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Dmitri Shufutinsky
Dmitri Shufutinsky

Learning Hebrew Can Save American Judaism

For years, there have been torrents of articles decrying “assimilation” in the American Jewish community. To a lesser extent, there is also worry of assimilation in Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and other such Western countries, but it seems that America–with its much larger, more secular, and more established Jewish population–is the main concern. For some, the issue is intermarriage, secularism, low birthrates, and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism–all of which lead to a dissolving sense of our culture, history, and religion. For others, it is Orthodox rigidity that pushes away women, liberal/secular people, LGBT folks, and non-Orthodox worshippers from the Jewish community. Leaving aside these debates, there is a deeper and more important way to reconnect young American Jews with their heritage–the Hebrew language.

Already, great programs exist for maintaining Diasporic ties to Jewish heritage. These include Birthright, the free ten-day Israel trip for 18-32 year-old Jews; various Hillel programs on campus that include Israeli food-themed parties; Israeli/Jewish music and film festivals; and numerous religious ceremonies. However, it must be said that many young American Jews do not know Hebrew, or only know it at its most basic level.

The issue stems from a few different factors. One is the fact that “Hebrew schools” at synagogue are actually “religious schools.” Hebrew is only taught there for the purpose of learning the prayers in a siddur or preparing for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Another is the astronomical tuition cost and limited number of Jewish day schools in the country. Finally, there is the insufficient Hebrew-language programs offered by many of these schools (the NETA program being the chief one that comes to mind, from personal experience). This is so deficient that many students–including myself, a decade ago when I was a high school junior–opt not to continue studying Hebrew until university due to the terrible curriculum. This is a tragedy, because many of the Hebrew teachers themselves (usually Israelis) are excellent with one-on-one tutoring or non-NETA teaching–but their hands are tied due to the curriculum. Poor experiences of learning Hebrew through insufficient Jewish day school programs or at synagogue on Sundays means that many Jews give up altogether trying to learn–especially given that many Israelis know English. But while these are valid reasons for the lack of Hebrew proficiency among American Jews, they aren’t the only ones.

In other diaspora communities, close ties to language have helped maintain a sense of pride in American-born, younger generations. I remember my grandmother telling me as a child that I should go to Russian-speaking day camp during summers (I never had the chance, due to constantly moving around as part of my upbringing). I also remember a Japanese friend of mine in 3rd grade going every Saturday to Japanese school in order to maintain his knowledge of the language. The two diasporic communities perhaps most similar to ours–Armenian and Greek–maintain their own very close ties to their culture through language as well. While both countries have their own Birthright programs and their families often vacation in the “old country,” they generally regularly attend their churches and learn the Greek and Armenian languages there–much more efficiently and fluently than can be said for American Jewry and Hebrew. The desire among these youth to attend such cultural events and learn their native tongue is both stronger and also pushed more by their elders. Comparatively, from our communal elders, there is little pressure directed at American Jewish youth to learn Hebrew or go to synagogue post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

While there are various avenues towards fostering and maintaining a Jewish identity in a modern, secularizing America (as listed above), language is the key way to maintain one’s cultural roots and distinctiveness. In today’s America, much of the conversation of Jewish history or politics is centered around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Holocaust. There is often a dismissiveness of Israelis due to criticism of “the occupation” or issues related to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. While some of this is natural and understandable (and there is much that Israeli society can do to improve the relationship), a lot of this comes from not understanding the language and a communication barrier. It is true that many Israelis know English, and that the limited Hebrew known by American Jews helps. So does the Birthright program. But particularly during the pandemic and Israel’s constant border closures, a ten-day trip or occasional other vacations is not enough. Furthermore, some Israelis feel that American (and other diaspora) Jews don’t bother to try to understand their viewpoints or their culture–some of which stems from lack of Hebrew proficiency in the Diaspora.

Hebrew proficiency or fluency will allow American (and other diaspora) Jews to better understand Israelis and communicate with them–seeing us as their brothers, not some distant far-off family you almost never talk to. It’ll help American Jews better understand and learn about the other Jewish cultures (Soviet, Ethiopian, Mizrahi and Sephardic) that have come to dominate Israeli society today, as opposed to the Ashkenazi culture that once dominated it and today dominates American Jewry. And it will make it easier and more appealing for American Jews to visit Israel more, continue attending synagogue services and Jewish cultural festivals, or in some cases even (‘ברוך ה) make aliyah. Rather than arguing so much amongst ourselves about the undesirable disconnect there is amongst Jews within the Diaspora and between the Diaspora & Israel, learning Hebrew is something that can connect us all to our heritage and make it easier to overcome disagreements and differences.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and is a veteran of the IDF.
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