Local preschools divided on Hebrew

At the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, preschoolers are taught in Hebrew and English. Photo courtesy of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.

It’s hard to find a program as immersive as Gan Gurim’s — the all-Hebrew preschool in Rockville for children of Israelis. But other area Jewish-run early childhood facilities are responding to a variety of demands — ranging from a strong focus on the language to an increasingly competitive and diverse market where the ancient language isn’t a draw.

More than four years ago, parents approached administrators at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, imploring them to start an early childhood program with a focus on Hebrew.

So the school brought in an expert from Hebrew at the Center — a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that uses developmental psychology in Hebrew education — to design a curriculum using their “Proficiency Approach.” Individual instructors craft their lessons, but the classroom is bilingual, with one instructing only in Hebrew and the other in English.

“The idea is that you talk to them in the second language naturally, but at a level that is comprehensible for them,” said Daniella Friedman, Judaic studies and Hebrew language coordinator at Charles E. Smith. “You rely as little as possible on translation. Only when you really need it, maybe if a child is getting frustrated, and then you move on. The way I teach my teachers is, ‘You don’t translate to a baby with a first language.’”


The preschool, in its second year, has 12 children.

Friedman said there’s little confusion; the children quickly begin to identify the teachers with their respective languages. Soon enough, they’re responding in Hebrew and acquiring the language.

Elsewhere, the language is used more sparingly.

At Adas Israel Congregation’s Gan HaYeled in Washington, Hebrew is used for class names and children pick up some Hebrew when learning about holidays. However, there’s no formal Hebrew teaching, according to Rabbi Kerrith Rosenbaum, the Conservative congregation’s director of education.

Students, who come from a range of backgrounds, may learn Hebrew words, depending on their teacher’s background. But it’s far from a focus.

“We have Israeli parents who are hoping there will be Hebrew, but we also have parents who don’t speak Hebrew at all,” Rosenbaum said. “When serving such a large population, it’s really on us to give a variety of different access points.”

Adas Israel has about 150 preschoolers.

The challenge of catering to such a varied population in early childhood education is also felt in the Reform movement, said Cathy Rolland, who directs the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism’s Families with Young Children program.

She said preschools around the country are struggling to maintain sufficient enrollment with more states and municipalities expanding their universal preschool offerings. The District offers free enrollment for 3- and 4-year-olds. Maryland and Virginia do not.

And not only is the competition stiffer, the families are more diverse, many with interfaith marriages or secular leanings.

“Hebrew has gone in and out of what I’d say is fashionable,” Rolland said. “The big challenge now is the growing number of culturally diverse families. Many want to be on a Jewish journey with Hebrew integrated into the journey, but not the end of the journey.”

According to Rolland, the Union for Reform Judaism has moved away from curriculum development with its network of 275 schools, but is carrying out research in the early childhood education field. But she said that, anecdotally, she’s seen a decrease in the Hebrew emphasis.
Many Reform schools offer prayer transliteration for families of preschoolers.

“We’re thinking about Hebrew as it most effectively meets the needs of the 21st century family,” she said.

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