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Aliyah to Israel: Children's biggest challenge

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

A closer look at the language barrier.

Thousands of families are moving to Israel from America and there are no shortages of challenges that accompany the new opportunities in their new home...but what about the children? We asked a number of school principals what they thought the biggest challenge children face and most of them agreed on one thing: learning Hebrew.

What ages are ideal?

MIT News reported in 2018 about a new study by Josh Tenenbaum an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University suggested that children remain skilled at learning new languages up to the age of 17 or 18.

That being said, there are still differences in learning abilities. Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology now at Boston College, who conducted his postdoctoral studies MIT, pointed out:

“If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar you should start by about 10 years old. We don’t see very much difference between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that...People who start learning a language between 10 and 18 will still learn quickly, but since they have a shorter window before their learning ability declines, they do not achieve the proficiency of native speakers.” - Joshua Hartshorn

The findings are based on an analysis of a grammar quiz taken by nearly 670,000 people, which is by far the largest dataset that anyone has assembled for a study of language-learning ability. Of course, that is English which is known to be a complicated language. Hebrew may be different. Also, if a child has been learning chumash and other Hebrew texts then they might be starting with a stronger foundation. But even if the science suggests it can be done, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done. Parents need to navigate carefully for the well being of their children.

There seems to be a debate amongst rabbinic leaders as to the ability for families to move with children after age nine and of course every situation and family unit is different so it is goes without saying that it is of utmost importance to consult with rabbinic advisors and to have responsible and trustworthy advisors on the ground in Israel if you make the move. To help everyone refresh the browser and better understand the ever-everchanging reality on the ground, we caught up with some of the principals of schools in Israel to get their take on the matter.

Founder and Director of Talmud Torah Darchei Noam
Rabbi Lavey Freedman

According to Rabbi Lavey Freedman, Founder and Director of Talmud Torah Darchei Noam, a K-8 cheder for boys in Ramat Bet Shemesh, the ideal olim should arrive before the children reach the age of six. However, some children who arrive by the age of 10, 11 and 12 and older need options as well. Today, there are more and more schools that are meeting the needs and mastering the unique educational experience that English speaking olim communities require.

Founder and Director of Talmud Torah Toras Moshe
Rabbi Shmuel Eidensohn

The experiential reality of being an immigrant can be traumatic for children. According to Rabbi Shmuel Eidensohn, Founder and Director of Talmud Torah Toras Moshe, “The child is listening to the rebbe tell the story of leaving Egypt in Hebrew. The child looks around and sees everyone staring at the rebbe seriously, like on the edge of their seat. Then everyone laughs and then [the class] returns to serious. The child thinks to himself, why am I not part of this? This is very sad and hurtful and occurs daily, weekly and monthly for the first few months and if it is not addressed and planned correctly it can be very traumatic for many boys.”

Every child is different and has different cognitive and social abilities. Parents need to know their children in order to prepare and guide them accordingly.

How long should parents expect this transitional immigration period to last?

Rabbi Freedman generally estimates this by adding three years to the grade number of the child. For example, if a child is moving to Israel in seventh grade it is expected to take around 10 months (grade 7 + 3 years). Of course every child is different and we met up with a Rabbi Feldman, first grade rebbe at Darchei Noam who confirmed that many students pick up the language in just a few months but he qualified this by saying that there are some children that it takes a year or even more. Every child is different.

Parents are signing up their children for a challenging first year and the schools have learned over the decades how to serve this very special and specific niche of English speaking immigrants to Israel. For example, one school we spoke with anticipates the child to repeat the year that he just finished. So, if a child finished 7th grade in Monsey then at this particular school he might start in 7th grade.

One could argue that when it comes to learning, overcoming the language barrier should be among the top priorities for Torah educators across the globe regardless of aliyah to Israel. In fact, some school administrators in the U.S. and elsewhere have begun instructing students in Hebrew at an early age. There’s no doubt that children who are proficient in Hebrew will be able to learn exponentially better than those who still crack their heads on the vocabulary and grammar. Also, those children who do end up moving to Israel will clearly be that much more prepared minimizing the difficulty of change.

