By: Benjamin Koslowe | News  | 

Changes in the Wilf Campus Hebrew Requirements

The Wilf campus undergraduate Hebrew department has approved a modified curriculum for its 1100 level. While retaining the six credits of requirements, the courses will now be spread over three semesters rather than over two semesters.

Beginning in Spring 2018, the Hebrew Intermediate track, which has consisted of the Hebrew 1105 and Hebrew 1106 courses, will instead consist of three courses: Hebrew 1104, Hebrew 1105, and Hebrew 1106. The total credit amount will remain the same, but going forward, the courses will be spread over three semesters instead of two. These courses, worth two credits each, will meet twice a week. For students who took Hebrew 1105 in the current system, Hebrew 1106 worth three credits is being offered one last time in Spring 2018.

“The faculty had found that it was just going too quickly,” said Dean Karen Bacon, the Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yeshiva University, reflecting on the current Hebrew Intermediate track curriculum which is being modified. “It was too intense for students to really be able to succeed as [the faculty] wanted them to.” Bacon justified the change to spread out the new curriculum over three semesters. “Language instruction takes a while to internalize and to practice,” she said, “so the faculty feels that this is going to be more effective.”

“We are excited about the changes to the 11 Hebrew track,” wrote Professor Sigal Shalom, the Wilf campus Hebrew Program Coordinator. “We are always trying to make the learning experience as effective and beneficial as possible for our students. These changes will allow students to learn successfully at their correct level.”

Yeshiva College and Sy Syms School of Business students are required to take a minimum of six credits of Hebrew language as undergraduates. Before beginning undergraduate studies, most students take a YU-administered placement examination to determine their level: Elementary, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, or Advanced (some very advanced students place out of all Hebrew requirements). In the current system, students placed in Elementary take Hebrew 1004, Hebrew 1005, and Hebrew 1006, each of which meets four times per week, over three semesters. Students placed in Intermediate take Hebrew 1105 and Hebrew 1106, each of which meets three times per week, over two semesters. And students placed in Upper Intermediate or Advanced take Hebrew 1205 and Hebrew 1206 (Upper Intermediate) or Hebrew 1305 and Hebrew 1306 (Advanced), each of which meets two times per week, over two semesters. Each one of these individual courses is worth three credits.

Yeshiva University students enrolled in the James Striar School (JSS) Program, whether concurrently enrolled in Yeshiva College or Sy Syms School of Business, are required to complete an Elementary Hebrew curriculum which is satisfied by completing the Hebrew 1203 and Hebrew 1204 courses. Students with minimal Hebrew background may also be required to take the Hebrew 1101 and Hebrew 1102 introductory courses. These courses are worth five credits each and meet four times per week.

Women undergraduate students on the Beren campus take Hebrew courses as part of the Rebecca Ivry Department of Jewish Studies requirements. Effective Fall 2017, women are placed into one of four Hebrew tracks—HEBR 1101, HEBR 1102-1104, HEBR 1105-1107, or HEBR 1108 or above—which consist of four, three, two, or one required course, respectively. According to an email sent by Dean Ethel Orlian, the Associate Dean at Stern College for Women, students who completed requirements by Fall 2017 may take additional Hebrew courses to strengthen their skills, but need not do so.

The modifications to the 11 track are the only official change that will take effect next semester for the undergraduate Hebrew curricula on the Wilf Campus. However, the Hebrew professors and Yeshiva University administrators have also been discussing possible ways in which the Advanced track, which currently consists of Hebrew 1305 and Hebrew 1306, might be reshaped.

“We are piloting a synchronous online course this coming semester for the 1300 level with a small group of students,” wrote Professor Aaron J. Koller, the Chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies. “The key advantage is flexibility, as such classes can in theory take place any time of the week (Sundays, late at night, etc.).”

Koller explained that this trial course will consist of a handful of students who placed into Hebrew 1305 and volunteered to take an online course for Yeshiva College credit. The course, which will be supervised by Koller, will be taught by eTeacherHebrew, an online language academy that offers live online instruction with flexible hours. The curriculum and one example syllabus are available online at “As that progresses,” wrote Koller, “we will be in a better position to take stock of what we do particularly well already and where we can further improve the program.”

Dean Bacon explained that the motivation for rethinking the Advanced curriculum is to find the best possible learning goals for these students. While the Hebrew 1305 and Hebrew 1306 courses currently emphasize Hebrew grammar, an imagined redesigned curriculum might deemphasize grammar and instead focus on improving students’ conversational skills. At the same time, she emphasized that she and other faculty very much value the current curriculum, which focuses on grammar.

