Although modern Hebrew schools and college courses now provide many opportunities to learn Hebrew, the private Hebrew tutor, the melamed, continues a 3,000-year tradition of bringing religious and language teaching into Jewish homes.
"Sometimes kids cannot commute to their synagogue after school, they don't belong to a shul or they need extra help. A tutor keeps a child involved in Hebrew until the parents get the child to a school," says Estee Skloot, a San Francisco teacher who has been a tutor for more than 20 years.
"Most adult students have work, a family or other things, but they still want to learn Hebrew," she adds. Tutors are flexible enough to work around a busy person's schedule.
Many tutors interviewed were unwilling to discuss all aspects of their job. And none would disclose their fees, for fear that colleagues might underbid them. But they struck some common themes in describing the work they do.
One was the importance of parents' commitment — and involvement — in their children's learning. "When I decide to tutor a child," says Skloot, "it's because the parents have shown me that they really want it."
Sometimes parents participate more actively in private lessons than in Hebrew schools. "I try to have the parents sit with me when I am teaching, so they know exactly what is going on," says melamed Julius Black, of El Cerrito.
A tutor's visits are many families' sole contact with Jewish culture. Many tutors, therefore, worry that the moment lessons end, the clients' interest in Judaism ends as well.
Some tutors get together and brainstorm for ways to keep these "wandering Jews" connected. One method is to include more material on Jewish culture and holiday practices in the lessons.
Black, who teaches bar- and bat-mitzvah lessons and Hebrew, takes an active approach, referring his unaffiliated clients to Jewish organizations and temples in their neighborhoods. He also promotes tennis as a way for Jews to meet and socialize — and even to forge love connections.
"Tennis is a terrific game that you can play throughout your life; you meet a nice group of Jewish boys and girls and have fun playing tennis," he says.
It's also important, tutors say, to involve the students with creative teaching methods. "Kids learn fast; it's important to keep the lessons entertaining," Skloot explains.
Another East Bay Hebrew tutor, Bracha Serri, encourages students to write poems and stories in Hebrew about their relatives and other role models. "Sometimes Hebrew is taught as if it is a dead language," Serri says. "This does not help form a Jewish identity. Pushing [students] to write about things they know shows them how everyday [Hebrew] words are used."
Some success stories show the impact a melamed can have on a family's Jewish identity. One tutor recalls a student who needed help preparing for his bar mitzvah. When the tutoring began, nobody in the household knew any Hebrew. But after the bar mitzvah, the whole family joined a congregation because they had so enjoyed the language lessons.
Tutor Ruth Rosenwald fondly recalls one 84-year-old man who had one last wish to fulfill in his lifetime.
"He never learned Hebrew, and now his granddaughter was having her bat mitzvah," Rosenwald recalls. "His one goal was to perform the aliyah [Torah blessing] at his granddaughter's bat mitzvah. And he did it. I felt so good to be a part of this mitzvah."