Hebrew course piques Iranian Jews’ interest

“You teach me Persian, and I’ll teach you Hebrew,” quipped Rabbi Hillel Benchimol to the crowd.Nearly 150 Iranian Jews of various ages had gathered at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills on Oct. 29 for the third session of a free five-week crash course in Hebrew.

Also known as “Read Hebrew America,” the course has been picked up by nearly 700 synagogues in North America during last 10 years through the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), a nonprofit organization based in New York. The objective is to promote Hebrew learning among American and Canadian Jews who have lost touch with their Jewish identities.

While this is the first year Nessah has participated in the program, its leaders said the free Hebrew course has attracted more than 600 local Iranian Jews to its first three sessions.

“I was really amazed that so many people from this community really want to learn Hebrew and reconnect with their heritage,” said Benchimol, who has been teaching the 90-minute classes on Monday nights since Oct. 15. “You don’t typically see this large of a turnout for Hebrew classes from the Ashkenazim.”

Ilya Welfeld, a spokesperson for the NJOP said her organization was “extremely pleased with the large response” they have received at Nessah. On average, roughly 20 to 80 people attend the “Read Hebrew America” courses in the United States.

Surprisingly, the majority of individuals in attendance for the classes at Nessah were between the ages of 50 and 70. They said they wanted to learn Hebrew because they had been unable to do so previously, due to the difficulties of trying to re-establish themselves in America during the last 25 years.

“I like how people of all ages from our community are here and wanting to learn Hebrew,” said Eliza Ghanooni, a 20-something resident of Beverly Hills. “I think Persian Jews are generally more traditional and have a stronger connection to Judaism.”

A small contingency of younger Iranian Jews were also in attendance and said they had come because they want to speak Hebrew fluently.

While the Nessah class was often sidetracked by individual questions and comments, Benchimol kept the group’s interest by making the group laugh at his witty comments and his efforts to pronounce odd Persian-language words.

“When you’re learning Hebrew, you’ve got to have fun with it, and we’re trying to keep it a light-hearted environment so people will want to come back,” Benchimol said.

A number of non-Iranian Jews visiting Nessah said they were impressed with the excitement Iranian Jews had exhibited in the Hebrew class, and as a result would continue to take the classes at Nessah.

“I’m here to improve my Hebrew because my bar mitzvah is coming up soon, and I want to be able to read from the Torah better,” said Yuji Hasegawa, of West Hollywood, who recently converted to Judaism. “Iranians are loud, but it’s good to see so many of them interested in learning Hebrew.”

Benchimol said after the remaining two sessions of the Hebrew classes are completed, Nessah plans to offer more advanced Hebrew language classes to adults in the coming months.

For more information on the “Read Hebrew America” courses offered at Nessah, call (310) 273-2400 or visit visit http://www.nessah.org

American Jews are learned in everything — except Jewish texts

The American Jewish community is one of the most learned and sophisticated communities in Jewish history – in everything except Jewish texts. As Jews, we are illiterate.

This phenomenon has its roots in our history over the last 150 years. During that time, the Jewish people underwent five events, each one of which can be counted as a major upheaval. These are the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto into the modern world, the mass movement of Jews from Europe to the United States, the systematic suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

These events went far in determining the nature of the Jewish world today and led to the fact that in the United States, we remain comfortable and sophisticated in the Western world and immature in our Jewish knowledge.
The Jewish educational establishment has tried to remedy this problem and, to some extent, has succeeded. The number of day schools certainly has grown. Still, as a community, we remain undertaught and illiterate.

Consequently, when youngsters go off to a university armed with the Jewish education they received in religious schools, or even many of our day schools, they are unable, by and large, to integrate their Jewish knowledge into their much more sophisticated secular knowledge. Even more so, they are unable to have them in equal dialogue with one another.

The basis of good education does not rest on supplying you with facts but on teaching you how to read. In a university, you do not learn science as much as how to function within science or how to read literature or how to write poetry or solve a mathematical problem.

In Jewish texts, by those criteria, we are illiterate. We do not learn how to read Bible but only learn the stories in the Bible. Rabbinic texts that are central in classical Jewish literature remain foreign to most of us. We celebrate holidays, but know nothing of the theology behind them. We pray, sometimes, but know nothing about the theology of the prayer book. Jewish survival relies on loyalty and nostalgia and not on meaning and value.

How can we proceed? I think the first step is an acknowledged awareness of the problem. The American Jewish community does not have literacy as a central focal point. It is spoken about, but the hard truth is not really expressed. I will give a number of examples.

Many years ago, I spoke at an Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. Most of the 200 people there were elderly, and many of them were European-born. I asked them how many of them read Hebrew fluently, and almost all of them raised their hands. I then asked how many understand what they are reading, and almost none raised their hands.
No other group of people would say that they read a language fluently without understanding a word of what they read. Yet this phenomenon continues. We train people to “read the Torah” but not always to understand what they are reading. We train people to “lead” the services but not really to understand the services.

We have Jewish leaders who speak about the importance of Jewish education, but who themselves are not educated or on the path to being educated. We have teachers who are underqualified.

Our expectations are low. If children enjoy going to religious school, that is enough, even though they are learning nothing. We would never tolerate those same criteria for our secular education. Imagine a high school student who loves going to school but cannot read basic texts.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) is one of the educational organizations that is trying to change this. Their recent conference at Duke University was dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Literacy.” This is the necessary beginning.

CAJE must define the question and press the individual schools and teachers to address the problem. At the same time, it must provide them with programs that will bring literacy to their teaching staff.

How can this be done? First, we have to set our goals higher. Teachers must know how to read the text. For example, the Bible has its own style, as do rabbinic and medieval texts. These styles must be taught and mastered. We should be cautious about separating between biblical story and midrash or rabbinical explanation.

We must also understand that the rabbis wrote in a very particular nonlinear style. Information was not given from beginning to end; their style was coded. The prayer book, which they composed, is a master composition, but in order to understand it, you have to know how biblical sections are chosen and put in different contexts and how the rabbis established specific forms of prayer.

The Jewish calendar is a complex theological statement and should be taught as such. Unlike the secular American calendar, all of the holidays are connected one to another.