“I know that for some students language is not at the top of their hit parade and they don’t necessarily enjoy it,” said Dean Bacon, “but I have a feeling that in years to come when they look back, they will be very proud of what they know because they’re going to find themselves able to contribute to conversations or to understand things in ways that other people can’t because they don’t have that rigorous grammatical background.” She added, “Hebrew is our language. The grammar is so critical to the Tanach. You can change the whole meaning of the Pasuk by understanding the grammatical form or misunderstanding the grammatical form.”

Dean Bacon also emphasized that students at any Hebrew level should not feel limited to taking only requirements. “If you seriously see that there is a gap in your ability to understand the text because of your limitations in Hebrew, there’s nothing to stop you from taking another Hebrew course. And in fact, I think, unless I’m mistaken, you can take it P/N, because it’s not towards any particular requirement. So you don’t have to worry about your grade.” She added, “you can probably even audit it.”

Both Dean Bacon and Professor Koller expressed interest in surveying Yeshiva University students as to what their own personal goals in learning Hebrew are, and what they think they have gained from the Hebrew courses they have taken here. To this end, The Commentator organized a short opt-in survey for students who either took Advanced Hebrew last year or who are currently taking Advanced Hebrew. The survey generated 32 responses.

Of those who responded, 65.6% approved of the current curriculum which focuses on grammar. The other 34.4% expressed that they would prefer a curriculum that would focus more on conversational Hebrew and less on grammar. The vast majority—87.5% of those who responded—indicated that they feel that their Hebrew grammar has improved from Advanced Hebrew. Of those, 32.1% (i.e. 28.1% of all respondents) also feel that they can speak and comprehend the language at higher levels than before they took the course. Only 12.5% of all respondents indicated that they haven’t really gained much from Advanced Hebrew.

Most of the respondents included short comments in the optional “anything you’d like to add” section at the end of the survey, ranging from general thoughts about their curriculum preferences to broader gratitude and concern about Advanced Hebrew.

“In general,” wrote Ariel Raskin, a second-year Yeshiva College student currently taking Hebrew 1306, “the pace of the class and just being exposed to and engaged with this level of Hebrew conversation on a regular basis is what really helps raise someone’s skill in the language.” Akiva Schiff, a third-year Yeshiva College student also currently taking Hebrew 1306, figured similarly. “I don’t really think that we should attempt to focus on conversational Hebrew skills,” he described. “The average YU graduate encounters Hebrew in religious settings, or maybe reading news articles from Israel. For the minority that make Aliya—they will acclimate and learn the language quickly enough. If an individual has not learned the language from twelve years of day school education and time in Israel, it is not reasonable to expect YU to teach them that ability. YU can, however, focus on grammar (either Biblical or Modern) which aids their comprehension of written language. My experience of prayer and religious study has been augmented and enhanced by my studies in YU Hebrew.”

Other students conveyed different perspectives. “We have spent almost the entire semester on grammar, which I think is great,” wrote a second-year Yeshiva College student currently taking Hebrew 1306 who preferred to remain anonymous, “but conversational Hebrew is far more important, especially considering that one of the five Torot of President Berman is Torat Zion, preaching the importance of Israel and the Jewish future there. If we are to fully follow this ideology then conversational Hebrew should be of just as much importance as grammatical Hebrew.”

Regardless of what might wind up happening, Dean Bacon, Professor Koller, and Professor Shalom all strongly emphasized that students placed into Advanced Hebrew should assume that the curriculum will stay as is. “As for the 13 classes,” wrote Professor Shalom, “we are exploring our options and it is not yet clear whether there will be any change.” Hebrew 1305 is being offered in Spring 2018 and Hebrew 1306 is being offered in Fall 2018, so students graduating in Spring 2019 or beforehand are, by their circumstances, locked into the current curriculum. First-years and second-years who anticipate remaining on campus at least through the end of the Fall 2019 semester can in theory push off taking Advanced Hebrew if they wish, but they do so at their own risk, since the current small online trial and administrative discussions might not pan out into any restructuring whatsoever.

Dean Bacon offered another rationale for taking Hebrew sooner rather than later. “The problem with holding off,” she considered, “is that the further you are from Hebrew, assuming you learned some Hebrew in Israel, the more you forget. Also, if this is a tool, then you may as well have the tool early on. I am not a big fan of telling people to hold off on a skill course. But that’s a matter of personal choice.”

“As always,” wrote Professor Shalom, “we encourage students to complete their Hebrew requirement as soon as they can and wish everyone ‘Hatzlacha!’”