By Jon Ramsay
This blog post is part of a featured series by writer Jon Ramsay, friend of URJ Heller High. This series was written during a ten-day trip alongside the students of the Fall 2018 semester.
As part of a Heller High education, every student takes an intensive Hebrew course that immerses them in the culture and society of Israel through its dominant language. The last time I took Hebrew was probably 15 years ago – so I thought for my own safety it would be best to attend a beginner level of study. The teacher today was the smiley, lighthearted Sima – a woman with tremendous patience, energy, and humor, and a long time veteran of Heller High. The day’s assignment for the 6 students in this class was to successfully order coffee in Hebrew.
The first thing I noticed was how happy everyone seemed. I know that sounds odd, and even vague, but let me expand a bit. The students are giggly. They laugh. They’re having fun, and they’re actively involved. It really seems like there is no where else they’d like to be. What world is this, where kids actually like Hebrew classes? Not one I’m familiar with.
As we introduced ourselves in the classroom, all in Hebrew – almost no English was spoken during the entire lesson – students lead the way with inquiries, vocabulary and syntax questions, and showing off what they had studied the previous day. Learning a new language, especially when it has a different alphabet, is like discovering another dimension and trying to inhabit it – everything has a new name, a new context, and what used to fade away in the background noise of our English-speaking world suddenly comes straight into focus, full front and center and redefined. Trust me as someone who tried and failed to learn French – it is an experience that can be extremely frustrating and alienating. And yet, somehow, these high school students were taking pleasure in the challenges and actually enjoying this strangeness with grace and humility.
Most, if not all, of this success comes from the quality of teaching. Sima is an expert in emphasizing teamwork and collaboration in her classroom. No student is left alone in the dark – they all have to come together to participate actively in the curriculum. There is no escaping the lesson, or avoiding your education at Heller High – you’re in it, and you’re never alone, and you’re going to have to learn a lot. Students aid each other with their writing, practice conversation in Hebrew, and ask each other for advice. It’s a tight ship and it runs quick.
So we left for our little field trip to the “Belmont”, Tzuba’s hotel lobby, the very epicenter of Kibbutz caffeination and home to the best view of the Judean Hills you could ask for. On the Odyssey-like walk, we encountered challenges and obstacles at every turn. What color is that dog? How do you say “sleeping cat”? What time is it? Are we lost? Will petting that dog give you fleas, by the way? Should I lie and say I didn’t pet it? Finally, thirsty and free from parasites, we arrive.
We sat in a circle and the Kibbutz staff took great amusement in accepting our orders. I had no idea what I was doing so I let the students choose for me. Somehow I ended up with hot chocolate. As we talked, and laughed, and enjoyed the morning I felt a reinforcement of what I had already experienced in other Heller High classes – the vital importance of getting out, stepping from the ordinary safety of the classroom, and confronting the real world head on. Heller High is not interested in just preparing students for tests, filling in bubbles, and accepting binary views of lessons being correct or incorrect. This program focuses on putting students in control, teaching them to think critically and educate themselves through tangible discovery. It is absolutely experiential learning in its purest form.
This might very well be the best possible way to learn a foreign language. It’s not just about immersion into the Hebrew speaking world – it’s about diving in with an encouraging team of teachers and fellow students who are there to help you every step of the way, and practicing what you learn. If the introductory Hebrew class is this successful, I can only imagine what’s going on at the advanced levels, and how fluent the students there have grown to be.
Jonathan Heller Ramsay has degrees from the University of St Andrews and University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He’s a writer with a passion for Judaism, pomegranates, and dogs.