Breaking the Language Barrier

"Want to be successful?" reads a tiny advertisement for English lessons, printed in a free weekly stuffed into mailboxes in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The ad is one indication of the growing popularity of English in the country?s Haredi community.

"There's an awareness now of the importance of knowing another language," says S., an English teacher from Jerusalem. "Parents who don't know English want to give their children the tools they themselves never had, because you never know where life can lead you. They understand that a basic knowledge of English is no longer sufficient and that one must have a rich vocabulary and a reasonable level of conversational ability."

This energetic teacher can be reached only after 11 P.M., when she finishes giving private lessons at her home. "The demand is insane," she says, almost apologetically.

Information about English classes in private homes is passed on by word of mouth. The classes and private lessons are intended solely for girls, although S. says she has recently noticed an interest among Haredi boys as well. She has students from all sectors of the Haredi community. "This year I received inquiries from Lithuanians and Hasidim. Each week I refer new students to other teachers, because I don't have space."

Another teacher, from Bnei Brak, says that yeshiva students come to her in secret for tutoring. She staggers the sessions slightly to prevent awkward encounters between her pupils. "If people found out that they are studying English privately, it could harm their matchmaking prospects," she explains.

The popularity of private English tutoring gives expression to the deepest longings within the Haredi community: the desire for success, as the ad seems to promise - if not for oneself, at least for one's children, who might attain it in the highly respected field of high-tech. It is no secret that most Israeli-born Haredi men have a poor command of English, the outcome of an ideology that frowns on any form of secular study for boys, who should be spending all their time learning Talmud.

While Haredi functionaries are outraged by the Education Ministry's demand that their schools adopt its compulsory core curriculum, more and more young couples with a connection to the work force are searching for an indirect way to help their children close the educational gap vis-a-vis their non-Haredi counterparts. English is considered the most important nonreligious subject.

Clandestine affair

G., a teachers' college graduate, and her husband A., a former yeshiva student, live in Jerusalem. They send their children to after-school programs and provide them with software, textbooks and encyclopedias to help close the education gap. The children study at their own pace, after their long school day. Like his wife, A. is in his 20s; he currently attends an academic institution. Although he admits that he has difficulty with English, he is not frustrated. "Academic institutions will never change their demands," he notes with a shrug.

This year, for the first time, G. was able to get together enough parents to persuade S. to open an English class for boys. Ten boys, including three of G.?s sons, attend it. "My father asked me why we need English. He is afraid of what the heads of my sons' heder (elementary school?=) might say." Her sons, in grades 2, 3 and 5, apparently prefer not to talk about their English lessons at school.

Despite the growing demand, English classes are still a clandestine affair in the Haredi community. It might be because the study of English is associated with the strict prohibition against the study of foreign languages (except for Yiddish), imposed on Jerusalem's Ashkenazi community 150 years ago. The Haredi ambivalence toward the study of foreign languages is strongest in Jerusalem.

The rabbis realized long ago that a language is not just a means of communication, it is the ticket to the wider world. The prohibition was aimed at creating a mental barrier to secularism and assimilation. During the Enlightenment, many yeshiva students broke through this barrier. That is one of the reasons for the ban issued in Jerusalem in the second half of the 19th century, after the opening of schools taught in a foreign language, such as Lemel (German), Alliance Israelite Universelle (French) and Evelina de Rothschild (English). The ban was intensified periodically, whenever the rabbis sensed a growing threat to their community. During the British Mandate, for example, the ban was tightened due to the fear of teenage girls talking with British soldiers.

There were ways to get around the prohibition, however. Some people moved to Jerusalem?s outskirts, such as Moshav Ora or Givat Shaul, and studied there. Occasionally, parents were permitted to rent rooms near their children?s heder for private English lessons.

Today, English is taught at all Haredi schools for girls (with the exception of the most extreme sects). Girls from families that observe the ban learn English in pairs, rather than with the rest of the class.

While the ban did not prevent Haredim from learning modern Hebrew, it was effective with regard to English. Only now does it appear that members of the community have begun recognizing the importance of knowing English. The head of English studies at a large Haredi girls' school admits that the community "didn't take the subject seriously enough." At her school, she says, the level of English language studies has greatly improved. The change has led the elementary schools to put more emphasis on English to ensure that their graduates can gain admittance to her school. "I've never heard anyone say that English isn't necessary," she says. "English is a very important language."