In this day and age, the word “birthright,” especially in a Jewish context, has come to mean one thing: free trips to Israel for young adults with some connection to Judaism. But Liore Alroy, a businessman from Passaic, New Jersey, is on a mission to make fluency in Hebrew as much of a Jewish birthright as visiting the holy land.
His story begins years ago. Born in Boston to secular, Israeli immigrant parents, Alroy and his family moved around quite a bit—from Massachusetts to New Jersey to Indiana and even Venezuela—before coming back to New Jersey, where they remain. Growing up, no matter the location, he was exposed to and practiced Hebrew because it was spoken around the house by his native-speaking parents. Once he moved out of his parents’ house for college, he experimented with religious observance and officially began observing the Sabbath in the fall of 1990, his first year at Columbia Law School. A few years later he was married and in 1998, he and his wife had their first child. A year later, the Alroy family moved to Jerusalem, where they enrolled their one-year-old in an observant, Hebrew-speaking school. Within four years time, he became nearly fluent in the language.
But when they moved back to the United States after six years (and two more children later), Alroy was forced to come to terms with the fact that his eldest child’s experience was unique. “Hebrew work was needlessly laborious for my other children who began elementary school in the states,” he said. In fact, Liore said his own father, a secular kibbutznik who moved to the U.S. in the ’60s, did a better job of giving his grandchildren a Hebrew education than the younger children’s respective schools. Alroy’s realization was this: A fully immersive Hebrew education, where both teachers and fellow classmates spoke the language, was the best way for his kids to learn. So he began to seek solutions.
His first idea was simple: to roughly mimic the model of language learning that had been so successful for his eldest child. So he put it to the test.
Over the next few years, Liore took each of his subsequent four children to Israel for weeks or a month at a time, enrolling them in the same school that his eldest child had attended, in an attempt to give them the same opportunity for Hebrew fluency. It worked—if imperfectly. But by the time the family’s sixth and youngest child came along, Liore had grown tired of sacrificing familial unity for Hebrew language immersion. “I realized two things,” Liore explained. “First, that the older I got, the more cumbersome it was to split up my family for these trips. And second, that this method was unsustainable.” So Alroy took matters into his own hands.
In 2013, he founded Gan Romemu, a playgroup in Passaic, New Jersey, for two- and three-year-olds run solely by native Hebrew speakers. Since then, 70 children have already enrolled in the program, with 40 more on track for next year.
The program at Gan Romemu differs from other Hebrew daycare centers because it relies on more than just the toddlers’ abilities to absorb language through some sort of linguistic osmosis. Instead, it operates strategically; for Gan Romemu’s first year, Liore hired Hebrew at the Center, an organization based in Brookline, Massachusetts dedicated to Hebrew teaching and learning. Acting as a language consultant for Gan Romemu, Hebrew at the Center guided Alroy’s decision for the playgroup’s first year. On their advice, he hired only native and fluent Hebrew speakers and implemented a no-English rule so that the immersion experience would most closely resemble the way Hebrew is spoken in Israeli classrooms.
“Most Hebrew language programs aim for Hebrew as a second language,” Alroy said. “But my goal is Hebrew as a first language.”
Alroy admits that there is no set way to measure the success of his program statistically; however, he insists that anecdotal evidence over the past few years suggests that Gan Romemu Hebrew immersion experience is working.
Now, Alroy is thinking even bigger. He’s eager to expand his playgroup model to a national level. “The idea,” he said, “is to find other communities across America, not just religious [ones], that can benefit from early childhood Hebrew language education.” He’s working to raise money for grants that would both help fund and operate these playgroups as well as provide monetary incentives to Jewish parents who might otherwise not deem them worthwhile. And even though Hebrew often carries Zionist associations, Liore is not interested in using the playgroups that way. “I view Hebrew as pre-ideological,” he told me. “Birthright shouldn’t be the starting point for a Jewish identity. It’s a lot simpler to connect kids to religion through language than land.”
“My parents did that for me,” he said. “And now that I’ve done it for my own kids, I realize how valuable it can be.”
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