After 6 1/2 hours of instruction, the Hebrew class was over, and the teacher threw up his arms. "I taught you how to read," he exulted. "I am finished."
Rabbi Noah Golinkin had wrapped up another marathon session of teaching adults the ancient Jewish language.
The Columbia rabbi is the Johnny Appleseed of Hebrew, a man on a mission to teach the 4,000-year-old language to American Jews.
He estimates that a nationwide Hebrew literacy campaign he helped launch in 1978, along with a teaching method he has developed over the past 28 years, has given 80,000 American Jews reading knowledge of the language.
"I am concerned about Jewish survival," Rabbi Golinkin says in explaining his mission.
Learning Hebrew clearly left its imprint on the students who took a two-day seminar Rabbi Golinkin and his wife, Dvorah, held recently at Temple Beth Shalom in Columbia.
"Just being able to follow the services in the prayer book a little better made this class beneficial to me," said Sophia Novinsky, a member of the congregation who said she had never before been exposed to the Hebrew alphabet of 22 consonants and six vowels.
Roger Shulman, a 35-year-old mathematician who emigrated from Moscow recently, said he especially appreciated the lesson because he never had a chance to learn Hebrew in the Soviet Union.
He said he learned "at least 30 percent" of what the rabbi taught during the sessions, which should give him a start in helping his 12-year-old son, Artur, prepare for his bar mitzvah next year.
Rabbi Golinkin is convinced that the lack of knowledge of Hebrew threatens the "cultural survival of the Jewish people in this country. We, as a people, have survived all kinds of hardship and calamities, but we have not survived the loss of the Hebrew language."
To bolster his point, he cites the disappearance 2,000 years ago of nearly 1 million Jewish inhabitants of Alexandria, Egypt, who studied Hebrew works in the Greek translation and were eventually assimilated into the Greek culture.
The rabbi, now in his 70s, says his goal is to reach 1 million Jews by the end of the decade.
There are 6 million Jews in the United States.
"I hope I am privileged, and God
willing, I am given the strength to live another 20 years to do this," said Rabbi Golinkin.
His mission to teach Hebrew to American Jews began in 1963, when he was a rabbi of a congregation in Arlington, Va. His efforts expanded later when he served as president of the Washington Board of Jewish Education.
In 1978, he came up with the idea that teaching Hebrew should be made easier. Instead of spending a year teaching adults, he suggested doing it in 12-week classes held at various times of the day to reach a larger number of people.
The national Hebrew literacy campaign, which was Rabbi Golinkin's idea, began under the sponsorship of the National Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, and it took hold.
Hoping to reach even more adults, Rabbi Golinkin embarked on another innovation in 1987 -- teaching the rudiments of Hebrew in an eight-hour lesson. He dubbed it the Hebrew Reading Marathon.
Now nationally recognized for his work, Rabbi Golinkin takes to the road to pursue his mission. In the past year, he has taught Hebrew in New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa, Fla., Toronto, Wilmington, Del., and South Bend, Ind.
During a lull in his travels, he returned this past week to his former congregation in Columbia, where he was the leader from 1978 to 1986 and remains the rabbi emeritus.
Instead of the typical eight-hour lesson, he taught for two nights. After 6 1/2 hours of instruction, the class of 20 was able to read aloud from Hebrew prayers and blessings, as well as learn up to 180 common Hebrew words.
Using a repetitive drill in learning the Hebrew words and alphabet, the rabbi mixed in stories and traditional Jewish songs to make his points. He told his class that when they speak Hebrew, it should be in a voice that is "clear, loud and slow. If you aren't loud, I will say louder."
And, as the class picked up the pace with the help of illustrations in work books developed by the rabbi, he would beam at them, and say encouragingly: "OK, you are doing great. . . . You are absolutely brilliant."
The class finished with the reading of a Hebrew prayer of blessing, and Rabbi Golinkin was all smiles and bristling with energy at the result.
"He seems tireless because he is so in love with the Hebrew language and his mission," Dvorah Golinkin said.