By Kathy Day
Connecting children with the Hebrew language and their Israeli heritage became such a passion for local resident Jennie Starr that she turned her drive into the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center in Carmel Valley.
Nearly eight years ago the mother of two decided she wanted her children to learn Hebrew proficiently, but there were no programs in San Diego to come to her aid.
Today there is one that offers not just language classes for children and adults, but cultural programs such as dancing and singing, Hebrew story time, speakers, a movie club and a book club.
“Even though my father was Israeli, he did not speak Hebrew at home,” said Starr, who grew up in Chicago. While her dad was born in Israel, her mother was an American who did not speak Hebrew and neither did Starr.
When her grandmother would visit, she added, “I had no clue what they were talking about. I was not connected to these people ... ”
Starr compared the experience to going to Italy “where you love the food and love the sites” but don’t understand the conversations around you.
When her first child was born, she said, she had a similar experience all over again.
Her American husband was fluent in Hebrew and spoke the language to their daughter. In an effort to increase her own skills, she said she decided to read Hebrew translations of books like Dr. Seuss with her child for an hour a day.
“I struggled ... I could read the words but I didn’t understand them,” she said.
So she tried to learn by being around other Hebrew speakers.
“When I heard someone speaking Hebrew, I would ask for their phone numbers,” she added.
Then she started a Hebrew-speaking play group – which is now part of the Tarbuton program — and established her own cultural-social network. Even then she only understood about 30 percent of what was being said and would have to call friends to ask what was said.
Knowing that her children had no option to become proficient at Hebrew at home, Starr built on her own experience as an attorney and entrepreneur as a software product manager to start the Tarbuton.
Much like San Diego’s Italian Cultural Center and the Persian Cultural Center, Tarbuton focuses on immersing the students in language and culture.
Working with Maya Cohen, a child development specialist who was born in Israel and attended university there, they started with just a few children in one class. Now the Tarbuton has 200 to 300 people who participate weekly or monthly in its programs.
Offerings include classes at the Ken Jewish Community Center on the San Diego Jewish Academy campus in Carmel Valley each Sunday and Monday evening, as well as after-school programs in the Del Mar and Solana Beach school districts. They also offer classes in which high school students can earn foreign language credits at their schools and are considering offerings in Encinitas, Carlsbad and La Jolla/Golden Triangle or Poway (all areas where people also come from to participate in the center’s programs).
Tarbuton also recently announced the addition of Iris Noiman to the Tarbuton staff. Noiman will launch the Tarbuton Middle School Program guiding 6th-8th grade students in their critical year to two years around their bar/bat mitzvah age.
For adults, there are book and film groups and even a weekly coffee meeting, “Café v’Ivrit,” where people can practice their Hebrew and socialize. They also plan special speakers, plays and Jewish holiday celebrations for families.
Some classes are taught completely in Hebrew, while some students take certain classes in English, Starr noted.
Iris Pearlman, a mother of four children ages 8 to 16 who have been taking classes at Tarbuton for two years, said, “The connection the kids have made, the feeling that you get, it’s hard to understand.”
She said the Tarbuton provides a cultural experience that you can’t get elsewhere.
“It is difficult to do even if you go to synagogue,” she said. “It is a different way of living and speaking and behaving. It has nuances you don’t get otherwise.”
Starr and Pearlman, whose parents are both Israeli, each said that the Hebrew the children learn in religious schools is different because that is Hebrew for prayers.
Cohen, Tarbuton’s training and curriculum coordinator, got involved with Starr early on when Starr’s children attended the preschool where Cohen is a full-time teacher. Her work with Tarbuton is part-time.
“She wanted to bring the language alive through poetry, literature and music, but there wasn’t anything for kids,” Cohen said.
Today, she said, they take field trips where they speak Hebrew throughout the trip and take dance lessons and sing. In one class, where they were discussing Earth Day, the students were asked, “What do we wish for the world?”
It was particularly exciting, Cohen said, to hear the high-level discussions and read the written answers all in Hebrew.”
“Visitors can see the rhythm of the classes,” she said. “It is high energy, super creative – it’s like a force.”
All of the teachers are “the best” and have bachelor’s degrees and curriculum development experience “so they understand the critical pieces of learning,” Starr said.
Textbooks are those that are used in schools in Israel.
That comes in handy, she noted, when a student moves back to Israel.
Students are placed based on proficiency so there may be three or four levels being taught at various times.
“Our students can read modern Hebrew, not just biblical Hebrew,” she added. “You won’t see prayers in our workbooks.”
She emphasized that classes taught on the public school campus are language classes and there is no Jewish content in those classes. However, classes at the center do include some education on Jewish holidays.
Starr uses her marketing background to understand the needs of the community and spread the word about what they do.
When she started Tarbuton, she said, she had a tough time getting some people to understand the difference from what is done in synagogue.
“There we learn how to pray,” she said. “We are not anti-prayer. We are an Israeli cultural center.”
Sometimes, she said, the Jewish day school may join them for special programs.
While students are primarily of Israeli heritage, she said they have had non-Jewish students, some of whom were attending seminary, and they have a number of interfaith families — and she emphasized that everyone is welcome.
They make an effort to keep fees as low as possible, and with help from the Jewish Federation Innovation Grant and the Leichtag Foundation they have been able to reduce the fees and offer some assistance.
Even so, Starr said, as a 501c3 nonprofit, they must raise funds to support the program and pay rent for classroom space.
Now conversationally fluent in Hebrew, Starr remains passionate about language acquisition – and not just hers. Her children are enrolled in Spanish classes and she wants more children and adults to join them at Tarbuton to learn Hebrew.
Classes start in September. Register or learn more at www.tarbuton.org; firstname.lastname@example.org; 858-245-9375.