In the 1970s the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs developed the first broadly based adult education Hebrew reading program in the Conservative movement. FJMC’s Hebrew literacy program was based on the concept of laypeople teaching one another using two traditional texts, Shalom Aleichem and Ayn Keloheynu. More than 200,000 people throughout North America have learned to read Hebrew and to participate more meaningfully in our prayer services thanks to this program.
Last year, the Temple Israel Men’s Club of Natick, Massachusetts, a member of FJMC’s New England region, and I added a new element to the program. Not long ago I passed my 20-year mark at Temple Israel and I realized that if I had learned an average of just one Hebrew word a week during Shabbat services, I’d now know more than 1,000 Hebrew words. Using the approach that if we learn a little bit at a time we can acquire a substantial vocabulary, FJMC and I have created the Divrei HaShavua – Words of the Week initiative. If we look at learning Hebrew as a lifelong process rather than a one-time class, the challenge of learning a new language becomes surmountable.
Each week, the program’s website offers five Hebrew words from the Torah portion with their English translations and transliterations. Synagogues insert the words into their Shabbat flyers and weekly emails. The words are selected by volunteers from Temple Israel of Natick and by men’s club members from California to Toronto to Florida whom I met at the 2011 FJMC international convention. A sample of the table of words for parashat Noach is shown below:
To participate simply copy the weekly table from the website into a Shabbat flyer.
My feeling is that no one should leave the Shabbat morning service after reading the story of Noah without knowing the Hebrew word for flood or the story of Joseph without knowing the word for dream. Divrei HaShavua has the potential to stimulate interest in the parashah for everyone, including those who often don’t feel a connection with the Torah service. This is one small step to help make services more accessible to current and potential synagogue members. It might even inspire some people to participate in the FJMC’s Hebrew literacy program or in another Hebrew class.