SAN FRANCISCO — When Aya celebrated her sixth birthday at her after-school Hebrew program in Palo Alto, California, she knew exactly what she wanted to do: bring in her favorite card game, Melech HaFelafel. Wearing a birthday wreath, Aya sat on the floor with her friends using playing cards to build up their falafel sandwiches. “Say it in Hebrew! Say it in Hebrew!” their teacher gently reminded them as they toggled between the two languages seamlessly.
Aya is one of 650 students in California’s Bay Area enrolled in an innovative Hebrew language program associated with the Jewish Community Center of Palo Alto. Many Israelis living in the United States long-term or for good struggle to find ways to help their children feel connected to their Israeli identity. One of the most important aspects of this identity is ensuring that their children can communicate in Hebrew — not just on a conversational level but on a deeper, emotional and cognitive level that often requires formal training.
Previously, most options for Hebrew instruction were centered around religious observance and taught at religious Jewish day schools. But Israeli parents who feel alienated by the religious instruction typical of Jewish day schools are increasingly creating alternative, structured educational programs so their children can receive secular Hebrew instruction.
Almost every city in the United States with a sizeable Israeli population has recently started some kind of secular after-school language instruction. Coupled with American chapters of Israeli scouts and other community activities, parents are finding multiple ways to help their children maintain an academic and emotional connection to Israel — even though some children have never lived there.
In Silicon Valley, a small group of Israeli parents founded Beged Kefet, a Hebrew-language, after-school program, 12 years ago at the JCC. The first class started with 10 first graders. In the past decade, the program has grown to include 650 students studying at 11 campuses around the Bay Area, with demand growing in other parts of the US from communities that want to replicate the program.
These Hebrew instruction programs often operate like de facto clearing houses for Israeli families to connect, fostering an even stronger expat Israeli community and friendships among the children.
Learning the Aleph Bet in Silicon Valley
There are at least 200,000 Israelis residing in the United States for long periods of time, though some estimates are as high as 1 million Israelis on long-term relocation. Between 2006 and 2016, 87,000 Israelis became US citizens or legalized permanent residents. That’s up from 66,000 between 1995 and 2005, according to the most recent data from the US Department of Homeland Security.
As the number of Israelis in America grows, a host of cultural programing and formalized educational structures grows along with them due to parents’ desire to ensure their children are connected to Israel.
The greater San Francisco area in California is home to a thriving Israeli population, with an estimated 40,000 Israelis concentrated in the Silicon Valley region. The technology sector attracts to California a stable cohort of young families, and Hebrew floats down suburban streets in places such as Sunnyvale and Palo Alto.
“We’re Israeli, and it’s critical that they learn to speak and read,” Tal Shay, the mother of birthday girl Aya and her older sister Zoya, told The Times of Israel. The family has been in Silicon Valley since 2007 and doesn’t have plans to return to Israel in the immediate future. “It’s not just Hebrew, it’s also the Israeliness,” Shay said.
Like many after school programs across the country, the Beged Kefet program offers an hour and a half of weekly Hebrew instruction, geared mostly towards children of Israelis who already speak the language fluently and are studying at public schools. Pre-K and kindergarten classes focus on being confident and comfortable in Hebrew. In elementary school and high school, the classes focus on reading and writing exercises.
At Beged Kefet, tuition is $1,530 annually for elementary and middle school students and $1,900 per year for high school students. Classes have up to 10 students.
In middle and high school, students can receive academic credits for the classes, meaning they can waive other foreign language requirements, such as Spanish or French. Teachers at Beged Kefet are accredited through the Israeli Ministry of Education, and curriculum development closely follows the Israeli school system, so that if students return to Israel with their families they should be able to keep up with their peers.
This is part of a countrywide growth in Hebrew language instruction, even among non-native or non-Israeli speakers. According to a recent US study, an estimated 6,600 students are studying Hebrew in public schools and publicly funded charter schools, with steady increases in enrollment.
