Connecting the Divide
Growing up in West Rogers Park every day was a JCC day. The J is where I learned how to swim, took ballet lessons and visited my grandmother in the senior adult center. I went to concerts and dances. I completed leadership training classes, became a lifeguard and got involved in Jewish activism. I went to JCC day camp and to Camp Chi. The Teen Department Director wrote my college recommendation letter. The J was where I learned about group dynamics, informal education, social activism, camp and encountered an array of Jewish life experiences. And today, as the JCC Chicago Jewish Educator I appreciate that these experiences brought a sense of connection and so much goodness to my life.
I am grateful that my personal passions and interests, especially in relation to the Hebrew language, continue to intersect with my JCC Chicago life by promoting our community’s connection to Judaism through Hebrew. Language serves as the carrier of Jewish ethics and the shaper of Jewish consciousness. Even as religion wanes, the one thing that can connect all Jews and make insiders of us all, is our historical language. Hebrew provides rich and authentic content for one’s Jewish identity without necessarily requiring religious commitment. And I’m happy to report, that connection has become even more important and relevant during this pandemic!
JCC Chicago’s ‘Say it in Hebrew’ programming focuses on acquiring conversational Hebrew and connection to Israeli culture. Students are immersed in a Hebrew-speaking setting in small classes with fellow learners of similar language proficiency. The program uses authentic materials–no memorization, no rote learning, no translation. With the appearance of COVID-19, we moved ‘Say it in Hebrew’ to an online platform revealing some unexpected benefits–the ability to continue to engage with every student and instructor in each of the classes in a more intimate and meaningful way. As students gathered in the zoom room, some with “quarantinis” before class started, there was time to catch up, meet each other’s pets (and spouses and children), arrange a Shabbat meal for a student who had Corona virus and in the very beginning, provide tutorials to some of our students (and instructors) who were first time Zoom users.
Over the past 4 years, Apachi Ivrit, JCC Chicago’s Hebrew immersion day camp grew from 10 campers in 2016 to almost 80 campers by March 2020. Apachi Ivrit campers learn Hebrew naturally, by doing the same fun camp activities they love, in Hebrew with Israeli counselors. Unfortunately, this summer we could not bring the anticipated 10 counselors from Israel. Instead, we were supported by our local community of public-school Hebrew students whose overnight camp jobs were cancelled, but they brought all their leadership training and love of camp and Hebrew to Apachi Ivrit. Because of this amazing collaboration, we were still able to offer a fun, safe summer in Hebrew for our campers who remained as committed and excited to be with us as in any year.
At my new employee orientation, the CEO at the time asked, “How many of you thought you would ever work at JCC?” I was the only one who raised my hand—and I’m still here with a shared purpose and ongoing dedication. JCC Chicago supports Hebrew programming as a valuable portal for self-exploration and Jewish continuity. We will continue to connect our community by exploring a continuum of opportunities for all ages including early childhood Hebrew immersion and Ta’am Ivrit, our teen Hebrew immersion pilot, which are being reviewed for possible program roll out in the future. At a time when the Jewish People are sometimes divided by what should be a common language, JCC Chicago is at the forefront of a movement to inspire a new generation connected by passion for Hebrew, Israel, and Jewish connectedness.
– Abby Ashkenazi