All of this must be taught in connection to the other, secular education that these students are receiving. They should know the tremendous impact of the Bible on Western civilization and how the concept of history comes from it. They should understand Jewish theology in its many facets.

The impact of science and technology should be taught, along with their limitations. Jewish concepts of death, soul, responsibility and government should be studied.

Most important, by the time they finish high school, they should be able to examine concepts of knowledge and truth, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden and working through modern theories of logical positivism, existentialism, chaos and theories of complexity. Why not?

I was once speaking to a principal of a community Jewish high school. He said that attracting students was very competitive. He had to assure the parents that their child would get a secular education that would enable them to get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton and, at the same time, would get a Jewish education. I said to him, “Why not tell them that here your child will master two alternative systems of truth, Jewish and Greek, upon which Western civilization was built. They will master both Aristotelian linear knowledge and rabbinic nonlinear knowledge and be all the wiser for it.”

It is not only possible to do both, but for Jews living in the modern world, it is necessary to do both. They will become literate Jews.

Yosef Leibowitz, director and founder of the Yad Yaakov Fund, received ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He served as a rabbi in Berkeley before moving to Israel. Leibowitz was the keynote speaker on the subject of Jewish texts at the recent CAJE conference focusing on Jewish literacy.

Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning

Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.

The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.

Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.

Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.

Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.

I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.

It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.

Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.

But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.

Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).

I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.

Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.

For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.

Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).

The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.

Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.

Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.

Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Food for Thought

Vica is tall, blonde and Jewish. She is my interpreter.

It’s February 2005 and I am in Vilna, Lithuania, at the Baltics Limmud Conference. I am here as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ strategic partnership with the Baltics communities to teach subjects as varied as “Judiasm & Sexuality,” “Conservative Judaism” and “The Meaning of Mitzvah” to a Jewish community whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition was decimated by 50 years of Soviet oppression.

Vica translates what I teach into Russian, the lingua franca of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a remnant from the Soviet era. She is active in the burgeoning Jewish community in Vilna, and comes to Limmud to work as a translator and to participate in learning. Yet she dates a non-Jewish Lithuanian because there are so few Jewish men her age.

When I ask about her Jewish upbringing, she says she didn’t really have any.

“My mother is Jewish and my father is not,” she says. “My mother had forgotten most everything from her childhood and she was not allowed to practice or learn anything, so by the time I arrived she really didn’t know what to teach me. But once we went to shul on Passover, and I do remember the matzahs from the shul. I don’t remember what they were for, but I remember eating matzah once in shul.”

Vica remembers eating matzah. Don’t underestimate the importance of the taste buds. Jews are a smart people. We value good grades and we love a good debate. But at the beginning of all good Jewish learning, there is food.

In traditional communities, the Alef Bet is still taught by feeding Jewish children Hebrew letters covered in honey so they associate sweetness with Torah. After Moses and the leaders of the Jewish people affirm their covenant with God at Mount Sinai and have a dramatic vision of God, they sit down to eat and drink (Exodus 24:12).

On Passover, when the central mitzvah of the seder is to teach our children the story of the Jewish people, we eat. We eat spring and call it parsley. We eat bitterness and call it maror. We eat bricks and call it charoset. We eat poverty and call it matzah.

We teach our children the words, but when our children are denied the story for 50 years, when a mother “has forgotten most everything from her childhood” and “doesn’t know what to teach,” when nothing else remains, matzah, like a stubborn daffodil blooming after a hard winter’s frost, is what Vica remembers.

Why does food work so well?

Scientists will tell you that the senses of smell and taste are most strongly associated with memory. I think eating resembles what learning the Passover story should be — we allow something from outside of ourselves to enter us; we “digest it” and change it (it is we who must tell the story so that our children can hear it) and it changes us and nourishes us and stays with us forever.

The Passover seder is among the most observed holidays in the Jewish world. When other ties with Jewish life have frayed, Passover remains. The food of Passover has much to do with this fact. Too often, Jews feel disempowered to teach their children, or themselves, the Jewish tradition because they feel they do not know enough. But on Passover, the haggadah teaches — “all who are hungry, come and eat.” Everyone can eat. Passover remains.

But Passover cannot be enough. Matzah cannot be enough. During the rest of the year, what do our homes taste like? Will our children remember the taste of Shabbat dinner on Friday night? Will they remember blintzes on Shavuot? Latkes on Chanukah? Honey and Hebrew letters? Will they remember the smell of cooking food to be delivered to a family who is mourning? What will remain beyond matzah?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.


Bonding Over Torah

On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.


Intense Me’ah Gets High Marks

A Jewish adult education program is bearing fruit, according to a recent survey.

And now Me’ah — an intensive, two-year Jewish adult-education program marking its 10th year — is spreading from Boston across the country.

The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.

Me’ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in greater Boston, is also now being offered in Baltimore, Cleveland, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey and New York.

In separate conversations about Me’ah, its creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, cite quality and location as the key to its success.

The program is held in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a survey of Me’ah’s Boston-area graduates, who are moving into leadership positions in their Jewish communities.

Nearly two-thirds of graduates say the program had a major or moderate impact on their involvement in Jewish communal life. Close to half report increasing their charitable giving to synagogues and other Jewish causes.

“Adult education is up there with day schools [as far as] transformational opportunities,” Shrage said. “This is the right moment in Jewish history because there’s a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism.”

Me’ah’s rigor and neutrality are appealing to a broad range of the American Jewish population, said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, he added, he would like to see a more sophisticated, outside, independent evaluation. The lack of such evaluations is a consistent issue with programs serving the American Jewish community, he said.

But Wertheimer applauded how Me’ah taps such resources as Jewish scholars for the benefit of the broader community as well as its transdenominational approach.

“The down side,” he said, “is that it may be too neutral and not sufficiently prescriptive to encourage involvement.”

Me’ah is one response to the controversial National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990, which alarmed the community about the long-term affects of assimilation.

“We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity,” Gordis recalled.

Their prescription was a high-quality, academically rigorous curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.

“We’re bringing the university to the synagogue,” said Richard Feczko, Me’ah’s national director. “It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don’t come together.”

Tuition runs about $1,200 for each student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.

