Social distancing has left many with extra time on their hands, and one group affiliated with Netivot Shalom, a modern Orthodox synagogue, is making the most of it by brushing up on their Hebrew language skills.
Made up of intermediate to advanced Hebrew language speakers, the congregation’s Chug Ivri program meets weekly on Tuesdays at 11 a.m. to discuss various topics while practicing their language skills, said Marcia Wagner, founder and organizer of the program.
“I was a language teacher, and I retired five years ago,” Wagner said. “And I wanted to keep up my Hebrew, and I wanted to kind of keep a hand in something like teaching, so that’s why I started the Chug.”
One participant, Jody Harburger, has been involved in the Chug Ivri program for two years.
“By participating in conversations, we revive our vocabulary, expand our vocabulary and become more fluent in our ability to speak and understand the language,” Harburger said. “You use it or lose it.”
The group often discusses topics relating to Israel, such as Israeli inventions, Ethiopian immigration, human rights, architecture, authors and holidays, Harburger said. The group tends to avoid discussing politics so as not to invite controversy, though Harburger admitted the group has sometimes “wandered into it.”
One topic of discussion Wagner felt strongly about was the life of Daniel Lewin, an American-Israeli entrepreneur who had also been an MIT student and an elite Israeli soldier, Wagner said. He was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001, and is believed to have been the first person killed during the 9/11 attacks. “He was killed trying to prevent the terrorists from taking over that plane,” Wagner said.
Wagner originally hosted the group’s meetings in her house, but like so many other activities, the pandemic forced the group to move to cyberspace. However, the change in venue has not adversely impacted attendance.
“It used to be five to 10 people each week,” Wagner said. However, when they “switched to Zoom, we started getting between eight to 16, sometimes as many as 20 people, because word of mouth spread, and we now have people on Zoom from other cities in the United States, as well as, believe it or not, from Israel.” For his part, Harburger stated participation had reached as high as 30 on some occasions.
Wagner explained that some of these Israeli members, calling in from locations like Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, are olim looking to improve their Hebrew skills. “So we have actually people from Israel learning Hebrew with us,” Wagner chuckled.
As for the out-of-town American members, Wagner said they were joining from places such as Philadelphia, Detroit and St. Louis.
Harburger, who is in his early 70s, said that he is one of the younger participants, with other members being in their 60s, 80s and 90s. He also estimated the group was about 80% women, as he was one of two men currently participating.
For inspiration, Harburger said that the group looked to the example of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, an early Zionist who strove to revive Hebrew as a conversational language, going so far as to require his children to speak only Hebrew in their house.
“That process, while I’m sure it was fairly onerous for several years, gave birth to the notion the way you learn the Hebrew language is to speak it,” Harburger said. “We’re pretty devoted to the notion that there’s a value in that, a cultural value, for the Jewish people, and it enriches Jewish experience to know what these words are, and the significance of them, and how they’re formed.”