Morah Safi Netter turns up the volume on her cellphone speaker. Twenty-two kindergartners stifle giggles and bounce expectantly on their knees as a distinctive foreign-sounding ringtone fills the room at Temple Beth Am's Pressman Academy in Los Angeles.
Netter's father, Moshe, answers the phone in Rechovot, Israel. With good humor he obliges his daughter's request for a weather report. He tells of the cold plaguing Israel and listens as the kids describe sunny but cool Los Angeles.
What is so unique about this transatlantic news exchange is that these all-American kids are conducting the entire conversation in Hebrew.
For up to three hours a day, these children will not hear an adult utter a single word in English -- not even at recess or bathroom time or when a child needs disciplining.
Pressman is at the vanguard of a nationwide movement looking to preschools and kindergartens to confront a widely acknowledged problem in Jewish education: Kids spend more than 12 years in day school or Hebrew school and, with a few exceptions, are unable to carry on a fluent conversation in modern Hebrew.
That is already changing for the kids in Netter's class. After the phone call to Israel they don warm hats and scarves and trek across the yard to a mock Israeli Mount Hermon, where they continue their unit on cold weather. Not one of them seems lost as they listen to instructions in Hebrew about the day's projects involving ice cubes, powdered sugar and Styrofoam balls. They answer questions in well-pronounced, Hebrew-accented sentences.
These children are part of a groundbreaking Hebrew-immersion program. The idea behind immersion is that children and adults best learn a second language the same way they learned their first -- by hearing it spoken without any translations, by using context or multisensory clues to decipher new words, and by using the language to function in everyday activities.
"The difference is before they only got vocabulary, and now they are getting the whole language," said Tova Baichman-Kass, who has taught kindergarten at Pressman for 10 years and began immersion teaching this year. "We want them to think in Hebrew. We want them to know that aryeh is an aryeh, not a lion or anything else."
When kids know that a teacher will translate what she has just said, the kids tune out the Hebrew and listen only for the English, noted Sigal Abukrat, who teaches first and second grade at Pressman.
Immersion in different languages has moved into the preschool arena in the last five years, and it seems to be a natural fit. Parents and academics have long observed that young children acquire language with great ease. Recent research indicates that very young kids learn a second language in the same network in the brain that holds the primary language, while older children or adults must develop a whole new network, a less efficient process.
The hope is that these American children will become as fluent as native speakers of Hebrew -- a concept that could revolutionize Jewish education.
"To me, fluency with Hebrew language is the cornerstone for building Jewish learning and participation in Jewish life and a relationship with Israel," said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy. "It raises the level of everything that goes on in school when you have a really strong foundation in Hebrew."
Changing the Old Models
Malkus and principals at other schools are looking to bring the latest in research and teaching techniques, including immersion, to an educational arena that is thousands of years old. Many schools have bought more interesting and more educationally solid texts and curricula. They have brought more noise into the classroom, with music and group conversations replacing teacher talk, workbooks and spelling tests.
Schools are sending their teachers to language-acquisition training institutes or hiring Hebrew-language specialists. And there is a late-in-coming realization that being Israeli is not enough to qualify for the job of Hebrew teacher.
While these changes have been trickling up through the day school movement over the last 10 to 15 years, the success of Hebrew-language immersion in preschools is especially attracting attention.
"I have been teaching Hebrew for many years, but I have never seen instant results like this -- and I can really call it instant," said Miri Avraham, a preschool teacher at Pressman, who often hosts observers from other schools in her class. "When you talk to the children in the target language the whole time, they understand it better and they learn it better -- and it's fun for them when they realize they can understand."
So far, parents are thrilled with the results.
"My oldest in seventh grade is coming to my little one to ask her for words," said Sheryl Katchen, who has 6-year-old twins in immersion classes at Pressman.
Language immersion, which began with a Spanish program in a Culver City School in 1971, has grown nationwide to almost 300 schools. Language learning in general, even in elementary grades, has been coming back into vogue in North American schools, which have historically postponed language classes until middle school and high school.
Immersion is only superficially related to traditional bilingual education, which has fallen out of favor in California. The goal of bilingual education was to use a foreign language, usually Spanish, to teach academic subjects to students who had only a limited command of English. These students were supposed to transition gradually to English. In immersion programs, the goal, by contrast, is fluency in a foreign language.
Many Jewish schools for decades have used the old European model of ivrit b'ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew), where Judaic content is taught in Hebrew.
While immersion teaching is also content based, it utilizes a more systematic, consistent approach to language acquisition.
The advantage for preschoolers may go beyond merely learning a foreign language. European researchers reported in a 2004 Nature article that bilingual brains have denser gray matter than monolingual brains, and the earlier the language was learned the denser the gray matter.
