Hebrew teacher training comes to Portland

PHOTO: Hebrew At The Center Senior Educational Consultant Dr. Carmit Burstyn, top left,  works with Hebrew teachers from around Portland at a professional development day Tuesday, Jan. 23 at the Mittleman Jewish Comminity Center. The program was part of a larger initiative to support day school Hebrew teachers throughout the Pacific Northwest.(Rockne Roll/The Jewish Review)

The Jewish Review
Among the many connecting threads through Jewish history is the Hebrew language. Passing that language – and everything that goes with it – along makes Hebrew teachers in Jewish schools an essential link in the chain of the transmission of Jewish culture. Those teachers need professional support and development to stay at the top of their game, and teachers at Portland’s day schools recently had that opportunity specially delivered. 
Hebrew At The Center, a national nonprofit dedicated to Hebrew language education, hosted a professional development day for Portland Jewish day school Hebrew instructors Tuesday, Dec. 23 at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. It’s the latest step in Hebrew At The Center’s initiative to support Hebrew educators in the Pacific Northwest.
That initiative started three years ago, Hebrew At The Center CEO Rabbi Andrew Ergas explained, as HATC was working to make Hebrew education support available to communities like those in the Pacific Northwest where there’s a vibrant interest in Hebrew language education but a geographic isolation from the resources to support that work, much of which are based in the Northeast or in major cities like Chicago or Los Angeles. 
“I heard that same concern in Portland and Seattle and in Vancouver (British Columbia), that Hebrew could be stronger, but the teachers needed some help,” Rabbi Ergas said. “What if we brought in some of the expertise locally?”
While Hebrew teachers are undoubtedly enthusiastic about their subject matter, few have degrees in Hebrew education or second language acquisition. 
Rabbi Ergas explained, “In the same way that I have teeth, but I’m not a dentist, there are many Hebrew teachers who are very passionate but have not yet learned the science, the research, the practice and the tools to maximize the time that’s dedicated to Hebrew language learning.”
HATC organized a conference for area teachers in October and put on learning days for teachers in Seattle and Vancouver in recent days as well. Portland’s day of learning was supported financially by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation. 
“The Federation and the Foundation really embraced this idea,” Rabbi Ergas said. “We see this as a model that we hope we can bring to other communities where schools working together can both build a community of practice and have the competencies and the tools to be more successful and to strengthen student outcomes.”
It’s also popular with teachers. Shahar Eden is a Hebrew teacher at Portland Jewish Academy. Like many Hebrew teachers, he is Israeli and a native Hebrew speaker. 
“It gives me a little bit of validation that what I do is something that is agreed on by somebody that knows a little bit more about the pedagogy of the things than I do,” he said. “It also gives me things that I can take and improve so that I can become a better educator, and my students will become better learners.”
“It’s very important and positive for us to have time to talk to each other about what we’re doing and to meet with people from other schools,” added PJA’s Jana Hopfinger. “It was fantastic when we went to Seattle and we were there with people from Seattle and from here and Vancouver, BC. That’s very exciting because we’re very isolated.”
The skills of teaching Hebrew as a second language are very different from teaching Hebrew as a first language in an environment of Hebrew immersion. 
“Most of us are coming as Israelis. It’s a natural language. To do the switch of teaching to someone who it’s not their native language, it’s something that we had to learn how to do,” PJA Hebrew Teacher Larisa Lerner said. “We need those skills to understand how to do it. That’s crucial for us.”
Even when the language isn’t spoken in everyday life, Hebrew is still an essential connection to Judaism, which is what makes this work so important for both teachers and for people like Rabbi Ergas.
“Humans make meaning out of language. Jews make meaning out of Hebrew,” the Rabbi said. “Even as we may have different traditions about what we eat or what we do on Shabbat, Hebrew is something that transcends those ideological and geographic and theological boundaries.”
Learn more about HATC’s work at hebrewatthecenter.org.


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