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The Purposes of Hebrew: New Approaches to Understanding Hebrew Education in America

Mon, December 17, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 2 Complex

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


The teaching and learning of Hebrew animates the American Jewish community. And yet, American Jews, for the most part, don’t speak Modern Hebrew or read Biblical Hebrew with any comprehension. Thus far, the Jewish communal response has pointed to two diagnoses. Some argue that if we had better trained teachers, Jewish American children would achieve greater learning outcomes. Others lay the fault on families, arguing that if Jewish American families cared more about Hebrew, their children would attain stronger linguistic success. This panel seeks to interrogate this binary by taking a more contextual view of Hebrew education. Looking at three distinct cases of how ideas about the importance and function of Hebrew in American society at different historical moments shape Hebrew education, this panel offers a more nuanced understanding of this key component of Jewish life and Jewish education.

The papers on this panel represent a variety of methodological approaches for exploring the purposes of Hebrew education in the United States. Investigating the religious significance of Biblical Hebrew language instruction through a comparative analysis of two recent Hebrew Bible curricula, Hassenfeld looks at how each conceives of the teaching of Biblical Hebrew and, consequently, its role in Jewish life. Comparing the motivations of two generations of American day school educators in adopting Ivrit b'Ivrit, Krasner argues that 1930s educators were committed to Jewish modernization, while those in the 1960s were concerned with promoting ethnic pride. Finally, Avni applies a discursive analytic lens to the Jewish community’s response in the Jewish printed media to the phenomenon of Hebrew language charter schools, showing both the anxieties and hopefulness these new schools engendered.

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