Gray matter makes up the bulk of nerve cells in the brain and is associated with intellect. Research has also pointed to easier acquisition of additional languages, more creativity, problem-solving ability and even higher SAT scores among children who were bilingual at an earlier age.
Buttressed by such research and frustrated with the imperfect Hebrew of educated American Jews, Frieda Robins, a doctoral student in Jewish education at the New York City-based Jewish Theological Seminary, developed Maalah (Hebrew for benefit, merit and upward). The program, which was launched in 2003 -- thanks to a two-year $150,000 seed grant from the New York-based Covenant Foundation and matching funds from the Jewish Theological Seminary -- works with local Bureaus of Jewish Education to train early childhood teachers and help preschools develop immersion classrooms.
Maalah is a teaching technique (not a curriculum with texts) that combines methods used to teach young children with those used to teach languages. These involve constant repetition, body language and tasks that require students to get up and do something. Maalah structures thematic units around works of Israeli children's literature, and the program adapts methods from special education, relying on more than one modality to reach students who might have trouble with visual or audio cues.
"We know that the vocabulary a child comes with into first grade will determine not only his or her reading comprehension at the end of first grade, but also at the end of 12th grade," Robins said.
Difficult Transitions, Huge Payoff
Pressman is one of four schools locally and 13 nationwide participating in Maalah. Temple Judea West and Shomrei Torah Synagogue, both in West Hills, have preschool classes with 3- and 4-year-olds utilizing Maalah, as does the preschool at Valley Beth Shalom day school in Encino. Two other day schools, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, are signed on for next year.
Starting this summer, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles, will take over local Maalah training and support.
Adopting Maalah has cost Pressman about $17,000, including paying for consultants, new materials and paying teachers extra for developing their own units. Pressman also received a $3,000 federal Title One grant, through which private schools can develop nonreligious programming.
To bring parents on board, schools have presented model lessons at orientation and provided vocabulary lists so parents can understand their children. They've even begun adult Hebrew classes.
"There are parents who are afraid of this, who think their kids will be lost or their English will not develop properly if they learn things in Hebrew," said Aviva Kadosh, director of Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education. "I collect articles that say it isn't so."
Kadosh explains that what children are learning in the early years is concepts, not words, so that they understand the idea of something being round whether it is called a circle or an igul. Kids function in English outside of those few hours a day, so they won't fall behind in English.
Avraham, who has been teaching immersion for the last two of her nine years at Pressman, acknowledges that the transition is hard, but kids catch on within weeks. At this point in the year, the children not only understand but are comfortable expressing themselves in Hebrew.
On a recent morning in Avraham's class, the 4-year-olds were near the end of a unit on plants and vegetables that coincided with the holiday of Tu B'Shevat. As they had been doing for several weeks, the children played games identifying pictures of cucumbers, models of plastic peppers or fragrant heads of garlic. They made and ate a salad, painted with broccoli at art tables lined with Hebrew newspapers and read a book about a neighborhood salad-making party.
Teachers encouraged the kids to speak in Hebrew even among themselves, and if a child got stuck, Avraham helped out with choices, so the kids always came up with the right word eventually. Body language, charade-type motions and pointing helped.
Parents who are worried about children losing out on grammar or writing skills should not be, according to experts. Immersion programs incorporate reading and writing in older grades, and the grammar comes with speaking in a safe environment where expression is encouraged and correction of mistakes is applied strategically.
When it comes to these programs, the students may have the easier part. An immersion program limits the pool of teachers to those fluent in Hebrew. Teachers have to redesign curricula and teaching styles.
"It has been tough for the teachers," said Jessica Green, director of education at Shomrei Torah. "These are veteran teachers who are training to do this, and they told me it is as if they are brand new teachers and have to start from scratch."
They also have to be willing, at least at first, to give up some content. Abstract concepts -- such as Rosh Hashanah being a new year, or saying sorry on Yom Kippur -- have to be saved for older grades, since the 3- and 4-year-olds might not yet have the vocabulary for it.
Moving Up Through the Grades
Pressman has brought immersion as far as second grade, and plans to add a grade per year until the entire school is speaking Hebrew. It will also adapt the program for religious school students, who only attend one or two days a week.
Shomrei Torah, too, plans to bring immersion gradually to the upper grades of Hebrew school.
Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy hopes eventually to teach all Judaic studies in Hebrew, in addition to having Hebrew-immersion periods every day.
"We feel that if our children receive this at the age of 4 or 5, it will serve as a tremendous foundation for when we begin to teach them more formal Hebrew," said Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, who heads the school.
For Ginni Rosenfeld's family, the benefit already extends beyond the classroom.
"Just this week my daughter got into the car and spoke to me in flawless Hebrew, saying, 'Ima, ani rotzah lachzor habaytah [Mom, I want to go home],'" said Rosenfeld, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Pressman. "It was seven o'clock at night. She was coming from a place where no one was speaking Hebrew, but this was just natural to her."