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PAGE 16A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 20, 2013 Initiative seeking to improve Hebrew literacy in America Ramah Day Camp Campers at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, N.Y., participating in a pilot Hebrew immersion program. By JuRe Wiener NEWYORK (JTA)--For the first 3 1/2 weeks of the sum- mer, one group of 5-year-olds at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, N.Y., was "very quiet" as the children went about the typi- cal camp activities, according to Amy Skopp Cooper, the camp's director. But in the fourth week, the talking started--in Israeli- accented Hebrew. By the end of the summer, evaluations revealed that most of the 20 children--all of whom had started out as Hebrew novices--"had gone up multiple levels" in their He- brew proficiency, Cooper said. The campers were partici- pants in a pilot Hebrew im- mersion program at the Jew- ish day camp 25 miles north of Manhattan. And if leaders of a new group promoting Hebrew literacy have their way, those campers will soon be joined by many others. The Hebrew Language Council of North America, which held its inaugural conference last month in New Jersey, aims to make Hebrew a more central part of American Jewish culture. Established by a partnership among several organizations including the World Zionist Organization and the Is- raeli Ministry of Education, the council is launching as growing numbers of Jewish educational programs are rethinking their approach to teaching Hebrew and as signs emerge of low Hebrew literacy among American Jews. "Judaism is not just a reli- gion, it's a people," said Arnee Winshall, CEO of Hebrew at the Center, one of the groups involved in starting the coun- cil. "We talk a lot about 'am Yisrael' [the people of Israel], and a language is part of what distinguishes a people." Many Jewish educators consider Hebrew a core feature of Jewish identity building. But according to the Pew Research Center's recent study of American Jewry, just 52 percent of American Jews know the Hebrew alphabet and only 10 percent can carry on a conversation in Hebrew. Even among those who attended yeshiva or Jewish day school, the numbers are scarcely bet- ter, with only one-third saying they can converse in Hebrew. The number rises to 64 percent for those with 10 years or more of day school education. Experts variously attribute the low numbers to poor teaching, lack of clarity about why Hebrew language acquisi- tion is important and the few opportunities to speak He- brew in American Jewish life. "We know many if not most day schools claim to be interested in [conversational] Hebrew proficiency, but the reality is they face limited time and unless you're really committed, it's not easy," said Jonathan Woocher, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foun- dation for Living Torah and a longtime CEO of the now- shuttered Jewish Education Service of North America. Day school directors face a "dilemma about where to put the emphasis and resources and how to deal with the fact that except for Israelis, there isn't a community of active Hebrew speakers inAmerica," Woocher said. The emergence in the past six years of publicly funded Hebrew charter schools may help change the equation. There are now 10 such schools in the United States teaching Hebrew language and Jewish culture, but like all public schools they are prohibited from teaching Jewish religion. The schools are "forcing us to up our game," said Rabbi Andrew Davids, head of Beit Rabban, a small, nondenomi- national Jewish day school in Manhattan now revamping its Hebrew curriculum in consul- tation with Winshall's Hebrew at the Center, a 6-year-old organization recently brought under the auspices of Middle- bury College in Vermont. Davids said four Beit Rab- ban families transferred their children to a new Hebrew charter school in New York City's Harlem neighborhood this year. And while he rec- ognizes his school can never compete with the free tuition of a charter school, Davids said he wants to make sure his school can offer a Hebrew program as good as the char- ter school. "We don't want Hebrew to be the reason they leave," Davids said. The new council joins a number of Hebrew teaching efforts that have been per- colating for the past decade. In addition to Ramah Nyack, several other Jewish camps have experimented with Hebrew immersion. In Chicago, a program called Moadon Kol Chadash (New Voice Lounge) offers Hebrew- immersion Jewish preschool. And seven suburban public high schools, with support from the Jewish nonprofit Shorashim, are offering He- brew-language courses. Hebrew at the Center has helped train teachers for many of the programs. Since 2008, it has also run an intensive seven-week Hebrew course through Middlebury's Sum- mer Language Institute. Hebrew at the Center also is launching master's and doctoral programs to train Hebrew teachers and support scholarly research. Until now, Winshall said, most Hebrew teachers in the United States have had little formal training and many Jewish day schools recruit lo- cal Israelis with little expertise in teaching language. The Hebrew Language Council is planning to sponsor an annual three-day Hebrew language and Israeli culture conference; form a profes- sional association for Hebrew teachers in North America; convene an online forum for sharing information about various Hebrew programs; and raise money for Hebrew education initiatives. "We have to bring under one umbrella all the people who care about Hebrew," said Simcha Leibovich, the World Zionist Organization repre- sentative in North America. While Winshall knows of no studies showing the impact of Hebrew literacy on Jew- ish identity, she said there is significant research on how language mastery influences a sense of connection to the culture in which that lan- guage is spoken. "When I spent a year- and-a-half in Israel, I had a different experience than my other American friends there who couldn't speak Hebrew or could only function at the lowest