While an estimated 9 million speakers worldwide are proficient in Hebrew, few American high schools offer classes in the language.
But at St. Louis Park High School, 33 students are tackling the language through a small but flourishing program, likely the only one in Minnesota and one of six offered worldwide through the International Baccalaureate diploma program.
The Hebrew classes exist because of a unique commitment the school made years ago to the city’s large, deeply rooted Jewish community to teach Hebrew as long as there was demand.
The Hebrew program, in place for at least 15 years, came to be “as a way to honor the history of our community,” said Scott Meyers, principal of St. Louis Park High.
Today, the program draws about half its students from outside district boundaries through open enrollment.
For some Jewish families, the three-year curriculum is an important factor when picking their kids’ high school, said Sara Wolk Bernstein, a teacher at the Heilicher Jewish Day School in Minneapolis.
Many students come from private Jewish schools or charter schools that end with eighth grade and must decide where to enroll next.
“It certainly influenced our choice,” said Bernstein, who lives in Minneapolis but enrolled her daughter Hannah at St. Louis Park High School.
“I think it’s wonderful that [St. Louis Park] listened to a group of parents however many years ago.”
Whether Jewish families choose to go to St. Louis Park High School and enroll their students in the Hebrew program depends on personal factors and the students’ level of Hebrew, Bernstein said. Because it’s offered for freshmen at an intermediate level, students must already be somewhat proficient to sign up.
This year, everyone in the class is Jewish, said teacher Hadassa Slager, although anyone can enroll. Religion plays different roles in their lives — some are strict observers, while others may consider themselves culturally Jewish but don’t practice.
Religion vs. culture
The Hebrew program’s small size and specific subject matter can prove challenging.
In 2012, the program was in jeopardy because of low enrollment and budget issues. But the district compromised with parents, who lamented the possible cut, by offering classes four days a week instead of five, Bernstein said.
Hebrew teachers can be hard to come by. When the previous teacher left and the school couldn’t drum up another licensed teacher this year, it hired Slager as a “community expert,” an exception requiring special permission from the Minnesota Department of Education.
Finding appropriate textbooks and assignments can be tricky, she said. While many Hebrew resources are available, they don’t necessarily match up with what students in the International Baccalaureate diploma program — a rigorous curriculum offered by some public schools — must know.
Hebrew is distinctive because it’s spoken by Jewish people, and there’s an overlap of religion and culture in Judaism.
Slager said she celebrates certain Jewish holidays in class, like Hannukah, because they’re widely observed by Hebrew speakers everywhere.
Other than that, religion isn’t part of the curriculum, she said, explaining that she wouldn’t do a mock Seder — the ceremonial meal eaten during the first two nights of Passover — in class because it would be too religious.
The subject of faith, however, surfaces when students share experiences.
“It does sometimes come up, and I’ll take a very laid back approach about it,” she said. “You cannot pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Sophomore Mimi Fhima said one of her favorite activities is when the class translates Hebrew songs into English.
“Being able to speak fluent Hebrew with family and friends gives me a sense of identity and community that other languages do not offer,” she said.