Hebrew Literacy - Sine Qua Non for Synagogue Involvement
The lack of familiarity with Hebrew continues to be a significant challenge for Conservative Jews. Less then half of those in attendnace at Conservative synagogue Shabbat morning services feel comfortable praying in the Hebrew language. The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs ("FJMC") has recognized that unless we act now, the next generation will lose what little Hebrew vocabulary our generation has retained, and that potential loss threatens the survival of the Conservative movement.
This inability to read and understand Hebrew poses an immediate and personal problem. Ignorance of Hebrew impedes our participation in Jewish life. Our services call for davening and active participation. When in shul, we each yearn to participate in the performance of the service; we each seek to realize the passion of prayer. How can meaningful participation be achieved and the desired passion be realized if our central ritual object, the Torah, is a scroll written in Hebrew words? Our focus is the Hebrew word, and if we are not comfortable with Hebrew, we will not be comfort able with the service. We will not be able to stimulate those who enter our doors to join our community, whether as converts or as non Jewish significant others of our members, if we cannot demonstrate an energetic spiritual vitality which can only be achieved by a shared knowledge of the Hebrew language.
English cannot replace the richness of the Hebrew language and all of the associations it carries. If we do not know Hebrew, we will be reluctant to attend prayer services in which we cannot fully participate. We then are less likely to get involved in Jewish life; our children are less likely to find a place which they can call a spiritual home.
With Hebrew an integral part of our services and our rituals, it is essential to understand the importance of Hebrew literacy. Without an ability to read Hebrew, the whole service is off-limits and for bidding to the non-Jew and the uneducated Jew alike. As we in the Conservative Movement stress the need for keruv (outreach) and the desire to bring individuals—both Jewish and those non-Jews involved with Jews—into the shul and into our community, we cannot expect these newcomers to understand and participate in the ritual of synagogue life unless we make Hebrew literacy a primary objective of our educational programming. Our efforts with keruv will not be successful unless we can make both Jewish and non-Jewish adults feel comfortable in synagogue.
The FJMC "Hebrew Literacy Program" makes the achievement of Hebrew literacy attainable. In the 1970's, the FJMC developed the first broadly based adult education Hebrew reading program in the Conservative Movement. From the concept of lay people teaching one another, the Hebrew Literacy program emerged, leading to the production of two books, Shalom Aleichem (out of print, available used on Amazon) and Ayn Keloheynu (available on Amazon). Since then, it is estimated that over 200,000 individuals throughout North America have learned to read Hebrew and participate more meaningfully in our prayer services.
The goal of the Hebrew Literacy program is to help adults teach other adults to quickly develop a proficiency in reading prayer book Hebrew. The first class is a twelve week program geared towards the traditional Friday night service. The FJMC's program is a response to the traditional methods of teaching Hebrew reading skills which have given Hebrew a reputation as irrelevant, difficult and boring.
The purpose of the Hebrew Literacy program is to counteract the negative images created by past experiences. The FJMC believes everyone who participates can develop the confidence and pride that develops from a familiarity with synagogue prayers. The attainment of Hebrew reading skills opens the door to gaining an appreciation for the Hebrew prayer services, rituals and traditions not before realized. The result will be a renewed level of spirituality and the ability to understand how kavenah (passion) is part of the Jewish prayer experience. The FJMC promotes its Hebrew Literacy program to help adults to learn Hebrew- not simply because of our love of the language - but because the FJMC believes that the ability to read Hebrew is the key to continuity and the key to the survival of the Jewish people and of the Conservative movement in the United States.