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Hebrew for grown-ups: Adults take on a second language

By Cindy Mindell  ~

While educators may agree that foreign-language fluency is easier to achieve in childhood, that doesn’t stop adults around Connecticut from enrolling in Hebrew classes. There is a variety of offerings, from universities and lifelong learning programs to synagogues, JCCs, and Jewish organizations. The Ledger looked in on a select few to see how seasoned learners can still be whiz-kids.

Ivrit L’Hadassah, Stamford JCC
The Ivrit L’Hadassah (“Hebrew for Hadassah”) Hebrew-studies program was developed by Hadassah in the ‘90s and made available to chapters throughout the country. Rhonna Rogol, regional Hadassah vice president of education and public policy, started teaching the program in Stamford five years ago to fill a void. “There were various short programs offered through the synagogues to teach the basics of reading in order to read a siddur,” she says. “But there were no programs using a whole-language approach that made the language accessible in all its aspects.”
A Montreal native, Rogol attended 12 years of Jewish day school and double-majored in politics and Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis. An attorney by profession, she is co-founder of the Kulanu evening Jewish education program for teens in Stamford and has taught adults and children since her days at Brandeis, when she taught Hebrew in the on-campus Sunday school.
“Ivrit L’Hadassah is my way to help people connect with Israel in a very positive way,” she says. “The class transcends [politics] and, through language, gives students an entrée into Israeli society and culture.”
Ivrit L’Hadassah is a four-level course. Rogol teaches two weekly 90-minute classes that stress conversation, using the program’s textbook as a basis, and enhanced by Rogol with additional materials and activities. This year, she added a third class, Café Ivrit, taught in collaboration with Ayellet Azura, the Stamford JCC Israeli Shlicha, or emissary. Azura brings to the class up-to-the-minute cultural content, like Israeli TV commercials, word games, and slang.
“I feel very strongly that knowledge in speaking language is the key to everything else,” Rogol says. “Once you’ve mastered Hebrew, it’s a terrific tool for people who are traveling to Israel and want to converse, but it also helps you pick up the liturgy and understand what you’re saying.”
Rogol’s students range in age from 20-something to 70-something, and span the spectrum of Hebrew skill levels. Many start the course from scratch, while others can speak well but can’t read. The women are Hadassah members or have joined in order to take the class; the men are either Hadassah associates or make a donation to Hadassah by way of tuition.
“I get so much satisfaction from watching my students develop their own love of Hebrew,” says Rogol. “I kid my advanced class that they will eventually outgrow me.”

Ivrit L’Hadassah: Stamford JCC, 1035 Newfield Ave., Stamford
Three class times available
Contact: Rhonna Rogol, rhonna.w.rogol@gmail.com
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Beth El Temple, West Hartford
Jack Ohayon teaches a Monday-evening class for adults at Beth El Temple in West Hartford. Most of the nine students currently enrolled also meet with Ohayon for private lessons once a week. A native of Herzliya, Israel, Ohayon studied Hebrew-language instruction at the Hebrew College Ulpan program in Boston. He has been teaching conversational Hebrew for 18 years. He started teaching Hebrew at Beth El in October 2010. Ohayon teaches reading, writing, and the spoken language – “slang and ‘street language,’” he says, “which I feel is what adults need when they go to Israel and want to be able to negotiate situations on the streets.” He creates his own curriculum using a variety of books, and consults frequently on new materials with two fellow teachers in Israel.
“Religious school taught me the basics of Hebrew and focused on prayers; a trip to Israel showed me there was a whole different Hebrew world out there,” says class member and congregant Lois Koteen of West Hartford. “This class has been fabulous. Jack is such a patient teacher and our group has become like a family, encouraging each other not just in Hebrew but in life. As a result of the class, I decided to go to the Conservative Yeshiva’s summer ulpan in Jerusalem, a program that combines learning in the morning with volunteering in the afternoon.”
Beth El congregant Constance Mindell of West Hartford joined the class several months ago. She first learned Hebrew in an ulpan in Jerusalem while living there in the ‘70s with her husband and three children. She acquired enough language skill to haggle in the market, but never felt comfortably fluent in her job as a social worker and educator. She and her husband moved back to West Hartford in 2006 and joined Beth El, where she became more involved in Jewish life and learning.
While working on an Israeli army base with Volunteers for Israel during the Lebanon War, Mindell realized that she was no longer afraid to make mistakes when she spoke Hebrew. “I wasn’t embarrassed and I wasn’t understood,” she jokes. “But I wanted to learn more and be more comfortable with the language.” After becoming an adult bat mitzvah in 2011, she signed up for Ohayon’s class. “Jack is excellent with adult students and gives us effective clues as to how to learn,” she says. Mindell will join Koteen at the Conservative Yeshiva summer Hebrew program.
“Teaching adults is more challenging because learning a new language when you are an adult is harder,” Ohayon says. “What is great about teaching adults, however, is that they want to learn! There is nothing more rewarding to me than having a conversation in Hebrew with a student who could only say the word ‘Shalom’ in Hebrew when I first met them.”

Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford
Mondays, 7-8:30 p.m.,
Contact: Jack Ohayon, animedaberivriy@gmail.com / (603) 817-9677
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The Westport Hebrew Conversation group. Photo credit: Relly Coleman

Hebrew Conversation Group, Westport Public Library
Early this year, the Westport Public Library launched a program for language conversation groups based on community input. Israelis-in-CT, a statewide group founded and organized by Israeli native Relly Coleman of Westport, added Hebrew to the offerings.
“Over the years, a lot of people have asked me to offer Hebrew-conversation classes, but I was always busy with other things and organizing a class is complicated and I don’t have the space,” says Coleman, who has taught Hebrew and Judaic studies in area synagogue religious schools. “There are a lot of adults who learned some Hebrew, visited or lived in Israel, went to Hebrew school, but they don’t have a place to practice speaking.”
When Coleman approached the library, she had already secured strong support from Israelis-in-CT. The first meeting drew 15 people; now the bi-monthly meetings, organized by Judy Wilkins, are “bulging,” says Coleman, with 24 students.
There are several native speakers in the multi-level mix, including Noa Ben-Ami and Gal Salman, the two Israeli Young Emissaries sponsored by UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk. Participants converse in small groups, each with one native speaker who helps facilitate.
“The Young Emissaries bring the authentic modern Hebrew language and slang,” says Coleman. ”People love the fact that Gal and Noa are from Israel because they talk about topics from personal experience, and group members can ask them questions. The emissaries understand the teaching environment and their Hebrew is so natural and intuitive. They set a tone, which helps us all keep to the topic.”
The group is growing through word of mouth, says Coleman, who gets inquiries from adults seeking to learn Hebrew for various reasons – a young man planning to make aliyah in a few years, another looking for a place to practice Hebrew before starting rabbinical school.
“I’ve seen tremendous improvement in people’s effort: the novices talk to each other, not just to the Israelis,” Coleman says. “There is more of the language buried inside than people realize.’”

Hebrew Conversation Group, Westport Public Library, 20 Jesup Road, Westport
Every other Monday, 7:30-8:45 p.m.
Contact: Judy Wilkins, judywilkinspiano@gmail.com

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