YU Planning to Eliminate In-Person Hebrew Programs, Move to Completely Asynchronous Model Beginning in Fall 2022
Plans are in motion to eliminate the in-person, undergraduate Hebrew programs and move them to a completely asynchronous model beginning in Fall 2022, The Commentator has learned.
“The work to move our Hebrew language courses online is designed to improve our students’ academic experiences in Hebrew language,” explained Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Selma Botman, who first proposed the changes in the early weeks of Spring 2021.
She added that this was “[i]nformed by feedback from students who have taken Hebrew language online here at YU” and the new model will “provide students with greater flexibility in completing the coursework and managing their busy academic schedules.”
Botman charged Dr. Aaron Koller, coordinator of the Wilf Campus Hebrew Language Program, and Dr. Zafira Lidovsky-Cohen, chair of the Stern College for Women (SCW) Hebrew Language & Literature Department, with developing a fully online Hebrew program for Fall 2022. Koller and Lidovsky-Cohen have already contacted a course designer recommended by Botman about her proposal. Botman has not been in direct contact with Hebrew faculty about these plans.
“[T]here are many bridges to be crossed and uncertainties to be resolved before specific plans can be finalized,” Koller said. At this point, it is unclear how many, if any, Hebrew faculty will be rehired after Spring 2022.
In the current model for Wilf Campus, based on a placement test taken before their first semester, students take either one, two or three semesters of Hebrew in a stream-lined process through courses numbered 1010, 1020 and 1030. Those who score exceptionally high on the exam take one semester of an advanced Hebrew course, marked as 1040. This system went into effect in Fall 2020.
Beren students must also complete a placement exam to enroll in Hebrew courses, and depending on their score, they take one, two or three semesters of Hebrew. Depending on how high their score is, students can be exempted from the Hebrew requirement altogether.
Hebrew Department faculty were dismayed at the news of the university’s plans and have little confidence in the success of an asynchronous Hebrew program. “I will say that this decision is a sad one for the students of YC [Yeshiva College] and SCW,” said Prof. Lori Linzer.
“When I began teaching at YC about 8 years ago,” she said, “I was impressed with the level of customization that was available to students in their morning programs and their Hebrew programs, and it was clear that this personal touch and individualized approach set YU apart from other campuses. Now this distinguishing feature of the YU experience seems to be evaporating, and its offerings are starting to look a lot more like an online university.”
Prof. Aliza Schachter, who also teaches at YC, felt strongly about the current Hebrew program. “What I can say, with confidence, is that the current model of learning Hebrew in the Men’s undergraduate programs has been exceptionally successful,” she said.
Schachter noted that while students begin their requirements at various levels, the current program “empowers students to engage more fully in the Jewish texts they now study in the Yeshiva and will continue to study throughout their lives,” also enabling them to “to understand their daily tefillot [prayers] and interact with their Israeli brethren.”
Both professors also stressed the importance of learning Hebrew in an in-person classroom environment, which could not be achieved online. “So much of the learning that happens in the Hebrew classroom, whether on Zoom or in person, happens in real time, through genuine interactions,” Linzer explained. “Our classes are not lectures — they are almost entirely interactive — with students answering questions, conducting dialogues, or collaborating in many other ways.”
Linzer added, “I don’t think you will be able to find anyone who can credibly argue that the asynchronous model is a better model for teaching Hebrew language. I’m just sad that we have reached the point at which this fact is beside the point.”
In January 2021, the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies at YC was dissolved, and the Department of Bible, Hebrew, and Near Eastern Studies was formed, which now includes the Hebrew program. SCW still retains its Hebrew Language & Literature Department, as it operated in previous semesters.
Some students, like Ozzie Jeselsohn (YC ‘23), felt conflicted about the potential changes. “I’ve been taking Hebrew classes since my middle and high school years, and I very much understand the importance of them being face-to-face,” he said, adding that “Taking Hebrew this semester online came with a bunch of problems, one of them being having to type vs. write your answers for exams.”
However, based on Botman’s explanation of how this could help students, Jesselson commented, “I’m relieved knowing that I’ll have more time in my day to make room for other plans.”
Others were adamantly against the university’s plans. “My worst fear when YU began offering asynchronous courses during the pandemic is that they wouldn’t end when the pandemic did,” remarked Zach Ottenstein (YC ‘22), who has not yet begun his Hebrew requirement. “People choose YU for its relatively small and personal classes in all subjects. However much it may be in the university's interest to move the [Hebrew] program to an asynchronous model, I am personally opposed.”
Jocelyn Cohen (SSSB ‘23), who has only taken Hebrew online, felt similarly about online learning. “I believe it is very important to have synchronous classes when learning a language,” she explained. “It’s all about conversation. It is very hard to have dialogue when there aren’t two sides to the conversation.”
“Over the past year, due to [the] COVID-19 pandemic we have worked closely with our faculty to adapt courses to virtual settings and have been able to establish a strong Hebrew language course in an asynchronous format,” Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences Karen Bacon told The Commentator. “This is still in development and any updates on plans for Hebrew language classes in fall 2022 will be announced during the spring 2022 timeframe.”
Photo Credit: The Commentator
Photo Caption: Furst Hall on Wilf Campus
Editor's Note: This article was updated on April 17 to clarify that, at this point, it is unclear how many, if any, Hebrew faculty will be rehired after Spring 2022.