Words link faith, future Judaism: A religious outreach group launches a program to teach Hebrew to North American Jews in an effort to keep the language alive.

November 17, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Hebrew has been the language of prayer and prophecy among Jews for three millenniums, a glue that's held them together through generations of dispersion from ancient Palestine.

But nowadays, most American Jews can't read it.

That's why the New York-based National Jewish Outreach Program has launched Read Hebrew America, the first continent-wide effort to teach Jews to read Hebrew. The goal is to attract 35,000 Jews to classes in 2,000 locations, including several in Baltimore.

NJOP officials say that after five 90-minute lessons, participants will read Hebrew.

"By the time you finish that class, you'll be reading Hebrew, guaranteed, or your money back," said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder and director of NJOP. "You'll be reading in time for Hanukkah [Dec. 14], so you'll be able to say the blessings and sing the songs in Hebrew."

The impetus for Read Hebrew America is a crisis revealed in the influential 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed that 80 percent of North American Jews cannot read Hebrew.

"If you're an American and you can't read English, you're called illiterate," said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Pikesville's Beth Tfiloh Congregation, which is sponsoring one of the courses. "If you're a Jew and you can't read Hebrew, you're called typical. We're trying to change that.

"This is the first time in the history of our people that such a huge segment of the Jewish population is illiterate," he said.

Hebrew has traditionally been the liturgical language of Jews, but until recently was not spoken as an everyday language, like the Yiddish spoken by Eastern European Jews. That began to change with the revival of Hebrew led by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who moved from Lithuania to Jerusalem in 1882 and took up the cause of the nearly dead language. His efforts culminated in the establishment of modern Hebrew as the official language of the state of Israel.

For observant Jews, Hebrew is "lashon hakodesh": the holy tongue.

"We believe there is a sanctity to the language in and of itself," Wohlberg said. "The fact of the matter is our Psalms were written in Hebrew, our prophets prophesied in Hebrew, our prayers were composed in Hebrew, our Torah was given to us in Hebrew."

Since 1987, NJOP's Hebrew Reading Crash Course has been used to teach more than 105,000 Jews to read the language.

"It's a very simple language," Buchwald said. "It's a phonetic language, so even dyslexic people can learn it quite easily. There are no silent letters. Everything is very clear -- what you see is what you get."

The crash course at Beth Tfiloh is attracting about 100 people each Wednesday night, many of them adult women who never received the schooling necessary to celebrate their bat mitzvah, the coming-of-age ritual that Jewish girls go through at age 12.

Beth Blanco, a 38-year-old mother of three, said she wants to learn Hebrew because it's frustrating to sit in synagogue and not understand what's going on.

"To be honest with you, I follow as much as I can. But I talk to my friends, and it's social," she said. "We'll sit in the back, and we'll whisper with friends."

At first, Hebrew can be intimidating.

"It is a little scary. The letters are so different from English letters," she said. "But once you know the basics, it's very easy. You just sound out the letter with the vowel underneath."

Wohlberg acknowledged that in five lessons, one's reading ability will be modest.

"The reality is our goal is a rather limited one," he said. "It is not to speak Hebrew. It is not to be able to translate the Hebrew in English. Right now, the goal is to be able to read Hebrew and specifically to feel comfortable in a synagogue prayer service."

What is at stake, said Buchwald, is the survival of Judaism in this country, in a Jewish community that seems bent on assimilation.

"There has never been a Jewish community that was illiterate in Hebrew that has survived as Jewish," he said. "So Hebrew is integral to the survival of the Jewish community, because once they lost their connection to those Jewish roots, they lose their connection to the people."

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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