Web Exclusive: Hebrew/Israel Immersion Program

by: Harry Sinoff

Rabbi Harry Sinoff is the Director of Judaic Studies at Herzl/RMHA, a K-12 Jewish Community Day School in Denver, Colorado. He founded the Moot Beit Din Competition, now under the aegis of RAVSAK and developed the Jewish Law major for Genesis at Brandeis.

Herzl/RMHA’s (HIP) was one of the results of professional and lay leadership visiting the best Jewish day schools in North America in order to determine what improvements Herzl/RMHA needed to make in order to become a quality Jewish day school. A high school Israel program was one recommendation that emerged from this process.

This process also resulted in the creation of the position I currently fill, Director of Judaic Studies. One of my first directives was to develop an Israel program for the Herzl/RMHA high school. I discovered that the local CAJE has run a popular Israel summer program of extensive touring in Israel for area high school students for decades. This allowed me to think about an Israel experience that was not predicated on touring.

As the title of the program suggests, HIP is a simultaneous immersion in both Hebrew language and Israel.

Goals:

  1. To promote:
    • Personal relationships with Israeli peers
    • Familiarity with Israeli culture through living with Israeli peers
    • Proficiency and comfort communicating in Hebrew
    • Intentions to return to Israel after high school
  2. To increase the salience of Israel and Hebrew in Herzl/RMHA

Program:

  • Herzl/RMHA 10th graders live for six weeks in the Environmental High School (an Israeli boarding school) on Midreshet Sde Boker. We choose the 10th grade because we wanted the experience to have an impact on the high school’s culture .
  • While the Israelis attended regular high school classes, Herzl/RMHA students either attended an ulpan, or, if they already had adequate language proficiency, selected classes (citizenship, history, Tanakh) in the Environmental High School.
  • When the Israeli 10th graders were free, our students were integrated into their activities, both formal and informal.
  • Students did Gadna (para-military training)
  • Weekly local excursions (lots of hiking)
  • Weekly mifgashim (meetings) with local figures
  • 4 days in Jerusalem to meet religious Israeli teens
  • 4 days in the North to meet religious Israeli teens
  • Special Shabbat programming to meet religious Israeli teens

Results

  • Testing of Hebrew language improvement by an outside expert indicates the equivalent of 3 months to 2 years of day school classroom instruction.
  • Our freshman see a cadre of students come back to Denver with new Israeli friends and who project Israeli (teen) culture (the good parts) unselfconsciously: humor, choices in music and clothing (within the framework of the sschool’s dress code), and intimate knowledge of the most current events in Israel. The 9th graders are excited knowing they are next.
  • HIP students move up in Hebrew class placements and exhibit comfort speaking Hebrew with teachers in class and in the hall.
  • There is constant text messaging (English) and (less frequent) telephone contact (Hebrew) with Israeli friends.
  • The new cadre of HIP students evokes the Juniors’ and Seniors’ HIP experience and the three upper classes are bonded by mutual Israeli friends.
  • A school wide HIP send-off gets elementary and middle school students to imagine themselves living in Israel when they are in 10th grade. The 4th grade Hebrew pen pals program with the elementary school on the Midrashah are potential guests and hosts when they are in 10th grade.

Conclusion

HIP is a unique program on many accounts:

  • Formal language instruction and use of Hebrew in authentic language situations reinforce each other.
  • Students have time to form personal relationships with Israeli peers by living with them.
  • Both Israeli and Americans explore the difference between various Israeli and American Jewish identities with people they know.
  • The reality of Israel becomes part of our students’ consciousness; Israelis become part of our high school students’ social matrix.

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