Hebrew program sparks an Israeli partnership

Dorit Peled and Kristin Siegel have never met to face-to-face, but they’ve cooked together, sung together, and introduced each other to their families.

And they did it all in Hebrew.

Siegel is a student in UWM’s Hebrew language program. She takes her classes online from her home in Grand Rapids. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Peled is a student at the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she is studying to become a Hebrew teacher for non-native speakers. Through a partnership between the Levinsky College and UWM, Peled is earning her student teaching credits by tutoring Siegel.

The pair met via Zoom over the course of the spring semester. At first, Peled wasn’t sure how well such a partnership would work, especially online.

“How can you connect with someone you can only see from the shoulders and above?” she pointed out. But, to Peled’s surprise, “We enjoyed each other so much. I also learned so much about technology! I learned to be a better teacher.”

For her part, Siegel says the Zoom lessons have been invaluable since Hebrew can be a difficult language to learn.

“(Peled) helps me with pronunciation. She’s very encouraging at my attempts at speaking, and corrects me very gently. She’s not overly critical. It’s given me confidence as a speaker,” Siegel added.

Forging a partnership

The partnership between UWM and Levinsky College is the brainchild of Yael Ben-yitschak, a senior lecturer in UWM’s Hebrew language program. She teaches students across the country in online Hebrew classes, through a combination of recorded lessons and meeting once a week to teach them about Hebrew’s unique syntax and vocabulary.

“But there’s not enough input. The students don’t speak in a spontaneous way because there’s no day-to-day meetings,” Ben-yitschak said. “One of the things that I saw was that they were better in reading and writing and less proficient in listening and speaking. The writing they did all the time during the week, but when they spoke, the pace and the accent were hard for them because they don’t hear it enough.”

So, Ben-yitschak, who is from Israel, reached out to a friend at the Levinsky College who runs the Hebrew language teaching program. She, in turn, was trying to find a way to help her own students hone their teaching abilities. It’s one thing to teach Hebrew as a second language in Israel where language-learners are immersed in Hebrew every day.

“She was looking to give them an opportunity to practice teaching a foreign language that (students won’t experience) outside of class. How do you teach that?” Ben-yitschak recalled. “For me, it was like, it would be great if your students could meet with my students, because they will have more input.”

The partnership is now in its third successful year. The students at both institutions are paired with each other and meet throughout the semester via Zoom. The Israeli tutors can structure their lessons however they like, though Benyitschak said that they usually focus on an element of Israeli culture as they practice Hebrew with the UWM students.

A linguistic challenge

That extra support can be crucial for UWM students. As Ben-yitschak and Peled can attest, the Hebrew language has several foibles that can make it difficult for non-native speakers to grasp.

“Unlike the Latin languages, you write it from right to left, instead of left to right, which sometimes people find very peculiar,” Peled noted.

“The grammar system is different. Adjectives are after the nouns,” Ben-yitschak added. “Some of the grammatical structures (in English) don’t exist in Hebrew. For example, we don’t use the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense.”

Like French or Spanish, Hebrew is a gendered language, so students may also have a difficult time learning which nouns take a masculine or feminine article.

But the biggest challenge, Peled said, is just there are few opportunities for American students to practice speaking it. There aren’t Hebrew films being shown in theaters, and tracking down books written in Hebrew can be a challenge too.

Siegel can attest to that. After a full career as a third-grade teacher and a librarian, she is learning Hebrew so that she can better understand the language when she visits her son, Nathan, who lives in Tel Aviv. It’s also important to her as a Jewish person.

“It’s easy if you do all of the homework and you’re really diligent, as with learning any foreign language. The tough thing about learning conversational Hebrew is that you don’t hear it all the time. It’s not a ubiquitous language in the United States,” she said. “Being paired up with a teacher in Israel, where we can further work on our Hebrew skills in addition to our once-a-week online class, has just been really invaluable.”

Tutoring to friendship

Peled is a demanding tutor, Siegel said. She conducted their online meetings entirely in Hebrew, but she found ways to make the sessions fun.

“There were several lessons that had the same subject, all linked to one another. For example, I taught her a famous Israeli song that speaks about places in Israel,” Peled said. “The first meeting, we spoke about the new words. The second meeting, we spoke about the places in Israel that this song is talking about, and we showed it on the map. On the third lesson, we spoke about the songwriter or the musician who performed it, and his history.”

“Singing together – that was fun. She would create this ‘Wheel of Fortune’ thing and she would spin it. Every color on the wheel had a different topic and I would speak about those topics for as long as I could,” Siegel said.

The two even baked together: Siegel and Peled brought their laptops into the kitchen and Siegel walked Peled through a recipe for granola cookies, all in Hebrew.

Other pairs have had similar experiences, Ben-yitschak said.

“It came out to be a great program, because some of (the pairs) continued the relationship even after classes ended. Some students went to Israel and met with (their tutors). What else can I ask as a teacher of a foreign language than to have a native speaker of that language and my student meet in the country where they studied this language and have coffee together?”

Peled and Siegel haven’t met yet, but they’ve made plans. When Siegel travels to Israel the next time she visits her son, she and Peled have plans to meet at a vegan restaurant – the same one whose menu they studied during one of their online lessons.

“I can’t wait to meet her in person,” Siegel said. “She’s a great teacher.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science