If Me’ah’s approach sounds obvious now, there were nonetheless few offerings of this caliber when the program was launched, said Gordis and Shrage. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.

“Me’ah begins the exploration at an extremely high level,” Shrage said. “You have the chance to change the zeitgeist.”

Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage’s motivational speech about Me’ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.

“It was five minutes that changed my life,” Rosenberg said.

Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled vividly: “‘How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you’re not embarrassed that you don’t know about Rashi or Maimonides?'”

Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me’ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members, who were divided into two classes.

“We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holiday services,” she said.

Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg now co-chairs the organization’s committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me’ah.

Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me’ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me’ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people. You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level. Most of us went to Hebrew school, which was like pediatric Judaism,” he said.

Eighteen people enrolled in the first two-year class. By the time they held an open house for the second class, 25 people signed up.

Pzena, 46, who runs a small money management firm, caught the Me’ah bug. Post-Me’ah, he’s a member of his synagogue board, and sits on the investment committee of the United Jewish Appeal as well as Me’ah’s advisory board.

“If you look at our group of synagogue leaders, there’s a lot of overlap with Me’ah graduates,” Pzena said. “Some were already involved, but others had a desire to be involved and saw Me’ah as an entree.”

All Hebrew, All the Time


Morah Safi Netter turns up the volume on her cellphone speaker. Twenty-two kindergartners stifle giggles and bounce expectantly on their knees as a distinctive foreign-sounding ringtone fills the room at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy in Los Angeles.

Netter’s father, Moshe, answers the phone in Rechovot, Israel. With good humor he obliges his daughter’s request for a weather report. He tells of the cold plaguing Israel and listens as the kids describe sunny but cool Los Angeles.

What is so unique about this transatlantic news exchange is that these all-American kids are conducting the entire conversation in Hebrew.

For up to three hours a day, these children will not hear an adult utter a single word in English — not even at recess or bathroom time or when a child needs disciplining.

Pressman is at the vanguard of a nationwide movement looking to preschools and kindergartens to confront a widely acknowledged problem in Jewish education: Kids spend more than 12 years in day school or Hebrew school and, with a few exceptions, are unable to carry on a fluent conversation in modern Hebrew.

That is already changing for the kids in Netter’s class. After the phone call to Israel they don warm hats and scarves and trek across the yard to a mock Israeli Mount Hermon, where they continue their unit on cold weather. Not one of them seems lost as they listen to instructions in Hebrew about the day’s projects involving ice cubes, powdered sugar and Styrofoam balls. They answer questions in well-pronounced, Hebrew-accented sentences.

These children are part of a groundbreaking Hebrew-immersion program. The idea behind immersion is that children and adults best learn a second language the same way they learned their first — by hearing it spoken without any translations, by using context or multisensory clues to decipher new words, and by using the language to function in everyday activities.

“The difference is before they only got vocabulary, and now they are getting the whole language,” said Tova Baichman-Kass, who has taught kindergarten at Pressman for 10 years and began immersion teaching this year. “We want them to think in Hebrew. We want them to know that aryeh is an aryeh, not a lion or anything else.”

When kids know that a teacher will translate what she has just said, the kids tune out the Hebrew and listen only for the English, noted Sigal Abukrat, who teaches first and second grade at Pressman.

Immersion in different languages has moved into the preschool arena in the last five years, and it seems to be a natural fit. Parents and academics have long observed that young children acquire language with great ease. Recent research indicates that very young kids learn a second language in the same network in the brain that holds the primary language, while older children or adults must develop a whole new network, a less efficient process.

The hope is that these American children will become as fluent as native speakers of Hebrew — a concept that could revolutionize Jewish education.

“To me, fluency with Hebrew language is the cornerstone for building Jewish learning and participation in Jewish life and a relationship with Israel,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy. “It raises the level of everything that goes on in school when you have a really strong foundation in Hebrew.”

Changing the Old Models

Malkus and principals at other schools are looking to bring the latest in research and teaching techniques, including immersion, to an educational arena that is thousands of years old. Many schools have bought more interesting and more educationally solid texts and curricula. They have brought more noise into the classroom, with music and group conversations replacing teacher talk, workbooks and spelling tests.

Schools are sending their teachers to language-acquisition training institutes or hiring Hebrew-language specialists. And there is a late-in-coming realization that being Israeli is not enough to qualify for the job of Hebrew teacher.

While these changes have been trickling up through the day school movement over the last 10 to 15 years, the success of Hebrew-language immersion in preschools is especially attracting attention.

“I have been teaching Hebrew for many years, but I have never seen instant results like this — and I can really call it instant,” said Miri Avraham, a preschool teacher at Pressman, who often hosts observers from other schools in her class. “When you talk to the children in the target language the whole time, they understand it better and they learn it better — and it’s fun for them when they realize they can understand.”

So far, parents are thrilled with the results.

“My oldest in seventh grade is coming to my little one to ask her for words,” said Sheryl Katchen, who has 6-year-old twins in immersion classes at Pressman.

Using Immersion

Language immersion, which began with a Spanish program in a Culver City School in 1971, has grown nationwide to almost 300 schools. Language learning in general, even in elementary grades, has been coming back into vogue in North American schools, which have historically postponed language classes until middle school and high school.

Immersion is only superficially related to traditional bilingual education, which has fallen out of favor in California. The goal of bilingual education was to use a foreign language, usually Spanish, to teach academic subjects to students who had only a limited command of English. These students were supposed to transition gradually to English. In immersion programs, the goal, by contrast, is fluency in a foreign language.

Many Jewish schools for decades have used the old European model of ivrit b’ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew), where Judaic content is taught in Hebrew.

While immersion teaching is also content based, it utilizes a more systematic, consistent approach to language acquisition.

The advantage for preschoolers may go beyond merely learning a foreign language. European researchers reported in a 2004 Nature article that bilingual brains have denser gray matter than monolingual brains, and the earlier the language was learned the denser the gray matter.

Gray matter makes up the bulk of nerve cells in the brain and is associated with intellect. Research has also pointed to easier acquisition of additional languages, more creativity, problem-solving ability and even higher SAT scores among children who were bilingual at an earlier age.

