Pre-holiday crash course teaches Hebrew

Hebrew school: Something many American Jews dreaded as children and have long forgotten.

Years later, those same adults fear the Hebrew in synagogue services even more, says Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum.

"They say, `I feel foolish. Why should I stay here?'" says the program director of the New York-based National Jewish Outreach Program.

So when Rosenbaum's organization began its nationwide educational programs seven years ago, the first thing offered were crash courses in Hebrew.

San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel and San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom will offer their own versions of the class this month.

"Participants will be reading Hebrew by the Jewish New Year," predicts Ephraim Buchwald, the National Jewish Outreach Program's director.

Although the Hebrew Reading Crash Course helps students read and recite the language of the Bible, it doesn't enable students to understand much Hebrew. While the course teaches the Hebrew alphabet, showing how to string letters together and make words, it omits the names of the letters themselves. Teachers' guidelines include quick-learning gimmicks such as mnemonic devices for distinguishing one letter from another.

"Once you can read Hebrew, you feel like, `I belong,'" says Rosenbaum, who has worked on the the Outreach Program for the past six years.

Many adults' memories of Judaism involve little more than scenarios of "people shushing them in synagogue," he adds.

Supported mainly by individual contributors, The Jewish Outreach Program offers free course materials and training to any synagogue that will supply a teacher. A total of 255 synagogues nationwide are participating in the program this season. Approximately 80,000 students have taken the course so far, according to Rosenbaum.

In Rosenbaum's view, one reason the Hebrew Reading Crash Course can teach people so quickly is that students come to the program voluntarily. Therefore, they learn much more effectively than 12-year-old bar mitzvah candidates, he says. "Adults are much more highly motivated."

Esther Nathan, who runs the Community Hebrew School for members of Congregation Sherith Israel and Congregation Rodef Sholom, started crash course Hebrew classes at the two synagogues after perceiving a growing need for such instruction.

Nathan says parents are more interested in taking these classes because family education programs have gotten them more involved with their children's education.

"Without the comfort of knowing Hebrew, they feel left out," she says.

After taking the course, she adds, "they walk into High Holy Day services and don't feel like strangers."

The classes were developed at New York's Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Buchwald was the education director. When Rabbi Shlomo Riskin resigned as the congregation's spiritual leader 10 years ago after helping to create the Hebrew program, Buchwald took over the project.

Educational programs under Buchwald's directorship now include an advanced course in Hebrew, a Crash Course in Basic Judaism, a beginners explanatory prayer service, and a Turn Friday Night into Shabbos instruction that includes a beginners service, plus instructions for a traditional Shabbat meal, singing, dancing and other festivities.

B'nai Torah, a Conservative congregation in Monterey, has decided not to offer the class this year because it lacks a teacher, but Rosenbaum maintains it doesn't take an expert to lead the basic Hebrew class. The Outreach Program will teach them enough to get by, he explains."They just need a good smile and enthusiasm."