Hebrew program targets local Israeli families seeking to keep children fluent

Torah MiTzion’s Assi Gastfraind teaches elementary school-age children during Bais Abraham’s Shelanu Hebrew immersion Sunday school. The children are, from left, Zeev Burton, Amit Kadan, Leor Michelson, Noa Vilnai, Yoav Sened and Bar Danielli. Photo: Yana Hotter

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Assi Gastfraind has his audience’s full attention.

As he looks into young faces as bright as the Sunday morning sunlight streaming into this classroom tucked comfortably behind Bais Abraham’s sanctuary, every question seems to elicit a sea of eager waving hands while enthusiasm and interest pervade each student’s answer. They are responses any teacher in St. Louis would love.

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But they are not responses just any teacher in St. Louis would understand. That’s because there is no English allowed in Gastfraind’s class. The lessons are in Hebrew only – as are the students’ answers.

The “immersion” concept, where language is imparted with lessons entirely in the target tongue, is hardly a new style of teaching linguistics but it is being used at Bais Abraham for a very specific purpose. As children of Israelis, these kids already speak Hebrew. Still, there is a worry that exposed so heavily to English in daily American life, those skills may atrophy or fail to develop further.

“There is a significant population of Israelis here whose children speak Hebrew but need a little bit more,” said Itai Sened, parent of 8-year-old Yoav, who attends each week.

Thus came about the need for Gastfraind’s class. Known as “Shelanu,” it arose out of a blend of concern and fortuitous circumstances. The problem was obvious.

“We had a couple of members of Bais Abe who were Israelis and noticed that there was a gap in what was available in the community,” said Lilly Canel-Katz, the organizational head of the school. “They were concerned that while the kids spoke Hebrew at home, they were not learning to read and write.”

The solution sprang from a unique preexisting partnership between Bais Abraham and Torah MiTzion Kollel. At present, the synagogue already houses Gastfraind and his wife Gilat next door to the shul. The Israeli couple are the kollel’s shlichim, or emissaries, who come to live temporarily in the United States, so that they might teach Americans about the Jewish State.

The pair seemed the perfect choice not just to bring Jewish learning to Americans but to provide a refresher course in Hebrew for the children of Israelis as well. This month marks the start of the latest semester, which will feature about 10 children and run through a dozen sessions until April.

The sessions themselves aren’t simply language lessons, either. The Gastfrainds try to impart Judaic content and hands-on experiences.

“We try to do things not always like a class but a little bit fun,” said Assi Gastfraind. “Everything we do, we try to do with activities. We studied Hanukkah and read the story about it but we also built the hanukiah.”

Other activities have included writing stories or making latkes, which helps develop skills of writing, reading and following directions in Hebrew.

“There was one day the teacher put some questions on the blackboard and just said, ‘Who can write the longest response?'” Canel-Katz said. “The idea is to get the kids to write fluently.”

Important dates are another big focus for lesson plans.

“With the Hebrew language, we also teach about the holidays and ideas from Judaism so that it’s not just Hebrew but it’s also giving them a sense of Jewish life and the Jewish calendar and celebrations,” said Hyim Shafner, rabbi at Bais Abraham. “During Sukkot, we went out in the sukkah and I talked to them about what’s a sukkah? What are the lulav and etrog? How do you do the mitzvot of shaking them? How do you sit in the sukkah? What’s the blessing? We did the same thing for Rosh Hashanah about the shofar.”

Though the idea started with congregants and is housed at an Orthodox synagogue, the school doesn’t cater to any particular level of observance and many of its clients have no connection to Bais Abraham.

Shafner said that in some instances parents who may not have regularly attended any synagogue functions in Israel may find a shul here to be a cultural lifeline.

“When Israelis come to America and the whole country isn’t Jewish, they want to connect more to the Jewish community and Judaism,” he said.

Shafner said he believes the effort has brought some families closer to congregational life.

“The school has provided not only a way for the children to learn Hebrew but also a connection to the synagogue,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see children whom I had never seen in the synagogue before coming to study and do other programs.”

Though the children, who range from kindergarten to fifth grade, speak Hebrew already, next-level skills such as reading and writing remain a big worry for parents. Children may get doses of conversational Hebrew at home but their written lives often take place entirely in schools dominated by English.

Bar Rodin, a Chesterfield parent and native Israeli said she was considering sending her children to the school. However, the University City location makes it a bit too much of a drive for the family.

“But I’m really glad there is a school like this because there are lots of Israeli [children] who really need more advanced Hebrew,” she said.

She’s so glad, in fact, that today she’s teaching a class. Rodin is a substitute for Gilat Gastfraind who is visiting Israel.

Rodin said it can be difficult for many non-immersive Hebrew schools to operate at a high level since they are dealing mostly with non-native speakers. She said she’s working at home to educate her youngsters in the language. Today, she’ll get to work with others as well.

“I’m very excited to communicate with them and teach them Hebrew,” she said.

Sened believes that the value goes beyond simple language skills.

“It’s not just Hebrew ability but the ability to interact with other Hebrew-speaking children,” he said.