PLAYING IN HEBREW

We’re pretty pleased over here that HCHS Bible teacher Keith Blystra ’00 got to fulfill one of his career goals.

But we’re even more excited that we get a high school Hebrew language class out of the deal, to add to our current Spanish and Latin language offerings.

Teaching Biblical conversational Hebrew to high school kids has been something Keith has wanted to do ever since he finished his graduate studies in 2014 in Modern Hebrew and Old Testament from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And ever since he enjoyed the access the language gave him and his family to other people’s, other culture’s tables.

“Many people have assumptions about Christians, but when you speak their Hebrew language they don’t know where to put you,” Keith said. “Learning the language gave credibility to the witness we had as Christians—because they met a Christian who wasn’t like what they thought.”

Many people have assumptions about Christians, but when you speak their Hebrew language they don’t know where to put you.

So fast forward a few years, and here’s Keith directing a class of 20 HCHS students completely in conversational Hebrew, telling them to sit down, stand up, stand on a chair, turn around, hug the bear—and they’re all somehow understanding him, following directions, giggling at results. He teaches them Hebrew vocabulary using toys and commands, just like how little kids learn a first language from hearing and following a parent’s example, and physically responding to commands. It’s a language learning technique called TPR, or Total Physical Response, one of the more effective language methods used today. Once their student feet are on stable ground, and they can understand most of the commands, he spins off into another technique called TPRS, or Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, another method used with students as they advance further and interact with the language, and can add grammatical structures and reading or storytelling into their Hebrew language toolboxes.

“It’s an interactive, immersive learning style,” explained sophomore Isaiah Lowe ’21. “It’s not too fast, but still pushes you, and of course it’s fun. There’s not the pressure to memorize things: it’s learning through games and songs, and less of assignments.”

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Hebrew is more concrete [than English], and I can see students’ minds being blown—they’re engaging in Scripture in the original language. I hope it encourages them in their faith, and keeps encouraging them to explore with more possibilities.

“He’s using cutting edge teaching methods, that actually are not even well used in graduate programs—the best of the best, and in a high school class!” says Lois Tverberg, a local religious studies author and Hebrew language learner. “It’s more effective because your brain learns best when your body is activated. [It may look crazy], but it’s how you keep it stuck in their brains!”

But techniques aside, Keith is excited not only that students are learning another conversable language, but are learning a language that can show them more about our God.

“Hebrew is more concrete [than English], and I can see students’ minds being blown—they’re engaging in Scripture in the original language!” said Linnea Scobey, a Western Seminary intern helping with the class. “I hope it encourages them in their faith, and keeps encouraging them to explore on with more possibilities.”

As proof, Keith describes the story of Jonah, which the class learned in October, and how it is so much more alive in Hebrew than in translated English. “Students say, ‘Wait, what?’ when we read Jonah. ‘The wind walks? And the boat thinks about breaking itself up?!’ The language is alive, it’s fun!

He compares teaching the passage of Psalm 37:5 that in our common NIV English reads, “Commit your way to the Lord” to teaching the Hebrew which says more literally “Roll your path onto God!”

“The [Hebrew] language is concrete, but it’s also communicating something about who is this God, and what He is concerned about. Versus ours that says ‘Commit yourself to God’—whatever that means!” he expounded. “God is something who can be trusted, you’re not walking all over on Him, but He’s the only [one] you can trust, there’s only one thing that has proven to be stable, and that’s the Lord. As you consider a path for life, roll that out on God, because He can be trusted, God is stable!”

Students are also recognizing the richness of the Hebrew language, of learning Bible passages some of them have studied for over 10 years, but for the first time now in the passage’s original language. “It opens up gateways in the Bible—areas of the Bible become a whole lot richer. A lot of meaning is missed when you read it in not the original language,” said Austin Becksvoort ’21.

“As Western Christians we have been satisfied with drinking from translations for 1900 years, and over time it has the potential to create deficiencies, and we’re only going more that direction—we’re setting up a generation to be deficient in understanding what is the most important thing to us,” Keith seconded. “Without the [Hebrew] language, we run the risk of diluting the message.”

HC’s hopes for these kids are also global, wanting for them to experience similar cultural experiences and open doors that Keith’s family experienced while in Jerusalem: “These kids will leave HC, and meet people from all over the world, and if they meet Jewish people, they will confound them, and will gain access to someone else’s table out of mutual respect for each other’s language,” he said.

But for now, these students are just happy to play with Jonah, the fishermen, the Beanie Baby whale, and the Fisher Price boat, while their classmates russell the blue fabric waves, recreating Jonah’s famous storm—but all in Hebrew, this time, in the story’s original language from 2500 years ago.

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Without the [Hebrew] language, we run the risk of diluting the message.