When Sarit Sade, a junior kindergarten teacher at Perelman Jewish Day School, asks her students what day of the week it is or to practice writing numbers, she does it all in Hebrew.
The students respond, sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English — to which Sade will say, “B’ivrit.” In Hebrew.
This year, Perelman expanded its Hebrew immersion program to include the junior kindergarten class. At 4 and 5, children’s brains are particularly receptive to picking up new languages, Head of School Judy Groner said, so Sade speaks only Hebrew in class, creating a more immersive environment. Instead of learning different conjugations and receiving vocabulary lists, students learn Israeli nursery rhymes and read Israeli children’s books.
“This is like extended — all day, every day,” Groner said. “It’s as if we put them on a plane and dropped them in Israel.”
Two and a half months since the beginning of the year, students in the junior kindergarten class — called Ganon, literally, “little kindergarten” — have already started using Hebrew themselves.
Groner said that Perelman has wanted to try something like this for a while. They waited to find a teacher who would be the ideal fit and to build the curriculum.
The teacher they found, Sade, is a native Israeli, and she teaches the students real Israeli songs and sayings, not ones that have been simplified to make learning the language easier. Sade also has an extensive teaching background, and her own children are students at Perelman.
At the beginning of the school year, Sade said, the children were nervous about approaching her because of the language barrier. They needed the English-language support a second teacher in the classroom, Brooke Mildenberg, provided. Now, though, they don’t hesitate.
“In my eyes, any accomplishment is an accomplishment,” Sade said. “I don’t put lines. My goal is that they will come out with something. As of now, they’re sitting for snack, and they’re saying, ‘Ezrah b’vakasha.’ They’re not asking for help in English anymore. They ask for help in Hebrew.”
Sade pointed out a recent conversation she had with a student about a “magic spoon” that changed colors. The conversation included words Sade hadn’t used before with the student, but the student understood and was able to respond, in Hebrew, that the spoon turned kachol, or blue.
Though the bulk of the day is in Hebrew, part of it still is in English. Specialist classes, such as art, music, science and gym, are in English with some Hebrew expressions thrown in. A language arts class, which is solely in English, is there to make sure the students are at the level they need to be at for kindergarten.
Learning Hebrew connects students to Jews all around the world, as a language of religion and prayer, but also as the language of Israel, Groner said. In addition, learning any language increases cognitive abilities and makes learning new languages in the future easier.
“That part of the brain that is open to learning foreign languages has really been used and sharpened at a very young age,” she explained. “So these kids, whatever other languages they want to attempt, we feel very confident that it will not be difficult.”
Groner said the school is starting conversations about whether the Hebrew in the kindergarten program should be at a higher level next year.
“I do hope that, by the end of the year, when they leave our class, their command of Hebrew will be large enough to carry them above what a regular Hebrew program may provide,” Sade said. “To watch them go through this journey is fascinating.”
Ilana Friedman Ehrlich, a parent at Perelman, said her daughter Gabriela comes home with Hebrew words and phrases. She has some Israeli relatives, who are impressed with the program.
“Hebrew literacy can help so much with Jewish literacy,” Ehrlich said. “It can make practicing other parts of Judaism more natural. We wanted to give her as strong of a start as we could.”
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