By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Ben Sollinger enrolled in Evanston Township High School as a freshman prepared for level IV in the Hebrew language program. He will graduate next year entirely fluent, more Jewishly identified, and will test out of a language when he enters college.

His sister Sarah, 14, a Hebrew student for 10 years, may not be so fortunate. The Chicago Jewish Day School eighth-grader may have to switch to French or Spanish because the Evanston high school is considering abandoning Hebrew after 47 years.

Evanston Township administrators have voiced concern that there is no state-licensed teacher available part-time and student interest in the program is waning. Jewish parents, students and educators are calling for flexibility and the will to make it happen by Jan. 17, the day incoming freshmen register for elective courses, such as world languages.

“I think it’s kind of tragic,” Sarah said. “The fact that I get no credit for my work is kind of sad. I just hope they can do something about it because I’d love to look deeper into the language and become more fluent.”

Parents and educators say there is a way to continue the program if school administrators see fit and budget for it. What is certain is that uncertainty is killing interest at feeder middle schools and throwing the existing 34 students into an untenable situation.  

Binnie Swislow, director of the Public High School Hebrew Teacher Network at iCenter, an Israel education organization in Northbrook, told the school district board that she knows of teachers committed to getting a state certification who could teach the course. “The school district just needs to be flexible,” she said. Though there are many Hebrew teachers at Jewish day schools, they don’t require an Illinois license.

Attempts to reach school district administrators were unsuccessful. However, Peter Bavis, ETHS Dist. 202 assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told the board that the course is “no longer sustainable” at ETHS. “It’s a very difficult position to staff,” the Pioneer Press reported.

Elsewhere in Chicago, public high school Hebrew courses are thriving with Hebrew honor societies and Israeli clubs forming for middle school students. The city has more public schools teaching Hebrew than any other community in the U.S., Swislow said. Hebrew is being taught to more than 500 students at Glenbrook North, Deerfield, Highland Park, Stevenson, New Trier, Niles North and, for now, Evanston Township. Nationally, about 2,200 students are taking Hebrew language at 21 public schools.  

Parents and educators have appealed to ETHS district administrators to stay committed to the program so they can recruit middle school students. A petition has gathered 2,200 signatures and administrators have listened to community concerns, but the end appears inevitable. The current students, enrolled in Hebrew 1 through IV, may be switched to an online program to complete their language sequence.

That is not a workable solution, local educators say. “Online is not how classes are supposed to be. You have to have interaction with a person,” said Anna Raiber, the Hebrew teacher at Niles North High School, who is teaching at Evanston Township part time this year. Her Niles North job will be full-time next year so this is her last year at Evanston. No one is slated to take her place. “If you are not hiring teachers, it means you are shutting down the program,” she said.

It took years to build the Evanston program to 90 students. Credit is due to a dedicated teacher named Semadar Siegal. She taught for 17 years and retired two years ago, leaving the program in flux without a full-time replacement. “If you have a teacher that will grow the program, you would have the demand,” Raiber said.

Rachel Sollinger, mother of Ben and Sarah, is an administrator at the Chicago Jewish Day School. She addressed the school board, stressing the value of the program to student identity.

“Historically this program has been a community builder at Evanston for Jewish kids, kind of a home base,” she said by phone. “I also think that given the current political environment and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the U.S., Jewish kids need to have allies and people at school who can advocate for that.”

Raiber added that Hebrew makes a college applicant stand out. “It’s rated very high when you apply to college.”

Since that board meeting, community leaders, including Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet, have continued discussions with school district officials.

ETHS is not alone. Stevenson High School lost a teacher, and saw its numbers shrink from 80 to 20 students. The school, however, has demonstrated hope for a struggling Hebrew program. It survived three years with an online program. The teacher who had left on maternity leave has returned part time.

Aaron Cohen, an Evanston resident whose grown children studied Hebrew at Evanston, started the petition three weeks ago and has talked to school administrators.

The Hebrew program compliments ETHS’s rich and diverse academic offerings, he said. “Offering Hebrew as a world heritage language represents an incredibly diverse and vibrant culture. It’s not just for the Jewish community. Non-Jewish students study it as well. At a time when we see academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, it’s important to have a venue for students to explore this culture through its native language.”

“We’re hoping the school can go the extra mile in trying to find a way to keep Hebrew going,” Cohen continued. “We believe there is a demand and need for it. The school is not without a commitment to Hebrew. It’s a matter of finding a way forward, pushing themselves.”

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