Buttressed by such research and frustrated with the imperfect Hebrew of educated American Jews, Frieda Robins, a doctoral student in Jewish education at the New York City-based Jewish Theological Seminary, developed Maalah (Hebrew for benefit, merit and upward). The program, which was launched in 2003 — thanks to a two-year $150,000 seed grant from the New York-based Covenant Foundation and matching funds from the Jewish Theological Seminary — works with local Bureaus of Jewish Education to train early childhood teachers and help preschools develop immersion classrooms.

Maalah is a teaching technique (not a curriculum with texts) that combines methods used to teach young children with those used to teach languages. These involve constant repetition, body language and tasks that require students to get up and do something. Maalah structures thematic units around works of Israeli children’s literature, and the program adapts methods from special education, relying on more than one modality to reach students who might have trouble with visual or audio cues.

“We know that the vocabulary a child comes with into first grade will determine not only his or her reading comprehension at the end of first grade, but also at the end of 12th grade,” Robins said.

Difficult Transitions, Huge Payoff

Pressman is one of four schools locally and 13 nationwide participating in Maalah. Temple Judea West and Shomrei Torah Synagogue, both in West Hills, have preschool classes with 3- and 4-year-olds utilizing Maalah, as does the preschool at Valley Beth Shalom day school in Encino. Two other day schools, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, are signed on for next year.

Starting this summer, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles, will take over local Maalah training and support.

Adopting Maalah has cost Pressman about $17,000, including paying for consultants, new materials and paying teachers extra for developing their own units. Pressman also received a $3,000 federal Title One grant, through which private schools can develop nonreligious programming.

To bring parents on board, schools have presented model lessons at orientation and provided vocabulary lists so parents can understand their children. They’ve even begun adult Hebrew classes.

“There are parents who are afraid of this, who think their kids will be lost or their English will not develop properly if they learn things in Hebrew,” said Aviva Kadosh, director of Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education. “I collect articles that say it isn’t so.”

Kadosh explains that what children are learning in the early years is concepts, not words, so that they understand the idea of something being round whether it is called a circle or an igul. Kids function in English outside of those few hours a day, so they won’t fall behind in English.

Avraham, who has been teaching immersion for the last two of her nine years at Pressman, acknowledges that the transition is hard, but kids catch on within weeks. At this point in the year, the children not only understand but are comfortable expressing themselves in Hebrew.

On a recent morning in Avraham’s class, the 4-year-olds were near the end of a unit on plants and vegetables that coincided with the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. As they had been doing for several weeks, the children played games identifying pictures of cucumbers, models of plastic peppers or fragrant heads of garlic. They made and ate a salad, painted with broccoli at art tables lined with Hebrew newspapers and read a book about a neighborhood salad-making party.

Teachers encouraged the kids to speak in Hebrew even among themselves, and if a child got stuck, Avraham helped out with choices, so the kids always came up with the right word eventually. Body language, charade-type motions and pointing helped.

Parents who are worried about children losing out on grammar or writing skills should not be, according to experts. Immersion programs incorporate reading and writing in older grades, and the grammar comes with speaking in a safe environment where expression is encouraged and correction of mistakes is applied strategically.

When it comes to these programs, the students may have the easier part. An immersion program limits the pool of teachers to those fluent in Hebrew. Teachers have to redesign curricula and teaching styles.

“It has been tough for the teachers,” said Jessica Green, director of education at Shomrei Torah. “These are veteran teachers who are training to do this, and they told me it is as if they are brand new teachers and have to start from scratch.”

They also have to be willing, at least at first, to give up some content. Abstract concepts — such as Rosh Hashanah being a new year, or saying sorry on Yom Kippur — have to be saved for older grades, since the 3- and 4-year-olds might not yet have the vocabulary for it.

Moving Up Through the Grades

Pressman has brought immersion as far as second grade, and plans to add a grade per year until the entire school is speaking Hebrew. It will also adapt the program for religious school students, who only attend one or two days a week.

Shomrei Torah, too, plans to bring immersion gradually to the upper grades of Hebrew school.

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy hopes eventually to teach all Judaic studies in Hebrew, in addition to having Hebrew-immersion periods every day.

“We feel that if our children receive this at the age of 4 or 5, it will serve as a tremendous foundation for when we begin to teach them more formal Hebrew,” said Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, who heads the school.

For Ginni Rosenfeld’s family, the benefit already extends beyond the classroom.

“Just this week my daughter got into the car and spoke to me in flawless Hebrew, saying, ‘Ima, ani rotzah lachzor habaytah [Mom, I want to go home],'” said Rosenfeld, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Pressman. “It was seven o’clock at night. She was coming from a place where no one was speaking Hebrew, but this was just natural to her.”

Summer School for Hebrew Teachers

Kathryn Paul had put two kids through day school, and while their Hebrew was OK, she knew it could be better. And as the assistant director of the Language Resource Center at UCLA’s International Institute, she could do something about it.
And not just for her own children.
She wanted to create a summer program to teach day school Hebrew teachers how to be better teachers. She submitted a proposal to the Jewish Community Foundation, which awarded her program $50,000. UCLA put in another $15,000.
The program, offered in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education, has 10 slots for day school teachers in two six-week, for-credit classes in UCLA’s Applied Linguistics Department.
The courses cover the latest in theories and practice of foreign language teaching.
The program includes help at applying what’s being taught through observations of the day school teachers in their own classrooms.
“Our thinking is that these teachers will rise to the challenge,” Paul said. “They are very committed and love what they do, but they haven’t had the opportunity to take courses like this.”

The deadline for applications is April 1. To download a form or for more information go to www.international.ucla.edu/lrc/jcf/ or call (310) 825-2510. — JGF

The World of Do-It-Yourself Judaism


The Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic, takes up more than 20 volumes and, for the past 2,000 years, legions of scholars assiduously dissected every word in it. That means for every sentence of Talmud, there are paragraphs — if not pages — of commentary to learn in order to understand it. Consequently, studying it properly takes time — a lot of time. If you do the express thing and study one page a day, with no breaks for Chanukah or Passover, you should get through it all in, oh, an easy seven years.

