting some of the more antsy children.

Later, the children played an Israeli game called “Knock, knock, who am I?” in which one child closed her eyes and had to guess which children were tapping her shoulder.

Pearl speaks Hebrew with the children all day, even at lunch time and recess, when the other teachers speak English.

For a native Israeli who is a little homesick, it’s an ideal job.

The children “use my ‘reysh,’ ” Pearl says proudly, referring to a Hebrew letter that most Americans pronounce without the guttural element, as if it were the English letter “R.”

“They say everything with an Israeli accent,” she says.

Parents have been responding enthusiastically. The school currently enrolls 27 children, and has 30 more signed up for next year.

The other new Hebrew immersion programs also are reporting successes.

Adat Shalom Synagogue in suburban Detroit started its program for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds two years ago. Two other Detroit-area Conservative synagogues and the Jewish community center plan to open Hebrew immersion programs next year.

With half an hour of Hebrew a week for the 3-year-olds, five half-hour sessions a week for the 4-year-olds, and about 7 hours of Hebrew a week for the 5-year-olds, Adat Shalom’s program is somewhat less rigorous than Ben Porat Yosef’s.

Nonetheless, teachers and parents say it is yielding powerful results. “The kids love it. It’s fun. And the kids are really learning a lot,” says Jordana Weiss, director of the synagogue’s nursery school and kindergarten.

“When the program began, I remember meeting a couple of doubters wondering whether it was going to take away from their child learning English or other things,” she says. “Everyone can tell you it has only enhanced things.”

The Hebrew emphasis also is spurring parents to think more seriously about their ongoing Jewish education, Weiss says.

Some parents are for the first time considering sending their children to day schools, she says, and others who had not been interested in afternoon religious schools now are considering them.

The elementary schools where the children eventually will enroll also are being forced to change.

Adat Shalom is adding Hebrew enrichment to its religious school, and the local Conservative day school is exploring a more rigorous track for graduates of the immersion pre-school.

Ronnie Kempenich, who coordinates early childhood Hebrew immersion programs for the Board of Jewish Education in Washington, says the programs — which currently are in a handful of Washington synagogue schools — are “a very good way to teach about Israel.”

Kempenich is American, but lived in Israel for eight years.

“Israel needs the support of Jews living in this country,” she says. “If 20 years down the line, when the next generation of kids grows up, they don’t feel connections to Israel, then where are you? Through the language, we can establish that contact, that feeling of connection to Israel.”

Learning Hebrew as a living language with “songs and movies is so much more exciting, and it’s something kids can relate to better than prayers,” Kempenich says.

Hebrew education generally has looked at Hebrew as a language of prayer, rather than as a vibrant foreign language, she says.

“They’re not tapping into all the information and all the research out there about teaching of foreign languages, and I think that’s a shame,” Kempenich says.

Like all avenues of Jewish education, however, the growth of Hebrew immersion programs has been somewhat stymied by staffing difficulties.

Most Jewish early childhood programs, which tend to offer relatively low salaries and no benefits, have difficulty finding qualified teachers with Judaic knowledge. Add Hebrew fluency — ideally that of a native speaker — and the pool of eligible candidates is even smaller.

“People who have the early childhood education skills don’t necessarily have the Hebrew skills, and the people who have the Hebrew skills don’t necessarily have the education background,” Kempenich says.

However, Detroit and the JTS education school are exploring the possibility of working with the Jewish Agency for Israel and bringing in Israeli teachers to help staff the programs.

So far, most parents seem happy with the immersion programs.

Norma Dorman, whose 5-year-old twins, Hershel and Pearl, are in the Adat Shalom nursery school, says their Hebrew already surpasses that of their older siblings, who are in day school.

“This program is the most awesome I’ve experienced or seen,” Dorman says. “The two little ones are walking around the house speaking in Hebrew.

“They’re just like little sponges,” she adds. “The earlier you can catch them, the better you are.”

Judy Harris Sinai says her 3-year-old daughter, Aviya, who is enrolled at Ben Porat Yosef, already knows more Hebrew than her older siblings at a local Jewish day school.

On a recent family trip to visit relatives in Israel, “Everyone was speaking to” Aviya “in Hebrew and she understood everything, no confusion, whereas my other kids, I could see they had some problems,” Sinai says.

Starting early makes a big difference, Sinai says.

“That age between 2 and 5 when kids just pick things up so fast — that’s what the trick is, and this school really understands that,” she says.

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