A pair of young Israeli moms sat on a park bench in Palo Alto a decade ago lamenting the absence of a place in the Bay Area where they felt comfortable sending their kindergartners to continue learning Hebrew.
Jewish day schools were tricky for Hebrew-fluent kids. Synagogue religious schools were out, because the moms wanted their children to focus on modern Hebrew and not on how to read from the Torah. And they wanted a place where the youngsters could share Israeli culture and community in an American setting.
So they started a program of their own, hired a teacher and found eight other local Israeli parents who also wanted their young children to attend the after-school program.
Today, the Beged Kefet program serves 521 students from kindergarten to high school at four locations on the Peninsula and South Bay, and is being eyed as a model for similar programs from San Diego to Toronto to New York.
The name of the program references a common mnemonic for an aspect of Hebrew spelling.
An additional 15 Hebrew learners are now enrolled in an adult ulpan that Beged Kefet started last year. The American adults meet for nine hours a week in a Hebrew immersion program, and also meet with local Israeli volunteers to work on conversational skills over coffee.
“We both worked full time, so it wasn’t about creating a business but creating a program for our kids,” said Adi Tatarko, one of the cofounders. “We wanted something that would reflect our Israeli background, not just our Judaism — our culture, how we celebrate the holidays.”
That Israeli flavor was on display Dec. 5 at Beged Kefet’s Hanukkah party at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, the main site for the program’s weekly Hebrew classes. When the room of parents and kids ranging from toddlers to teens sang about where the Hanukkah miracle took place, they used the word po (here) common in Israel, rather than the American sham (there).
Tatarko, CEO of the home design website Houzz, and fellow cofounder Rachel Bejerano, a civil engineer and project manager at Stanford University, no longer are involved in running Beged Kefet or making sure there are snacks for every class — but they’re still involved as parents.
“We looked at the future and we thought there would be a class or two every year. We didn’t think about having more than 500 students,” Bejerano said. “The whole program was to create some kind of a group that would grow together and celebrate the holidays together.
“When we come here for a Shabbat celebration and we see hundreds of people, it makes you feel so good and happy,” she added. “It’s exciting. It’s one thing to start something like this, but it’s a whole other thing to keep it growing.”
The kids they founded the program for are still attending the weekly classes, though they’ve already met their high-school language requirements and finished the Hebrew SAT subject test.
“We didn’t have any idea our moms were behind it until like five years after we started,” said Ben Cohen, Tatarko’s son, who plans to take a gap year after high school to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. “At first it was just because my parents forced me to go. And at the beginning of high school, it was because I got language credit for it. But in retrospect, I’m so grateful my Hebrew is so strong.”
He and Naama Bejerano, both 16, remain close friends though they attend different high schools; Ben is a junior at Palo Alto High School and Naama is a junior at Gunn High School.
We wanted something that would reflect our Israeli background, our culture.
“At this point, we’re choosing to be here this year,” Naama said at the Hanukkah party. “It’s for the language. If we were to stop for two years without reading and writing, we’d lose a lot of it.”
Naama also plans to go to Israel for a year or more after high school, and is considering living there permanently after college. She visits every summer with her younger brother.
“I don’t think I‘d feel that connection with Israel if not for this program,” she said. “I’m so grateful that I can go to Israel and find my way around almost as well as any Israeli.”
Naama and her brother speak Hebrew at home, and their parents insist they text in Hebrew on their cellphones. But Rachel Bejerano said that’s still not enough.
“Language is hard to keep,” she said. “At home you use very ordinary language. The way to develop your language is not just speaking at home. You need a lot more than that — grammar, songs, poems.”
Beged Kefet has been run since 2009 by the Israeli Cultural Connection based at the Palo Alto JCC. Classes also are taught at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City (where enrollment in Beged Kefet has risen from 10 to 50 in only two years), at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos and in Sunnyvale.
Tuition for the program, which runs concurrent to the public school calendar and consists of at least 32 weekly sessions a year, ranges from $1,400 annually for the 90-minute kindergarten classes to $1,800 for the three-hour high school classes.
Grammar lessons are supplemented with stories and poems, and the teens keep their lingo current by watching TV shows and movies from Israel. Book reports in Hebrew are required starting in third grade, and students at some sites exchange letters with kids at other sites to work on writing skills.
In the elementary grades, students are grouped by age but separated into different tracks based on their Hebrew fluency. The high schoolers are grouped by skill level.
Though the original focus was on Israeli American kids, there have been more American Jews signing in recent years.
“More and more American families were coming, so we now have a track for non-Hebrew speakers,” said Shuli Zilberfarb Sela, Beged Kefet’s headmaster. “They feel this is a continuation to their journey of learning Hebrew and being Jews.”
Zilberfarb Sela said families from San Francisco and the East Bay have expressed interest in expanding the program to their areas, JCCs from Vancouver and San Diego have sent observers to Beged Kefet classes, and JCCs in New York, Chicago and Toronto have asked for information.
Ronit Jacobs, director of the ICC, said the Beged Kefet program appeals not just to Israelis living in North America, but to some Jews who don’t belong to a synagogue.
“The bigger picture is that it really is a community builder of its own. It’s exciting to have a school that not only teaches Hebrew but also teaches cultural Judaism,” she said. “We’re kind of a gateway for a lot of the unaffiliated community.”