The Jewish Report Editorial

Hebrew dilemma runs deep

  • JNF - Tu B'shvat
Last week, South Africa’s Jewish day schools put considerable effort into their celebrations and commemoration of Israel’s important milestones - Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Yet Hebrew, considered by many to be the bedrock of Zionist and Jewish identity, is no longer compulsory, nor a popular subject choice at most of these schools.
by VANESSA VALKIN | Apr 29, 2015

This year, a mere six pupils out of a total of 108 matriculants at Herzlia, which educates 90 per cent of Jewish children in Cape Town, are taking Hebrew. King David Linksfield has 68 taking Hebrew out of 161 matriculants; King David Victory Park has 22 out of a total of 62; while the more religious Yeshiva College has 22 out of 45.

The schools point out that they all have a portion of learners who are not pursuing a normal Independent Examination Board matric due to individual learning difficulties - so the percentages of capable learners choosing Hebrew is higher than the numbers quoted.

When I was a matriculant at King David Victory Park, only a handful of learners did not take Hebrew. Dropping the subject was not an option, unless you were a newcomer with no Hebrew background or had been diagnosed with learning challenges.

Today all the schools provide the option of dropping Hebrew either at the end of grade nine or grade 10.

This change occurred about eight years ago. At that point pupils had to choose either religious studies or Hebrew for matric. Then the Department of Education made religious studies optional and so the schools decided they could not enforce Hebrew.

Also, maths and life orientation were made compulsory and the schools decided it was not viable to make Hebrew compulsory as well, as that restricted pupils' subject choices to five compulsory subjects: two South African languages, maths or maths literacy, life orientation and Hebrew.

Herzlia’s director of education, Geoff Cohen, has made a noble effort to revive Hebrew there. He raised R3,5 million two years ago from a UK-based donor to employ talented Hebrew educators like Ronnie Gotkin and build an attractive Hebrew lab to entice pupils to continue Hebrew. There have been no major changes in the numbers yet, but perhaps this initiative is still getting off the ground.

Some educators blame the falling numbers on the fact that, due to the astronomical cost, pupils no longer go on the three-month ulpan programme in grade 10, which had offered an intensive period of Hebrew study and a powerful “let’s love Israel campaign” for impressionable teenagers.

But most pupils are opting for other subjects not because the quality of Hebrew education has dropped. In fact the schools are using the latest teaching technologies and trying to recruit top Hebrew educators from around the world.

It is likely more about the competitive world young adults face today where they feel pressure to choose subjects they can completely excel in. Getting a distinction for Hebrew is very difficult if one is not a native speaker and university entrance and later the cutthroat job world mean choosing subjects that enhance one’s chances of later success.

Also, many parents feel their children already have to do Afrikaans, only spoken in South Africa, why master another language which has the same handicap. In fact, parents, often complain that South African Jewish day schools, unlike some of the other private schools, don’t offer options such as Mandarin or Spanish, far more important if one is looking to compete in a global job market.

For many Jewish educators, these dwindling statistics are quite depressing and may be a sign of declining observance, or worse yet greater assimilation. They feel that understanding Hebrew is the gateway to Jewish education and a meaningfully observant way of life.

It is essential to participate in prayer; it creates the option of aliyah for Diaspora Jews; it gives all Jews a common language and makes Judaism come alive.

Any authentic study of Tanach or Mishnah requires a grasp of the language. At Yeshiva College, managing director Rabbi Leron Bernstein says that most learners take Hebrew because Torah learning is a “raison d’être” of the school. Out of last year’s matric group of 33 Hebrew candidates, an astounding 31 got distinctions.

The rabbis say that the goal of Jewish day school is to create competent and proud Jewish individuals - the more complete your knowledge of the tenets of Judaism, the more proud you will be as a Jew.

When we raise young people who cannot open a bible or pray, we are not giving them a basic competency and so we cannot expect them to be proud.

Perhaps we are, as some rabbis believe, facing a dire situation with Jewish education and our schools need to take urgent action or rethink their policies.

But I can’t help thinking that if Hebrew was compulsory, we might lose a lot more young people to the benefits of Jewish education because they would choose other schools where they had more subject options.

Yes, they are not mastering the beloved language of our people but at least they are part of a community of Jews - building friendships which often last a lifetime and still gaining a sturdy knowledge of Jewish tradition and observance. It is not the ideal scenario but it is probably a manageable compromise.



  1. 4 David 04 May
    I hesitate to say it  -- but is Hebrew as a language that  critical to the Jewish day school system ? Yes it needs to be available and encouraged at all levels, but  unfortunately, a necessity would be questionable
       We, in the diaspora, are Jews who ,in general are more cultural and dare I have the 'chutzpah' to say - traditional in our outlook, although this is within the framework of being Jewish but speaking the language of the land we live in.
    Hebrew is a critical subject to all those who are Zionist in their beliefs and intentions, but as Jews who live outside Israel we have a 'want' of speaking and understanding Hebrew, but not a necessity of it. We all wish and intend visiting Israel but the need to communicate in Hebrew is diminishing every year as the international language of communication is English and is spoken and taught, widely in Israel.
    From a personal point of view, being a babyboomer, I grew up with Eastern European grandparents who communicated within the family in Yiddish only. Their English was heavily accented as most of my age have experienced.They believed that Hebrew was a davening language only. Consequently I spoke and understood Yiddish by default, not necessarily by design. A great pity that I have now lost most of it through non use. 
  2. 3 Choni 04 May
    You are right David. I would add that this increased indifference to Hebrew being taught and spoken is part of the process of assimilation of Jews into their host countries.
  3. 2 abu mamzer 05 May
    This is an important issue,because one cannot really be a Jew without a knowledge of Hebrew.
    We need a "Hebrew Bubble:" to create an environment of Hebrew as a living language...Laboratories,Hebrew Television,tutorials,Internet....(Israel radio).magazines,
    It's not easy.
    The Alliance FRancaise in JHB is a wonderful example of a cultural centre but I also wonder how many graduates come out of their system knowing French.
    To be able to participate in Hebrew culture in Israel is a necessity because withot it you may as well be in Outer Mongolia.
    The Jewish religious schools do better,but there they have 4-5 hours in Limudei kodesh/Hebrew instead of the measly 4-5 hours of Hebrew at the King David/Hertzlia Hebrew currriculum.
    But they pay a secular price.
  4. 1 wladyslaw karpeta 07 May
    As a non-Jew who is busy trying to learn Hebrew, I feel saddened by the apathy to teach Hebrew at school. My father who was Polish and fluent in Yiddish plus five other European languages taught me that any opportunity to learn another language is an opportunity not to be missed. I took French, Latin and Russian at school and my only regret is not being able to learn German. Please do not give up on Hebrew!


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