But applying yourself so diligently, like many people, might be a thing of the past, now that Rabbi Aaron Parry, formerly the education director of Jews for Judaism, recently wrote “The Complete Idiots Guide to the Talmud” (TCIGT) (Alpha). In a little more than 300 pages, Parry parses those tricky pages down to their bare essentials, making the Talmud palatable to all those complete idiots out there who previously felt shunned by those weighty tomes. Now, you probably won’t get the authentic Talmudic experience from reading this book — there is really no need to read it bechavrusa (with a partner like traditional Yeshiva students learn it) — but you will acquire enough of the lingo to name-drop your way quite respectably through any Talmudic dinner table discussions. Should someone bring up “Mar Shmuel” for instance — instead of staring blankly at your salad plate, desperately hoping the conversation will revert back to Ashley Simpson’s lip-synching skills — you can say, with authority, “Ah yes, that second century Babylonian sage. Did you know that he’s Rabbi Judah’s doctor?”

Parry’s is the latest Jewish book in the “for idiots” genre. It follows TCIGT “Understanding Judaism,” “Learning Yiddish” and “Jewish History and Culture” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech; “Jewish Spirituality and Mysticism” by Michael Levin; Jerusalem” by H. Paul Jeffers; and, finally, for smaller idiots, “The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Judaism,” by Dan Cohn-Sherbock, adapted by Amy Zavatto. The “complete idiots,” it seems, are better served than the “dummies” out there, who if they want to learn about Judaism can only choose from “Jewish Cooking for Dummies,” by Faye Levy; “Hebrew for Dummies” by Jill Suzanne Jacobs; or “Judaism for Dummies” by Ted Falcon and David Blatner.

Despite the difference in monikers the books give to the intellectually unfortunate, both series of books follow a similar format. They are written in a breezy, chatty, writing style; have two of three subheadings per page; boxed texts; and icons like check marks (in “Dummies”) and men with lightbulbs coming out of their heads (in “Idiots”) to alert the readers to salient points. The “Idiot” books make better use of graphics than the “Dummies” books (perhaps the idiots aren’t as textually acute as dummies are). In “Idiots,” lightbulb-man is joined by genial-looking yarmulke-wearing rabbi, happy woman with empty speech bubble and studious man immersed in books.

So is it possible to squeeze 5,765 years of history, culture, law and food into a 380-page book? Yes! While academics might snub their noses, the books actually can teach both the idiot and the dummy quite a bit about Judaism.

In “TCIGT Understanding Judaism,” Blech starts with God and works his way down from there. He touches on the various secular theories of how the world was created, such as the Big Bang Theory, and then moves right back to describing how the patriarch Abraham smashed his father’s idols and started monotheism. The book goes through all the basics — holidays, Shabbat, various laws such circumcision, mezuzah and tefillin — but it throws in a whole salad of extras. Want to know the difference between Chasidim and Mitnagdim? No need to work through volumes of philosophy, because Blech already has, and in this book he summarizes the main arguments into three sentences. (“The chasidic movement chose the heart. The mitnagdim … sharp[ened] one’s intellect.”). He uses the same approach to get to the heart of those philosophical brain twisters like “Why do good people suffer?” and “Does God really care?” (Apparently He does.)

But perhaps you want to know less about the religion and more about the history — in which case “TCIGT Jewish History and Culture” is for you. The book, also by Blech, acts as a confidante and toastmaster instructor to its readers, offering them “Yenta’s Little Secrets” (“Lost is lost, but maybe some of the 10 lost tribes were found…”) and “Pulpit Stories” (“Moses Mendelssohn fell in love with a beautiful, wealthy woman. The match seemed highly unlikely, especially in the light of Mendelssohn’s severe physical deformity…”) The book not only elucidates Jewish history from biblical times through today, but it also explains to its readers (and this, of course, falls into the cultural, rather than the historical, section of the book)

Q: “Why there are so many Jewish doctors?”

A: They want to do tikkun olam.

Q: “Why there are so many Jewish comedians?”

A: Because those who have the most reason to weep “learned more than anyone else how to laugh.”

It is probably one of only books in print that enlightens the reader on the cultural significance of both King David and Jerry Seinfeld.

In “TCIGT the Talmud,” Parry has perhaps a more difficult task than Blech, because the Talmud is so vast and hard to categorize. Parry starts off by explaining what the Talmud is (the codification of the Oral Law of the Torah), how it got written and some of the famous people associated with it. Then he summarizes the Talmud’s major tractates. He also delves into the spiritual, mystical and philosophical questions that are found in the Talmud’s pages. However, the famous arguments that epitomize Talmud study are missing from these early chapters, which slash away anything possibly extraneous leaving only the bare minimum (i.e. “Challah — when one separated bread, it was required that a portion be given to the priests.” How much dough should be separated is discussed in this tractate). But there is a chapter on “Studying the Talmud” in which Parry explains the best ways of getting everything you can out of the original text.

The best thing about the “Idiot” books is that at the end of every chapter, it gives you a little box that shows “The least you need to know” about the chapter topic. It makes it easier for people who find reading a whole book chapter too tiring; this way they only have to read a list.

“Judaism for Dummies” has no such list, which makes reading it more mentally taxing than the “Idiots” books. The book tries to combine both the history and the basic laws into one volume. It also has an appendix of “A primer of basic words,” which is, to this reader, a fairly random list of words that you might (or more likely might not) come into contact with in discussions with other Jews, such as “Ladino,” “Ellis Island” and “Righteous Gentile.”

It is unlikely that these books will ever replace genuine Torah learning or academic study, but they do something else. They make Judaism — which so many people find foreboding or uninteresting — fun, palatable and easy, which means maybe these books aren’t so stupid after all.


Divining Prayer

I have had a love affair with words ever since I can recall. As a little girl I would whisper words to myself just to hear the sounds of them; magical words like canopy, arithmetic and Ethiopia. As an adult, I have relied upon words as the tools I use to make meaning in my world. In my work, my family, my relationships and my inner life, words accompany me throughout the day, enabling me to bring to life the images, ideas and beliefs that shape who I am.

This is not to say that all words come easily to me. I have never been able to say orangutan without adding a "g" at the end and I still say "head egg" instead of headache when under stress. And foreign languages really throw me for a loop. My theory in high school Spanish has remained true to this day: If you add an "o" or an "ita" to any English word, the chance is it will sound Spanish enough that you will be understood. For example, "Can you help-o me find-ita the school-o?" will definitely lead you to a school, or at the very least a building with windows.

