The Accidental Hebrew School Teacher

Oct. 5, 2015

By Ornat Turin and Vardit Ringvald

Who teaches Hebrew to youngsters in the United States?

Are they trained teachers with a passion for educating young students; How about Israeli women who are here for other reasons such as their husbands' graduate work?

These were the central questions to emerge from the HBI's 2014 spring seminar entitled, "Gender and the Teaching of the Hebrew Language," under the supervision of Professor Vardit Ringvald, Middlebury College Director of the School of Hebrew, and until 2013, director of the Hebrew and Arabic Languages Program at Brandeis University.

Despite years of analysis, a variety of teaching methods and a range of settings, research shows a constant decline in Hebrew proficiency, according to Ringvald. Rather than focus on these issues, the seminar focused on just one part of the equation, the teachers. It started with the premise that teachers of Hebrew are almost always female native speakers from Israel, usually not certified or trained to teach.

Prominent scholars from different disciplines, including an anthropologist, a journalist and media scholar, a movie director, a Hebrew teacher, a linguistics expert and a sociologist convened to study the issue and begin to develop a framework for future research. Professor Ornat Turin's topic of research, together with Professor Ringvald, was the experience of teaching Hebrew in the United States through the eyes of Israelis who have returned home. Turin was a scholar-in-residence at HBI during the seminar, along with Dr. Rahel Wasserfall and the late poet, Janice Rebibo, z"l, who also participated in the seminar.

Although much research has been accumulated on issues of immigration, gender and Israelis in the U.S., very little research has been conducted regarding Israeli teachers in America; and, what exists concerns other perspectives such as diminishing command of the language or issues of religious identity. Our research project focuses on the teachers' perspective — those Israelis who have found themselves teaching Hebrew, simply because they were staying in the United States and are native Hebrew speakers.

Our research method was a semi-structured interview with women who lived in the United States for a period of one to 10 years, then returned to Israel where they may or may not have continued teaching. Interviews were conducted face-to-face or through Skype and lasted about one hour. We asked questions such as: "Why did you go to the United States and what were the circumstances for starting to teach Hebrew? Could you share a memory of something nice that occurred during this period? Could you share a difficulty? In retrospect, what makes a good Hebrew teacher and what makes a bad one? What is the difference between teaching in Israel and in the U.S.?"

Preliminary Results

  • Our initial results show that all of the women interviewed so far were in the U.S. because of their husbands' work such as advanced degree programs or prestigious academic positions. The wife started teaching Hebrew as a means of financial support for the family.
  • Initially, all the interviewees reported that their motivation for seeking teaching positions was extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations developed at a later stage as teachers became motivated to strengthen the Hebrew language and Jewish awareness. Over time, they developed pride in becoming ambassadors, of sorts, for Israel.
  • The secular teachers confronted their own lack of acquaintance with the religious corpus, including prayer. Teachers reported that as they taught American students, they drew closer to the Jewish holidays — a culture from which they had drifted away.
  • Following a brief period of bewilderment, the teachers learned the new cultural system of which they were now a part. As they saw it, their success, their turning point was the moment they realized that they had to free themselves from a strict methodological framework and adapt a ‘marketing’ approach for teaching a second language, incorporating playfulness and lures.
  • Historically, the fact that women sought teaching positions was deemed legitimate, as the role of the teacher was perceived as an extension of the maternal one.
  • In the cases at hand, which take place within progressive families and a modern professional environment, teaching is still shadowed by patriarchal ideas. The teachers of Hebrew are essentially those with an occupation secondary to their spouse, using "natural" capabilities rather than professional qualifications as a means of supporting the family.

These "accidental teachers" concluded that the experience was a positive one and used words such as "it was like a dream." Upon reflection, they said the job did not have any of the dull qualities they expected. The prestigious concept of relocation and temporary limited residence in America (as opposed to emigration), has turned Hebrew teaching into a chapter of "the good life." One wonders if the "dream" has been nostalgically polished?

From Ornat Turin:
"Let me dedicate a few words for one seminar member and colleague — former Senior Program Officer/Technology Director of Hebrew at the Center, Janis Rebibo, z”l, a unique poet, who could express herself in both languages, as accurately as a native speaker. Janice, a part of this seminar, who was known for her humor and strong voice, passed away a few months ago in March, unable to complete her work. She intended to study curricula and to conduct a content analysis of the textbook used to teach Hebrew. We all miss her. She could lift the whole room into high spirits the minute she came in."

Ornat Turin was a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute She is the head of the media education department at Gordon College of Education in Haifa, Israel.

Vardit Ringvald is the Middlebury College Director of the School of Hebrew, the CV Starr Research Professor of Languages and Linguistics and until 2013, director of the Hebrew and Arabic Languages Program at Brandeis University. She led the 2014 HBI Spring Seminar, Gender and the Teaching of the Hebrew Language.