Updated: 12:34 p.m., September 5, 2018
Hebrew is no longer the only Semitic language being taught at Jewish Community High School of the Bay. Now students can opt to learn the nation’s fastest-growing language: Arabic.
JCHS, which also offers Spanish as part of its world language curriculum, decided to add an Arabic elective after a student survey showed it was the most desired new language option, said Adam Eilath, the San Francisco school’s director of strategic initiatives. The program is funded by a grant from philanthropist Anne Germanacos.
There were other reasons, as well. Eilath noted that many JCHS alumni, especially those who achieved fluency in Hebrew, have gone on to study Arabic in college. Some hope to work in diplomacy or international relations, others want to read religious texts in their original language, while others plan to move to Israel. Current JCHS students who want to learn Arabic have similar motivations, he said.
In that way, offering Arabic helps make JCHS “more reflective of the type of school that Jews in the Bay Area would want,” Eilath said. Recently, classes have been added in biotechnology, computer science and AP comparative government.
Learning Arabic has another benefit, in that it helps to build positive connections, Eilath said. In the U.S. and in Israel, the language is often associated primarily with conflict and war.
“At JCHS we want to empower our students to understand both the complexity and nuance of life in the Middle East,” said Rabbi Howard Ruben, head of school. “Learning more about Arabic culture and language is an important part of that understanding.”
Eilath concurs. “It’s hard for students, even when I say Arabic is a Jewish language, to remove Arabic from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” he said. “It actually takes time to digest that Jews wrote and spoke in Arabic. One goal of the class is to expose students to Arab culture, through television, movies, arts and poetry, because it helps them see Arab culture is just like Hebrew culture and Spanish culture. We cannot understand Arabic just through the prism of war.”
In 2016, Israel made Arabic-language education compulsory in its Jewish primary schools, another factor in JCHS’ decision. Arabic is a famously difficult language that may be somewhat easier to learn for those who have studied Hebrew.
Linda Istanbulli, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, will teach Arabic 1 and hopes to expand to Arabic 2 and 3. JCHS met her through Naomi Moskowitz (’18), who took two summer Arabic intensives at Cal with Instanbulli. Moskowitz spent this past summer in Morocco studying the Moroccan Arabic dialect on a National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship.
It is rare for high schools in the States, let alone a Jewish high school, to offer Arabic, according to the D.C.-based Qatar Foundation International. A national K-12 survey in 2017 showed that among American students taking a foreign language, just 0.24 percent studied Arabic. In comparison, the much less widely spoken French is taught to 12 percent of American students learning a foreign language, second to Spanish.
At JCHS, 10 students representing all grades have enrolled in the inaugural course. “I wanted to learn Arabic so that I have a capability to create connections with all of the Middle East, and people that I wouldn’t ordinarily communicate with or connect with,” said sophomore Max Bamberger. He also is taking Hebrew literature and culture, the most advanced Hebrew class JCHS offers.
He is looking forward to learning more about Arab culture and hopes the students will be given opportunities to make personal connections. He says his Hebrew teachers have invited Israelis in the Bay Area to the classroom to share their perspectives.
“I’m hoping our Arabic class will be something like that, and I’ll be able to talk to people with my new language skills,” Bamberger said. “I do want to talk to more people who have perspectives that are different from my own.”
Ilana Goldberg, who graduated from JCHS in 2015, is in her junior year at Tufts University and majoring in international relations while considering a double major in Arabic. She said learning Arabic in high school would have been valuable.
“Arabic is more useful because the Arab world is so large,” she said. “Part of why I decided on Arabic was because I lived in Israel after high school and it irked me that Israeli Jews don’t speak it unless they’re in military intelligence. That’s a terrible foreign policy decision, if you can call it that. I am not so naive to think language would solve [the conflict], but I think it’s a gesture that the only ones who speak it are using it as a language of war.”
Goldberg, who also speaks Hebrew and Spanish, hopes to attend law school and work on behalf of refugee rights, something she has done in the Dominican Republic and in the Bay Area. Next semester she plans to take a semester abroad in Jordan to gain experience working with Arab refugees.
Ali Zak (’16) is studying Arabic as a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis. During the summer she studied the Palestinian dialect immersively in Jerusalem at the Polis Institute.
“I could hold a conversation in the dialect, which is really exciting and energizing, to be able to chat with my cab driver and locals in Arabic.”
Zak is studying the language for entirely different reasons. During her gap year at Migdal Oz, an Orthodox seminary for Jewish learning, she found Arabic appealing because of its association with religious texts and society. She plans on making aliyah and working in Jewish leadership.
“I wanted to learn the dialect because there are a lot of Palestinian dialect speakers,” she said. “It struck me that most Israelis don’t speak it. I don’t feel comfortable saying that people should do it, but there is a great respect in speaking someone’s language.”
She also hopes to do interfaith work in Israel, and would use Palestinian Arabic to make those connections.
“My gap year really motivated me,” she said. “Languages in general are very undervalued … so it wasn’t on my radar, but I wish it was, and Arabic in high school would have been amazing.”