Other parts of the country have similar programs to Beged Kefet, such as EMEK, an Israeli language and cultural program at the JCC on the Palisades in New Jersey. In Boston’s suburbs, there is the Israeli School of Lexington, and a few miles away, also the Israeli School of Brookline. There are also options for Hebrew classes via an online tutor.
Spotlight on cultural Judaism
Traditional after-school programs at local synagogues often offer basic Hebrew classes in addition to others about religion and Jewish observance and customs. But the language classes, aimed at American Jews who read and write Hebrew at a much more basic level than their Israeli counterparts, are not sufficient for many native Hebrew-speaking parents. Over the years, a number of Israeli parents resorted to enrolling their children in expensive, private Jewish day schools in order to keep up with their Hebrew. However, most Jewish day schools are associated with Orthodox or Conservative Judaism and promote religious observance, which is off-putting for secular Israeli families.
Beged Kefet and many other similar programs around the country focus solely on the language, though teachers do relate to the Jewish holidays as a way to mark cultural Jewish identity.
In the past four years, the program has also begun to attract children who do not speak Hebrew at home, from families who are looking for an educational opportunity that relates more to the cultural side of Judaism rather than associating with a specific stream of religious observance. In the past few years, Beged Kefet opened a separate track for non-fluent Hebrew students and currently has seven classes of approximately 10 students each. EMEK in New Jersey has a similar program for non-native Hebrew speakers, though only for children up to age eight.
“A lot of what we do is secular celebration of the holidays,” said Ronit Jacobs, the senior director of the Israeli Cultural Connection. “That also resonates with American Jews who are unaffiliated.”
Jacobs said JCCs around the country have reached out to understand how they can replicate Palo Alto’s programming at other locations with large populations of Israelis. Jacobs said many parents first get involved at the JCC through the Beged Kefet classes, but eventually stay for the Hebrew language cultural programs or secular holiday celebrations, such as Israel’s Independence Day or Memorial Day.
Preparing for SATs, Matriculation Bagruts — or birthday cake
For teenagers in their last year of Hebrew school before graduation, Beged Kefet can be a helpful support group as the departing students grapple with what to do next. Many feel pulled in multiple directions as their American friends get ready for college, and Israeli family and friends prepare for their army service.
“I was born here, but I’m leaving for Israel in a few years for the IDF,” said Ben Cohen, a 16-year-old who was one of the first members of the inaugural Beged Kefet class 12 years ago. “Although I speak Hebrew at home, I feel that without doing the reading and writing at Beged Kefet I may not have had courage to go back [to Israel]” for military service, he said.
Beged Kefet’s curriculum includes preparation for the matriculation exams, or bagruts, which are required by Israel’s Education Ministry to receive a high school diploma. Shahar, also 16, has been in the Palo Alto area for four years and said the matriculation prep helps her feel confident that she could go back to Israel and pick up at the same point in her schooling.
“A day-to-day conversation is not hard to maintain,” said Tomer Sadan, 16. “That kind of conversation is very casual. But in this class, there are also situations, mostly with writing and reading and things that aren’t verbal, that would be more difficult [without formal classes].”
But more importantly, many said, was the sense of camaraderie they felt in the class, surrounded by people also struggling with a dual identity and the ways to maintain ties to both of their countries.
“Even though I was born here, I still feel a lot more connected to Israel,” said Danielle Vansover, 17. “Whenever people ask me where I’m from, I never say California, I always say Israel. My family makes Israel a big part of my life, especially the language.”
Parents of the younger children also agree that the community aspect is one of the most important parts. The fact that Aya chose to bring the classic Israeli card game King of Falafel could have been strange at Aya’s regular school, said her mother Shay — but at Beged Kefet class, most of the children already knew the game.
“That’s the kind of thing that’s important to us, that we’re in a place where there are parents and children who come with Israeli games as well,” said Shay. “They’re not in Israel to get the culture, but they’re getting it here.”
It’s about being able to not just communicate, but read Israeli literature and understand the nuances of a culture far away, Shay explained. But sometimes, it’s also the simple things, she added. “It’s about someone singing happy birthday to them in Hebrew,” said Shay.