So you can imagine my fear when I enrolled in a Hebrew course at the age of 43 at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, ready to conquer the intricacies of a language that had frustrated me since Matt Berman threw eraser tips at me in Hebrew school. I enthusiastically entered the class only to find a room of lethargic college students, most of whom were more interested in concerts and bars than verb conjugation and tenses.

I became obsessed with learning Hebrew, spending every hour of the day — in the classroom, on the streets, at home, even in my sleep — trying to speak the language. I was brazen and I was shameless. I insisted on speaking Hebrew to anyone and everyone who would listen, including a group of Japanese-speaking tourists who wanted directions to the Israel Museum.

Some people never leave home without a credit card; I never left home without my Hebrew-English dictionary. Such determination and diligence, while hastening my comprehension and ability to speak, came with a price. I became a walking, talking malaprop in Hebrew, the originator of more bloopers than Jerusalem has synagogues.

My family’s first dining experience in Jerusalem began the parade of horribles. I proudly requested the menu in Hebrew and began ordering more food than we could possibly eat in a week. I was quite pleased with myself until my son asked for some ice for his drink.

"No problem," I said confidently turning to our middle-aged waiter, a man with absolutely no hair and a wide, open smile.

"Sir, may I have some ice please?" I asked in my finest Hebrew.

He looked startled, then hurt as he scurried off. My Hebrew radar detector indicated immediate distress. What could I have possibly done to insult this gentle soul?

When a new waiter came to deliver the food, I knew I was in trouble. Slipping away from our table on the pretext of finding the bathroom, I headed straight for the dictionary hidden in my purse. It was on those worn pages that I discovered the error of my ways.

The trouble was that the Hebrew word for ice and the Hebrew word for bald are almost identical. I had told our unsuspecting waiter that I wanted him — and I wanted him bald! I was desperate to make amends and returned to the table with renewed faith that I could set things right. I motioned to our hairless waiter and with a smile as big as Montana, asked for a masrek. Now he wasn’t wounded but outraged. An Israeli called out, "She means a masleg, not a masrek!" This time I had asked the poor guy for a comb instead of a fork.

I might have thrown in the Hebrew towel if there hadn’t been a breakthrough one Friday evening at the shul we attended. After several months, I still hadn’t noticed much change in my ability to understand the Hebrew prayers. Even though I knew them by heart, they were really just words I recited in order to be a part of the synagogue community. Slowly I felt it, like a soft shiver running through my soul. I realized that for the first time in my life I actually understood the meaning of the Hebrew words of "Yedid Nefesh," the prayer we say to welcome the Sabbath. I heard the passion, understood the poetry, clung to the description of love between man and God which are found within it. No longer were these words mere sounds; they were Hebrew words I understood because I had made them my own.

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks when we began to sing the "Shema" and I understood for the very first time the words that I had recited by memory my entire life. The "Shema" itself is a commandment to hear, to listen and to understand. I realized that in my efforts to learn Hebrew I had gained much more than mere knowledge of the aleph-bet. In learning Hebrew I had enabled myself to understand the true meaning of Jewish prayer and to give these words personal meaning. In learning Hebrew, I had begun to make traditional Hebrew prayers my own.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a
nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney
who lives in Tucson, Ariz., with her husband and two children. She can be
reached at alederman@cox.net

The Whole Kingdom

When Ahuva Goldstein attended Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath
Emeth in 1960, she had five students in her sixth-grade class. The ultra
Orthodox elementary school was in its seventh year, but it did not have its own
building; it was housed in a synagogue on the corner of Third Street and Edinburgh
Avenue. The class was so small that it was combined with the seventh grade,
bringing the total number of girls up to 13.

“I don’t even think there were 50 students in the whole
school,” said Goldstein, 55, who now lives in Hancock Park and works as a
volunteer for Bikur Cholim and Hachnassas Kallah of Los Angeles. “But there was
not much of a choice [in Los Angeles] as far as the kind of in-depth religious
school my parents wanted. The education was very one-on-one, and we knew every
student. The teachers were very motherly, but it was really more like a little
house, with 30 to 40 kids running around, than a proper school.”

These days, two of Goldstein’s grandchildren attend Toras
Emes (as it is more commonly known) and she says the school has become “a whole
kingdom.” Celebrating its 50th anniversary on March 9, that kingdom includes
1,100 students in preschool to eighth grade, 240 staff members, five different
buildings in the Beverly La Brea area and an annual budget of $6 million.

Over the past 50 years, the school’s growth has been
synchronous with the expansion of the ultra-Orthodox community in Los Angeles
as a whole. In the 1950s, there was only a handful of synagogues that served
the ultra-Orthodox community, and even fewer schools. Today, the ultra-Orthodox
community has dozens of synagogues, several kollels and other community

For many in the ultra-Orthodox community, Toras Emes is the
only educational choice worth considering: It serves as the middle ground
between the Chasidic Cheder Menachem (where secular studies are minimal) and
Ohr Eliyahu (a newer ultra-Orthodox school whose student bidy is more diverse).
What sets Toras Emes apart from other yeshivas in the city are, among other
things, its insistence on a high level of religious observance in the families
it serves. The school will not accept anyone whose parents aren’t Sabbath
observant and will not accept a child whose mother wears pants. Most Toras Emes
parents come from the far-right end of the religious spectrum and, according to
Toras Emes administration, 30 percent of its students are the children of
parents who are religious functionaries in the community, meaning that even
those who work in other places still consider Toras Emes to be the final word
in children’s education.

“Almost the entire [Jewish studies] teaching staff of any
Orthodox school in Los Angeles send their children here,” said Rabbi Yakov
Krause, the school’s principal since 1977. “So in a sense, we view our yeshiva
as a catalyst for Yiddishkayt in the entire community.”