level," Winshall said. "I was invited to different things because people said they didn't want to always worry about speaking English." Hoping to build 'relational' communities through better data By Julie Wiener NEWYORK (JTA)--Before Sacha Litman shares his data analysis with his synagogue clients, he likes to have the board members and staff guess the contents. Which programs are most expensive and most popular? Who is more satisfied, senior citizens or nursery school parents? How many Hebrew school parents would recom- mend the congregation to a friend? Eighty percent of the time, Litman says, the assumptions of synagogue leaders are dis- proved by the data. "Synagogue board mem- bers often make decisions basedonwhat they heard from a friend at kiddush or at the Shabbos table," said Litman, the founder and managing di- rector of Measuring Success, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. "It's their job to represent the needs and interests of all the [syna- gogue] members, but if they don't understand wh at they're feeling and thinking, how can they claim to do that?" Litman's firm, which has worked extensively with Jew- ish day schools and com- munity centers across the country, is a key player in an effort backed by federations and the national arms of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements to bring data-based decision making to the synagogue world. Perhaps counterintuitively, the data champions argue that by taking a page from for- profit giants such as Amazon and Netflix, whose data analy- sis algorithms enable them to gain powerful insights about their customers, synagogues can shift from "transactional" to a"relational" model of serv- ing their members. Good use of data, the advocates say, can help syna- gogue members feel less like a number and more like part of a community. "The more that synagogues know about their existing and potential congregants, hope- fully the more able they will be to customize programs, meet needs and make congregants feel they are known and not anonymous," said Adina Frydman, executive director of Synergy, the synagogue services department of UJA- Federation of New York. Over the past four years, Synergy has invested almost $750,000 in promoting more sophisticated data use among synagogues, the bulk of which has gone to cover Measuring Success' work with 12 New York-area congregations. Founded 10 years ago, Measuring Success works exclusively with nonprofit or- ganizations and foundations, roughly half of them Jewish. Litman calls Measuring Suc- cess "for-prophet" because its fees are lower than the for-profit sector. The 12 New York syna- gogues learned to develop useful surveys and better analyze their financial data to determine how much they are spending in various areas and whether it aligns with what the congregants want. "In some ways the support was very technical, and in other ways it was holding up a mirror, helping synagogues to be reflective and ask the right questions," Frydman said. At Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, leaders ex- plored, among other things, why Hebrew school parents weren't more involved in the community and what could be done to keep the kids involved after their bar or bat mitzvahs. Leaders of the large Reform congregation had assumed Hebrew school parents simply weren't inter- ested in connecting socially since they rarely showed up for events. But a 2009 survey revealed that parents had a hunger to get to know each other. The problem, synagogue leaders discovered, was that time- pressed parents didn't want to attend separate programs. So the synagogue began incorporating programs for parents into existing pro- grams, like holding a cocktail party for parents after they dropped off their children for a synagogue sleepover. Other changes included as- signing parents to invite and welcome other parents to class activities. To address post-bar/bat mitzvah retention, the syna- gogue lowered fees for teen programming, offered new options for those not inter- ested in confirmation class Temple Shaarag Tefila in New York used data analysis to increase participation of teens in programs like the High School Teen Exchange. and assigned clergy members to meet individually with sixth- and seventh-graders. As a result, the percentage of parents who said they would recommend the religious school to a friend increased from 33 percent in 2009 to 47 percent in 2012. In 2009, there were 65 students in grades 8 to 12 involved with the syna- gogue's youth programming. Today there are 121. Did the temple need a con- suiting firm to figure that out? Barri Waltcher, the congrega- tion's vice president, says yes. "No one really had the time or competency to do the activity-based account- ing analysis," Waltcher said. Without a consultant, "un- dertaking something like that would've only happened if the one right person with the right skill set was in our community. "Beyond that, in trying to get at the culture of anecdote, which is so pervasive on the board level, it's helpful to have someone come in from the outside and in an impersonal way talk about why those types of anecdotal conversations aren't helpful." Lisa Colton, the director of Darim Online, a provider of digital media training and professional development to Jewish organizations, says a good database provides a range of useful information-- from lists of those attending synagogue events and which members they know to learn- ing about which members' attendance has waned. Effective data use can also help synagogues target com- munications to the people most likely to be interested in a particular program or event, thus reducing extraneous emails and phone calls. But even Colton acknowl- edged that data has limits. "Data is a great starting place, but it's not the end of the story," Colton said. "Congre- gations are about people and relationships and community in its deepest sense. "Data can be a backbone to provide structure to achieve this vision, but must inform softer, relational, human at- tentiveness to actualize its full potential."