Lifelong Language

St. Louis Park High School offers a rare Hebrew language track.
Esther Gender, Amanda Weinberg and Hadassa Slager

For many high school students learning a foreign language, the selection is limited to Spanish, French and German. Not so for the 30 students enrolled in St. Louis Park High School’s Hebrew language program.

The program, which has existed for more than 20 years, gives students a rare opportunity to continue their Hebrew language studies (which many of them began as young children) in a public high school setting. Just how rare is a program like this? According to principal Scott Meyers, very. “It is one of only a few. I don’t know of many public school programs in the area,” Meyers says. “When we search for teachers, I’ve had to reach out to contacts on the east coast and west coast.”

The current Hebrew teacher, Hadassa Slager, has been speaking Hebrew for 25 years. She says friends encouraged her to apply when the teaching position became available. Before coming to St. Louis Park, Slager taught at schools in the Netherlands, Israel and here in the United States. For Slager, the class is an important one. “There is a sizable group of students who enter the high school with a solid base in Hebrew, who currently pursue the International Baccalaureate (IB) test or the IB diploma,” Slager says. “It would be a big loss if that would no longer be offered. I also teach because I think it is important for the community.”

How did a Hebrew program come to be? According to Meyers, St. Louis Park’s rich Jewish heritage had a lot to do with it. “I think it started as a way to honor and recognize some of the heritage in St. Louis Park,” Meyers says. “It recognizes that the language is alive and vibrant in St. Louis Park.”

Students participating in the IB program can select Hebrew as their language requirement, a way to acknowledge their language skills that, in some cases, have been the work of a lifetime. “Students come from a lot of different backgrounds. Many will learn Hebrew at home, others will supplement it through their place of worship, and still others will have their elementary and middle school years at a school that also has Hebrew,” says Sara Thompson, the district’s director of communications and community relations. “Quite a few come from the Jewish Day School, so they would have had some experience there.”

Students don’t have to be Jewish to enroll in the program, but they do need to have some previous knowledge of Hebrew. The high school does not offer beginning language classes for any of its foreign language courses.

Along with their study of Hebrew, students participate in all of the usual high school level courses.

And what do students do with their Hebrew skills once they graduate from high school? It really depends on that student’s individual interests. “Some students go for a short or long period to Israel, in different programs,” Slager says. “Some will use it for their college studies, like international relations, political science, etc. Some will use their Hebrew only for private use. In every way it is similar to learning any other second language, like French or Spanish.”