Rabbi Noah Golinkin is a marathon man without running shoes or starting block - racing to teach Jews to read Hebrew, their 4,000-year-old language, in just eight hours with the help of his grin and sense of humor.
"Hebrew is an indispensable tool of the Jewish way of life," says the Columbia resident, whose Hebrew Marathon and Hebrew Literacy campaigns have taught Hebrew to 140,000 Jewish adults throughout North America. "It is used at all synagogue services and is the language of the Torah and of the writings of the Talmud."
Golinkin, who served Beth Shalom Conservative Congregation in Columbia from 1978 to 1986, makes this promise: In one day - a course of study he calls "Marathon Day" - an adult can learn enough Hebrew to follow the Hebrew prayer book.
After six weeks of additional training with the program, the newly literate adult can learn to lead the Friday evening service in Hebrew.
"I want the students to fall in love with Hebrew," says Golinkin.
Although officially retired, he works day and night to promote the Hebrew Marathon, helped by his son, Abe Golinkin, manager of the Hebrew Marathon Network and editor of his textbooks, and by his wife, Dvorah, who co-teaches the Hebrew Marathons.
The concept grew out of the Hebrew Literacy Campaign, which Golinkin began in 1978 to restore Hebrew literacy to adults who had missed out on learning the language as children. He initiated the campaign under the sponsorship of the National Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs.
"I focused on the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations," says Golinkin. "I didn't want the congregants' ignorance of Hebrew to make them feel uncomfortable so they would drift away."
Historically, Jews were among the most literate people, as nearly all were fluent in Hebrew as well as their national languages.
But when Jews emigrated from Europe to the United States, Americanization was given priority. Hebrew took a back seat among boys, and girls were not taught the ancient language.
At first, Golinkin's Hebrew Literacy classes were scheduled in 12 weekly sessions. Each class was offered in the morning, afternoon and evening every day of the week, to ensure that a class was available no matter the student's schedule. There were to be "no alibis, no excuses," he says, for missing a class.
Because he could not find a Hebrew textbook geared to adults, Golinkin wrote his first book - "Shalom Aleichem."
The Hebrew Literacy Campaign caught on. Congregations developed a large demand for the classes, and Hebrew-literate lay people were asked to volunteer as teachers.
"Those who cannot read, must learn; those who can read, must teach" was the Literacy Campaign's motto. The classes were small by design so that students would not feel embarrassed when making mistakes common to learning a new language. The approach was successful, and the classes became a national, then an international, phenomenon.
The Hebrew Reading Marathon was born in 1986, when Danny Siegel, an educator, lecturer and a former student of Golinkin's, announced to a crowd that his mentor could teach Hebrew to adults in a single day. The Hadassah organization soon asked Golinkin to teach Hebrew to 60 Jewish women in St. Louis in a day.
Responding to the challenge, Golinkin came up with the Marathon plan and a textbook called "While Standing on One Foot." He planned to teach Hebrew using familiar Judaic words, such as matzah, menorah and mezuzah. The day would be filled with humor, positive reinforcement - and lots of Hebrew.
Each Hebrew Reading Marathon is arranged by the individual congregation, which is responsible for buying the materials and inviting Golinkin or someone trained in his method to conduct the course.
Columbia resident Kerry Avant took the Hebrew Reading Marathon shortly after she converted to Judaism.
"You learn to read quickly, because the book is well organized," Avant says.
Avant said she was motivated by the focus on learning how to pray.
"If you take his class, you can be comfortable in just about any synagogue service around the world," she says. "It's a first step to feeling part of the community, which is very important in Judaism. Rabbi Golinkin really enjoys what he does."