The school takes Yiddishkayt very seriously, in intensity of
the learning and the number of restrictions it places on its students and their
parents to safeguard that learning. Torah is taught the first half of the day
to show its importance: School starts at 7:30 a.m. and Jewish studies continue
until 2:30 p.m. The chinuch (education), at Toras Emes is both old-style and
modern. In one second-grade Chumash (Bible) class, for example, many of the
students stand at their desks, their fingers pointing to the words in the
Chumash, swaying back and forth with their feet planted on the ground in
imitation of Rabbi Shmuel Jacobs, who is doing the same thing. In unison, they
repeat the verses of the text in a lilting cadence, first in Hebrew and then in
English. The effect is reminiscent of old European cheders, but before it
becomes too old-fashioned, Jacobs, a recipient of a Milken educators’ award,
turns off the overhead lights and switches on a moving electric light display,
which he has programmed to give the students information about the clothes worn
by the priests in the Temple.

In other classes, teachers discuss the finer points of
Hebrew grammar, connect the impending war in Iraq to the story of Purim and
find cute acronyms to get the girls to remembers the order of the animals that
lined the steps of the altar in the Temple. In the older boys’ grades, students
sit in a large beit midrash and learn Talmud chavrusa-style, with each boy
learning with a partner.

“We try to make the learning exciting for them,” Krause
said. “This is a time when we have so many distractions — the outside world has
so much glitz and glamour to it — that if the learning is just cut and dried —
and it doesn’t become alive to them — it’s a losing battle.”

The school tries to keep the outside world at bay with its
rules and regulations. Girls are required to adhere to the laws of modesty in
and out of school, and failure to do so is grounds for dismissal. Movie
theaters, regardless of the rating of the film or the accompaniment of an
adult, are off-limits. All television viewing is discouraged, as is patronizing
public libraries, and the school handbook states that the Internet “should be
treated like a loaded firearm.”

“If this is too much a price to pay for the chinuch we
provide,” the handbook continues, “then our school is not for you.”

Over the past half a century, Toras Emes has indeed
established itself as a vital institution for Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox
community, and yet, its phenomenal growth has not come without costs. The sheer
size of the school, some say, creates one large culture where individual needs
are not met. And with the generous amount of financial assistance it provides
(only 350 of 1,100 students are full-fee paying), some say the school doesn’t
have the resources to accommodate all the students.

Yet, the school says that while it is inevitable that some
students will get lost in the shuffle despite the school’s best efforts, it has
never sacrificed educational quality for financial reasons.

“I don’t think the education has been affected [by the
financial situation]. Nothing has been stopped because of money,” said Rabbi
Berish Goldenberg, also a principal and a fundraiser for the school.

Goldenberg cites the small classes, and the inclusion of
special needs staff as evidence of the school’s efforts to deal with its
imposing size.

As the school gets larger, different questions arise about
its direction. Should the school move more to the right? Should the school
become a television-free school (meaning that parents will need to get rid of
their sets before enrolling their children in the school)?

As a way of dealing with some of these issues, the school
has a “cheder track” for the younger grades, where Jewish studies are taught in
Yiddish. While some parents don’t particularly care for the Yiddish, they still
want their children in the cheder track, because it’s for children from more
seriously religious homes  — homes that do not have televisions, and where
there is no ambiguity in their commitment to Torah.

Even with these issues, many parents feel that what their
children get out of Toras Emes is priceless.

“Toras Emes is not so much about the education,” said
Jonathan Weiss, who attended the school, and whose two children are students
there. “The students are imbued with traditional Jewish sensitivity and
feelings, and it becomes their essence. I think that is why parents send their
children there.”

“I have yet to meet a mother who doesn’t have something to
complain about when it comes to the education of their children,” said Batya
Brander, mother of three Toras Emes students. “But the love of Judaism that my
kids have from Toras Emes is indescribable, and that far outweighs everything

Hidden Sensuality

Earlier this month, visitors to the Grand Hyatt in New York City might have spotted an unusually stern warning sign on one wall: “The hair of a woman is considered ervah.” Lewd, shameful, naked, unchaste. This inscription, from the Babylonian Talmud, was part of a photographic exhibit by the artist Na’ama Batya Lewin, on display on the occasion of the fourth international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Nov. 9-11.

In characteristic Talmudic dialectic, Lewin’s exhibit presented an alternative interpretation of the ancient verse, summed up in the exhibit’s title, “Ervah: Hidden Sensuality.” The photographs show Lewin visiting modern and ultra-orthodox communities around New York in all manner of head coverings: synthetic wigs, hats riding on top of wigs, schpitzlim (knit caps covered with twisted twine), even a long, luscious red sheitel (a wig) dramatically different from her own.

The JOFA conference brought together some 700 women and 300 men for a weekend of religious activism and scholarly lectures on the question of tzeniut, a mix of modesty and dignity, and other aspects of communal life, all gathered under the rubric “Discovering/Uncovering/Recovering Women in Judaism.” The group, most of whose members identify as modern Orthodox, pursues small victories — mother’s names on tombstones, bat mitzvahs for girls, more equitable synagogue seating plans — while also pressing for a feminist reworking of the entire 3,000-year-old patriarchy that is Orthodox Judaism.

Emotions were noticeably more raw at last year’s conference, where one speaker broke down in tears over whether she should encourage her daughter to wear tzizit (traditional fringed ritual garments reserved for men and boys). This time, participants made bolder assertions: “Just do it, and the rabbis will follow,” one woman said. Indeed, conference-goers heard talks by several prominent men — rabbis and scholars — who’ve found imaginative legal precedent in the Talmudic and rabbinic texts for still-controversial practices, like women’s prayer groups and mixed-gender public prayer.

But many men have not followed. Consider the comments of a highly regarded doctor and father of five daughters who attended the conference with his wife. “Look, let’s face it, women are a complete distraction in shul,” he said to me.

“What are you going to do, lay someone on the bimah?” his wife shot back, referring to the platform at the front of the synagogue. “Control yourself, like at work.”

He responded, “I can get a lot of work done while looking down a women’s shirt. Davening [praying] is different.”

Dr. Tova Hartman-Halbertal, a lecturer at Hebrew University’s School of Education and author of “Appropriately Subversive: Modern Mothers in Traditional Religions” (Harvard University Press, 2003), is one woman who is trying to make things even more different. She’s one of the founders of Shira Hadasha, a new, inclusive Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem where women have leadership roles in services, which begin only after 10 women, in addition to the traditional 10 men, have gathered.