Schools have grown to meet these unique challenges

Rabbi Eidenson of Toras Moshe listed just a few of the many ways their school meets the needs of new immigrant children:

  • Intensive ulpan

  • Private tutors in subjects to make sure they understand the content before they go into class. This way the class taught in Hebrew reinforces the concepts as well as the Hebrew.

  • Sometimes special groups formed as needed for the children to connect socially and discuss their emotions.

  • At times students are given the leniency to go home each day at an earlier time as they get used to the their new school.

  • The main thing is that children should be excited to go to school.

Rabbi Freedman also pointed out the central importance of positivity, rewards and more positivity. Sometimes the child may struggle in school, regardless of aliyah, and parents need to know how important it is to realize that not every child will build their confidence in the academic settings. He emphasized how crucial extra curricular activities can be such as sports, crafts, music and even volunteering for organizations such as hatzalah. He said, “They may not get A’s on their school report cards, but their report cards of life will have a lot of A’s.”

What about grades 9 - 12?

There are a lot of options for English speaking families making Aliyah with children in grades 9 - 12. Most of the schools seem to have English speaking students but the classroom instruction is in Hebrew with English speaking rabbeim. However, there seems to be some debate as to how to best help the older grades.

Dean and Co-founder of Yerushalayim Torah Academy
Rabbi David Samson

However, given the challenge that many students have with the languages, Rabbi Bezalel Borstein, Principal of Yerushalayim Torah Academy, a daati leumi school for boys in grades 9 - 12 and Dean and co-founder Rabbi David Samson recognize that teenage boys are dealing with a lot of changes at this age (e.g. bodies, new country, etc.) and thus all the classroom instruction and even the state exams are translated into English. The students also learn Ulpan and attain a proficiency in Hebrew and school is part of an Israeli school in Bayet Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem and so the students are able to connect with Israeli peers at their own pace.

Principal of Yerushalayim Torah Academy
Rabbi Bezalel Borestein

This approach is certainly innovative and while many counterparts haven’t gone so far as to have all classes in English we may start seeing more schools like this springing up in new communities across the Holy Land such as Afula and Malei Amos. However, the normative approach today appears to be to have classroom instruction in Hebrew citing the need for increased integration, proficiency and fluency in Hebrew which is the language of the land.

We spoke with one student at Yerushalayim Torah Academy who was happy to have had the opportunity at two English speaking schools. When asked what advice he’d give others moving to Israel at age 15 he mentioned that he wished he’d been more active in building relationships with the Israeli natives instead of staying in his more comfortable English speaking group of friends. Although both of these approaches seem to prepare the students effectively for a life in Israeli society, identifying whether or not there even is a "best" approach for all is beyond the scope of this work.

At the end of the day, parents need to know their children well and put their children’s well being at the top of the list of priorities. Many families are misinformed about how accommodating Aliyah has become for English speaking families. Things have changed drastically over the past few decades not just in quantity of schools but also in quality of schools. While it is true that nothing is perfect it is also true that great things don’t come without struggle. For those who make the jump up to the Holy Land, the upside is truly immeasurable.

Ramat Bet Shemesh has ample school options for English speaking families.

Moving to a new school isn’t easy when it is in the same city. Moving to a new country with a new language can be far more challenging than anyone could ever plan for. Today, it is possible to move to Eretz Yisrael without learning a word of Hebrew by joining English speaking communities that are tens of thousands strong. Nonetheless, preparing children for academic success and societal integration remains a top priority for all.

We only scratched the surface here as there are so many great schools for slim in Eretz Yisrael. Nonetheless, we hope this video helps parents and leaders understand the issues more clearly and make better informed decisions. In upcoming episodes we will continue to look at schools including girls schools and grades 9 - 12 here in the Holy Land. We will also be looking at real estate, jobs and community life so make sure to subscribe and forward this video to friends. Good things are meant to be shared...grass roots is the best way to grow our virtual community. Thank you in advance.

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