While Bonnie Bobman has studied Hebrew since she was in the third grade, and she can read and write it, she can’t speak the language well enough to hold a conversation. That’s why she’s now attending the Bureau of Jewish Education’s adult Hebrew learning course. 

“A lot of people — say, in their religious classes — only really learn how to recite the language for their bar or bat mitzvah,” BJE Hebrew teacher Sophie Plapp said. “So they don’t really understand how the language works when it comes to having a conversation, or learning about the grammar.”

The BJE offers an extensive curriculum of Hebrew-language courses that welcome all levels of learners and gradually improves ability with each class. The first class students take is a beginner’s reading and writing course, and the last class students can take is an advanced conversational Hebrew course. Plapp, as one of the instructors, first finds out why each student is taking her class and then helps them achieve their goals.

Craig Hibbs converted to Judaism a year and a half ago. He grew up as a Christian, but he just didn’t feel it was right for him. While he was searching to find something different, he went to a Shabbat dinner service and felt he was right at home. Now a member of Ruach Hamidbar synagogue, Hibbs is dedicating himself to becoming fully immersed in both the Jewish religion and culture. 

Hibbs and Bobman have both just completed BJE’s Advanced Beginners Hebrew class. Next they’ll take Intermediate Conversational Hebrew. 

On a recent Monday evening, Plapp — a Tel Aviv native who also speaks Russian, Polish, French and Yiddish — started her Advanced Beginners class by having each student speak to the class in Hebrew. The students described themselves, their work, where they’re from and what they like to eat and drink. 

Although some of the students might have found it nerve-wracking to speak a different language in front of a crowd, Plapp tried to make sure everyone was comfortable. She brought positivity to her lesson as she patiently explained many odd facets of the Hebrew language. 

“I always say that I just teach the language, I didn’t invent it,” Plapp joked to her students. 

Plapp shifted the focus from introductions to colors, time, dates and numbers, animatedly pacing around the room and asking each student to say either a number, a date or to describe their clothing. Hibbs said he was wearing a blue kippah. 

The upcoming Intermediate Conversational Hebrew course will focus on more complicated concepts, such as past and future tenses, body parts and even discussions pulled from a Hebrew newspaper.

Plapp does most of her teaching conversationally, with engagement, rather than using textbooks. She doesn’t want them relying on a piece of paper in front of them. Rather, she wants them to be able to speak the language more instinctively. 

“It can be hard to remember it all,” Hibbs said of the pedagogical style. “But she’s very patient and I feel like I’m getting a bit better.”

Bobman’s past experience with Hebrew has been helpful in learning this time around, even as most of her past experience was with text instead of conversation. 

“To me, learning here is like an extension of the writings,” Bobman said. “From a knowledge perspective, a lot of Hebrew comes from root-based words. Because I understand that part of it, I can hear what she says.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011 there were 22,593 Hebrew speakers living in the United States, a comparatively small number. But adults continue to sign up for classes.

Grand Canyon University nursing professor Anne Reiff began studying Hebrew again after a recent visit to Israel spurred her desire to learn the language. A member of Beth Tefillah, Reiff said that most of the service is conducted in Hebrew, and she wanted to make sure that she understood what was being said. As is true of so many adult Hebrew learners, the last time she studied Hebrew was when she was 13. 

“When I was younger, I got imprinted with Hebrew, and now as I’m studying it, the language seems to be activated again,” Reiff said. “I have a much larger appreciation for the language now. There are a few Israelis who go to Beth Tefillah, and now I get to talk to them, which is really cool.” JN

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