The most dramatic moment of the conference came during Hartman-Halbertal’s hour-long talk, which challenged one of the biggest sources of Orthodoxy’s neofeminist pride: the modesty of women. Rather than offering an alternative to secular Western culture’s objectification of women, she said, Orthodox practices effectively “cover women with spiritual and psychic anxiety not their own.”

She told the story of a young male teacher at an Orthodox girls’ high school who placed a bowl of buttery rugelach on the table before the evening lesson. At the end of the lesson, he said dramatically, “Remember how distracted you were by those rugelach? That is exactly how I feel when you do not dress tzanua.”

This parable — likening girls to pastry — caused a commotion, as whispered conversations erupted across the room. At the end of her talk, part of the audience gave Hartman-Halbertal a standing ovation.

I approached Rabbi Daniel Sperber, the head of Judaic schools of higher learning and professor of Talmudic research at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, who is sympathetic to fuller participation of women in ritual life. “She used big words,” he said, a bit cagily. “When you exaggerate so much, you produce a caricature and it begins to sound like demagoguery.” But judging from the hallway talk, many listeners understood Hartman-Halbertal’s point: Much of tzeniut, as it is currently practiced, is a recapitulation of the same hypersexualization of both men and women, at the expense of their human dignity, that Orthodoxy condemns in mainstream culture.

So why do feminist Orthodox women — and men — endure the pain and stay in the fold? The answer may lie as much in fundamental identity as in the richness of communal life and religious belief itself. For JOFA, change is difficult but possible; in fact, adaptability may be the secret strength that has preserved tradition for thousands of years.

“I come to this from a place of choice,” said Cherie Koller-Fox, a Conservative rabbi from Boston who supports JOFA. “I am not so angry. Besides, no one ever called me a rugelach.”

Tamar Miller is former executive director of the Institute for Social and Economic Policy at Harvard University.

My Yiddische Papa

Educator Yakob Basner will tell you that if you want to learn about a people, study their language.

“You cannot learn or know the history of the Jewish people without learning Yiddish,” Basner said. “There are words you can not translate into English.”

“Yiddish is our language; it’s our culture,” he continued. “Before the war, 12 million Jews spoke it. And the last words spoken by the Jews in the Holocaust before they were killed was in Yiddish.”

Basner, a survivor of four concentration camps, has made it his lifelong mission to connect new generations of Jews to their past by teaching Yiddish language and literature. The Long Beach resident, who for 15 years has taught Yiddish at the Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles, which preserves and promotes Yiddish culture, will receive the organization’s Yidishkayt Award during the Nov. 10 luncheon at the Fairmont-Miramar in Santa Monica that will celebrate the Southern California chapter’s 95th anniversary.

Basner has been vital to the continuance of the Yiddish tradition in the local Yiddish-speaking community, from Los Angeles’ Workmen’s Circle to Beverly Hills High School Adult School, where he has taught Yiddish for the past decade.

Basner, who turns 75 in December, has been speaking the language — an amalgam of German, Hebrew and European dialects — “from the beginning. I soaked it in from my mother’s milk.”

The Yiddish expert has lived most of his life before and after WWII in his birthplace, Riga, Latvia. He lost his father, mother, brother and sister in the Shoah. His brother was executed on a death march just a day before liberation.

At 17, Basner was liberated in 1945 from Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. He returned to Riga, where he worked in the leather-cutting trade while studying linguistics. By 20, he had reconnected with and married Doba, a girl he had known since he was 7. They have been married for 54 years.

“She was hiding in Riga throughout the war,” Basner said, “and I met her on the street.

After a decade of struggle to leave Latvia, which the Soviet Union occupied during World War II, the Basners and their two daughters finally reached California in 1980. The Basners have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another great-grandchild on the way. Since 1987, Basner has taught Yiddish to thousands of students, including Eric Gordon, director of Workmen’s Circle.

In the fall of 1995, Gordon took Basner’s advanced Yiddish class. Two months later, Gordon became Basner’s boss at the Workmen’s Circle.

Gordon, a Yiddishkayt aficionado since his Yale days in the ’60s, has spearheaded a variety of chapter projects. His contributions include a mural on the headquarters’ Horner Street wall in the Pico-Robertson area, an art gallery, a monthly newsletter and programs co-sponsored with various organizations, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Democrats for Israel.

Gordon wants to continue to draw young people. A Jewish poetry slam is scheduled for late November, as is the formation of a Jewish artists group and a gay and lesbian group.

“Younger people are finding here what our older members have found in the past: a Jewish community and home,” Gordon said.

Social action and justice are still top priorities at Workmen’s Circle, which recently drafted anti-war resolutions.

“We stand for a national health-care system, labor rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, a land for peace solution to the Middle East conflict,” continued Gordon, explaining the platform of the Workmen’s Circle’s 50-plus North American affiliates. “It’s tied to the social action that in the past was conducted by unions, the Bundt and other organizations. It’s part of that whole tradition.”

Tradition is the key word.

“The Circle,” Basner said, “is an organization that has understood since the beginning of the 20th century to preserve the Yiddish culture, to help keep Jews connected.”

Basner has mastered English, Russian, Latvian, Hebrew and German. But it is Yiddish that remains closest to his heart.

“It’s a very rich, fun language,” Basner said. “A lot of idioms, proverbs, expressions. You not only get to teach the language, you have the opportunity to teach all the sayings and expressions.”

Although Yiddish is 1,000 years old, it still thrives with new works of literature released every year. Basner, whose Holocaust odyssey was chronicled in the English-language book, “The Unfinished Road: Jewish Survivors of Latvia Look Back” (Brager, 1991), still obtains much hanoe (joy) from teaching Yiddish.

“I feel that Yiddish will stay alive,” Basner said, “because it’s very stubborn, like the Jewish people. It will survive.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s annual awards banquet, emceed by “Freaks and Geeks” stars Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, will be held Nov. 10 at the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. Tom Hayden and members Judy Silver and Frances Friedman will receive awards. Mit Gezang Yiddish Choir will perform. For more information, call (310) 552-2007 or visit www.circle.org.