If you visit Irrit Dweck’s class at SAR Academy High School in Riverdale, New York, you’ll notice students writing in their notebooks from right to left. That should come as no surprise: This is, after all, a yeshiva where a number of subjects are taught in Hebrew. But a closer look reveals that Dweck’s students aren’t writing in Hebrew, rather Israel’s “other” official language, Arabic.
While Arabic may be a required subject in Israeli schools, it is has not traditionally been part of the curriculum of Jewish day schools in North America. This is slowly changing as a handful of Jewish middle and high schools begin to offer Arabic courses.
At some schools, such as Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts, Arabic instruction is a relatively new addition to the academic program. The school piloted an Arabic enrichment elective in the 2014-2015 school year, which expanded over the next two years into a full-credit program.
“At this point we have two classes: Arabic 1 and Arabic 2. We’ve got about 10 kids out of our total enrollment of 300 studying the language,” said Jacob Pinnolis, director of teaching and learning.
By contrast, New York’s SAR has offered Arabic to its students since the inception of its high school 14 years ago. There are Arabic classes for all four grade levels (9th through 12th), and 50 of the school’s 550 students are currently in the program.
Director of general studies Dr. Mark Shinar believes the Arabic program makes a positive statement about the school and says a lot about SAR’s desire to educate its students to be both Zionists and global citizens.
“The program has always been considered a real gem. I have never come up against any criticism about it from the community. We are a centrist-right Zionist, mainly Ashkenazi, community here in Riverdale, but people have been supportive,” he said.
“We offer Spanish, French and Arabic as foreign language study options. All our students have a two-year foreign language requirement beyond studying Hebrew. The introduction of Arabic was largely due to demand from the kids,” said Shinar.
‘I heard my grandfather, who grew up in Morocco, speaking Arabic, but I never really understood more than a few words’
Arabic teacher Dweck is herself an SAR graduate who went on to study Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Columbia University and in Egypt. She said she has been impressed with the seriousness and dedication of the students who choose to take Arabic.
“These are exceptionally motivated and excited students. They are always bringing in photos they take of Arabic signs and video clips, food labels and newspaper ads they find. They are really engaged with the intellectual process of learning the language,” Dweck remarked.
Arabic teachers at other schools also commented on the exceptional commitment of their students. This motivation comes from a variety of sources: For some, it’s a matter of being able to better communicate with grandparents and other relatives who emigrated from Arab countries.
“I heard my grandfather, who grew up in Morocco, speaking Arabic, but I never really understood more than a few words,” shared Emily Amouyal, a senior at Gann Academy.
Amouyal and her classmate Chelsea Todtfeld also felt their Arabic courses were helpful preparation for their three-month junior year school trip to Israel.
“I was able to speak a bit of Arabic while in Israel and I could read Arabic street and store signs,” Todtfeld recalled.
Language as key to culture
Some students approach learning Arabic—the colloquial ‘amia or standard fusha —from not only a practical stand point, but also a political one.
“To fully have peace in Israel, you have to know the culture of the other side. And to know the culture, you have to know the language. We are the generation to make peace, so we are the generation that must learn Arabic,” stated Noa Attias, a junior who leads the Arabic club at The Ramaz School in New York City.
‘To fully have peace in Israel, you have to know the culture of the other side. And to know the culture, you have to know the language’
The co-curricular group, which has been in existence for 13 years has 32 members who meet for one hour of after-school instruction by teacher Orit Nawrocki each week. (Twenty-five middle school students have their weekly Arabic club with Nawrocki at lunch time.)
Jared Bauman, a senior at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, would like to see other Jewish students as interested in studying in Arabic as he has been for the past four years. He’s discovered that Arabic language is a bridge to Arabic culture and a wide range of topics ranging from Levantine history to the contemporary Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“This effort towards understanding, however, cannot be one-sided. Arab students must also study Hebrew and English in order for true understanding to exist. All too often we see American Jews extending a hand towards peace, only to be ignored by their Arab counterparts. That is another reason why it is important to study Arabic — it might spark the teaching of Hebrew and Jewish culture in Arab schools, which is vital if peace is to be attained,” he said.
Several of the Arabic teachers at the Jewish day schools are Arabs who model the cross-cultural cooperation the students speak of.
Haidy Wasef, a Christian Egyptian, reported that she received a warm welcome as she began her first year at Gann Academy this past September.
“I’ve been teaching for 15 years, but this is my first time in a Jewish school. The students and staff have been very helpful in helping me get oriented to the Jewish culture,” she said.
‘Our school is very open minded and pluralistic. I don’t hide who I am, and I am very comfortable here’
Hani Abo Awad, on the other hand, was more familiar with Jews and Jewish culture when he arrived at CESJDS four years ago. A Bedouin from Segev Shalom near Beersheva, Abo Awad moved to Washington, DC, to pursue a PhD in educational administration and policy studies after earning BA and MA degrees at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He had been working at a Muslim school in DC when he saw an ad for an available position at the Jewish school.
“Our school is very open minded and pluralistic. I don’t hide who I am, and I am very comfortable here,” said the Muslim Abo Awad, who also teaches two Hebrew classes at CESJDS.
Social media poison seeps through
While the students may aspire to be peacemakers, and relations may be congenial between them and their Arab teachers at school, things are not always so pleasant for the teenagers once they start using their Arabic to read what is written online in the Arab world about Jews and Israel.
“It’s a good idea for American Jews to study Arabic for them to really understand what people are saying on the news or on the internet,” said Hallel Samson, a 10th grader at CESJDS taking Arabic.
Bauman recounted that some Arab high school students from Israel came to visit the school. The Jewish and Arab students had a great time getting to know one another during a Shabbaton retreat.
“We spent hours talking about our interests and signing songs, and we used Arabic to connect on a level that we would not have otherwise,” Bauman said.
But then when the Arab students left and the interactions were no longer face-to-face, things took a different turn.
“After adding the students on social media, my classmates and I were able to access their posts about current events. We were shocked to see that they shared inciting videos and posts containing anti-Israel rhetoric. One student even shared a video about how to properly stab Jews. I realized that I would not have noticed the anti-Israel posts had I not known Arabic, which evoked mixed feelings,” Bauman said.
‘I remind them that it’s a language that people create art and music with, laugh and fall in love in’
Notwithstanding the political overtones, Dweck encourages her students at SAR to find personal connections to Arabic and its beauty.
“I remind them that it’s a language that people create art and music with, laugh and fall in love in. It doesn’t have to be tied to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” she said.
Dweck is proud that many of her students have gone on to study Arabic in university. A few have traveled to Arabic-speaking countries to continue their Arabic studies, and one even became an Arabic teacher.
“If a Jewish school offers Arabic, it’s an incredible opportunity to build bridges from a place of humanity. Everything starts with language,” she said.