GLENDALE – One day, couches just appeared in the classroom.
“It was a few weeks back. We came in on Monday to these couches,” remembered Yishay Levin, a 15-year-old freshman at Nicolet High School. “She actually found them on the side of a road.”
What happened was that Nicolet High School Hebrew teacher Yael Gal saw the red couches on the side of the road in Bayside, knocked on a nearby door and asked to have them. She and a class mom, Allison Asmann, then hustled over there to haul them out (yes, the two of them).
The couches are a perfect fit, and that’s not just about their size. At Nicolet High School, Hebrew class is more a fun project of several dozen students and their teacher than a mere transmission of information. It’s homey, like one big family that might plop down together on couches.
“I remember this one time, one of the students in the class said they were not feeling so well,” recalled Amalia Steinberg, 14, a freshman. So Gal made the whole class tea, just for fun.
It’s all warm and inclusive, said Ariel Lotman, 16, a sophomore. “There are actually people from other schools who are taking Hebrew,” said Benji Posner, 16, a sophomore. “You don’t have to be Jewish to take Hebrew here,” added Daniela Steinberg, 16, a junior.
Though all the students interviewed for this story attend Nicolet High School, there are students who attend from Whitefish Bay and Shorewood. One can attend for first period and then return to one’s nearby school district for the rest of the day. The district is also looking into starting up live video the class, so that students can attend virtually.
Years ago, before immigrating to the United States, Gal taught Hebrew to Israeli high school students, just as English is taught to American high school students in America. When Nicolet High School’s prior Hebrew teacher, Suzanne Weinstein, was nearing retirement, Gal was already living in the United States. Conferring with Weinstein, Gal decided to get her Wisconsin teaching license. Without that license, Gal feared, the Hebrew program at Nicolet High School would be discontinued. It’s not like Hebrew teachers with certification are commonplace in Wisconsin.
Gal teaches at Nicolet High School part time and she is the sole Hebrew teacher for the 42 students in the program. She also teaches part-time at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Gal has been teaching Hebrew at Nicolet High School since 2008.
“I love it,” Gal said. “It’s a passion.”
There are five levels of Hebrew class available, ranging from beginner to advanced. Lauren Cayle, 16, a junior, is in a more advanced class.
“I’d say we’re really so close to being fluent. I’m going to Israel in like two weeks. I’m going to be able to have full-on conversations in Hebrew,” Cayle said. “It’s so cool that we have enough knowledge.”
Though many of the students attended Milwaukee Jewish Day School, starting their Hebrew studies there, that’s not true for all. Liam McLean, 18, a senior, said he hadn’t engaged much with modern Hebrew in the past. “I just kind of came in because I was getting more interested in Jewish identity,” he said.
You needn’t have gone to a day school to succeed here, he said. He’s in an advanced class.
An active group
Students see what larger language groups at school, like the strong German program, are able to accomplish. They then work to try to bring Hebrew up to that standard, Gal said.
To say that the Hebrew program is active beyond just the classroom would be an understatement.
The school’s Hebrew Club is closely linked with the Hebrew classes, with a large amount of crossover between the two. One Hebrew Club project resulted in a mural of heroes of Israel in the classroom. It’s based on an Israeli artist’s work and modeled after The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album cover.
The club got together for pizza and painting to get it done. “We set up all the tape. We used a projector to help us. It was all of us from Hebrew Club trying to make this work,” said Abby Veytsman, 16, a junior.
Nicolet senior Megan Gendelman and her mother Ginny Gendelman have organized an Israeli exchange program. It will have 10 to 15 Israeli students visit April 5-15, for 10-12 days. They’ll be staying with Hebrew class families.
“We’re going to be trying to speak Hebrew. They’re going to be trying to speak English,” noted family member Sarah Gendelman, a 15-year-old sophomore.
Students also go to the JCC for the Yom Hazikaron ceremony annually, said Avigail Boland, 15, a sophomore,
Charlie Silverman, a 15-year-old sophomore, said he enjoyed a Hebrew program visit to Chicago to meet with the students of several Chicago-area public school Hebrew programs.
The club organized an Israel Fest, in April, for Israel’s 70th anniversary. It brought dancing and fun for 150 young people to Nicolet for a day, drawing students from outside the club and outside the high school. A second Israel Fest is planned for May 17.
School officials say they like the multi-culturalism and enthusiasm that the Hebrew program brings to Nicolet High School.
“They are very supportive,” said Gal, referring to the administration. “Everything – they say go for it.”