"It's no sin to be a lefty and she's always right," instructs Rabbi Elie Stern of Westwood Kehilla in West Los Angeles.
His adult students follow along in their textbooks, nodding and mumbling to themselves, as they commit the statement to memory. This pneumonic device for distinguishing two the similar Hebrew letters sin and shin -- one has a dot on the upper-left side of the letter and the other on the right -- is just one of the many techniques that the National Jewish Outreach Program's (NJOP) uses to help adults learn Hebrew quickly and efficiently. Every October and November, the New York-based organization sponsors Read Hebrew America/Canada, a program offering free Hebrew classes at shuls and Jewish centers across North America.
"I was bar mitzvahed almost 50 years ago," explained Howard Katzman, one of Stern's students. "I don't remember very much Hebrew and I want an easier time following the services when I go to shul." The 62-year-old West Los Angeles resident is one of about 30 students attending the weekly Level One Hebrew Reading Crash Course at Westwood Kehilla. Classes consist of five sessions lasting an hour and a half each.
Stern, the shul's outreach director, has taught the classes for about five years, drawing students of all ages and all walks of life. While the shul is Orthodox, the majority of the Read Hebrew America students are not. "It's a good opportunity to connect Jews with their roots," Stern said. "If you can't read Hebrew, it's hard to make that connection."
Elaine Kirn has been trying to make the connection for some time. At 57, the English as a second language teacher has made two other attempts at a local college to learn how to read the language. She said both times were busts because the teachers moved too fast. Kirn hopes that the third time's the charm.
"So far, I'm doing really well," the Culver City resident said. "I can read and this time it's not painful."
NJOP is offering an expected 15,000 students more than 1,545 Hebrew classes in more than 745 locations across North America during October and November, according to Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, NJOP program director. The organization offers three crash courses: Level I Hebrew, Level II Hebrew and a one-day review.
Volunteers teach the Hebrew classes and NJOP supplies students with workbooks. Students learn easy-to-remember tools for memorizing the alphabet. The rounded edge of the letter Resh helps them remember that the letter has an "r" sound. The inward curve of the letter Dalet is labeled as a dent, referencing the "d" sound.
At Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Cantor Herschel Fox has been teaching Read Hebrew America for several years. He believes that the brevity of the program helps make it appealing. "If you tell someone it's going to be 27 sessions, they won't come," Fox said. "But with five, it's not so bad."
Lynn Sturt Winetraub, co-president of Temple Beth Zion in Los Angeles, helps organize the classes at her shul. Winetraub has found the program to be a success for many of her members, but also believes that it is still "too fast" for some. In addition, she noted that sometimes classes are only offered on weekends, making it impossible for observant students. However, she commends the program's techniques and that it's offered for at no cost to students.
"There are so many people who don't have the means during these economic times," she said.
Since the program focuses on enabling students to read and follow along in their prayer books in the synagogue, Stern said that some of the best moments in class are when a student recognizes a word her or she has heard in shul. "It's great to see their eyes light up and their soul light up when they understand what they've read," he said.
Free Hebrew School
There are at least two after-school programs in Los Angeles that offer Hebrew school classes at no cost. However, donations from parents are encouraged. Hashalom, an Orthodox organization, offers an after-school program for children, ages 6 to 12.
"Our target is for more children who go to public schools to know about Judaism and to read and write Hebrew," said Rabbi Hagai Batzri, who runs the classes, which are offered in four locations around the city.
At Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Sherman Oaks, Rabbi Samuel Ohana runs a weekday program for children, as well as a Talmud class for college students. The after-school program accepts children from age 9 though bar mitzvah age. While the school encourages donations for classes, they will take a child for free if parents are unable to afford the program.
"We do not teach Hebrew as a language to speak," Ohana said. "We teach Hebrew that's relevant to understanding Judaism."
For more information about Hashalom, call (310) 652-9014. For more information about Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel, call (818) 901-1598. -- Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer