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Teaching Hebrew

I taught Biblical Hebrew at San Francisco Theological Seminary for 12 years.  It was not my primary responsibility as a member of the faculty.  I was called to serve as Chaplain and Assistant Professor in the Department of Ministry because of my experience as a pastor, bringing 12 years of pastoral experience.  It came as a shock to many of my minister colleagues when I received the call to the seminary.  After all, who was I and what qualified me to be called to a faculty position?  I was serving as the pastor of a 37 member congregation on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation when the call came.  My highest academic degree was a Bachelor of Divinity which I received in 1966 (the equivalent of a Masters today). 

My primary responsibility at the seminary was to serve as a bridge between the local church and the seminary.  As the Director of Field Education, my task was to place students in local congregations and ministry settings that more effectively provided the needed training, education, and experience than in the classroom.  Their instructors were pastors, chaplains, community organizers in the field.

Teaching Hebrew came by accident.  During the first year of my tenure at the seminary, a vacancy opened up and the Biblical faculty was looking for someone to teach the Hebrew introductory course.  I asked my colleagues to give me a shot at the job.  They decided to give me a chance; but reluctantly because my qualifications were limited to the same amount and level of instruction in Hebrew that my students would end up with by the time they graduated—Introduction to Biblical Hebrew and possibly an additional elected course in Hebrew.  That was the extent of the instruction I had received when I was a student in seminary.  I did have, however, one thing more to add to my resume, although it would never appear on it.  In the course of my ministry on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, I became friends with the resident mental health director, a Jewish single mother.  Gloria came to me one day, and out of the blue, wondered aloud whether I knew any Hebrew.  I informed her that all Presbyterian ministers were required to learn Hebrew and Greek in seminary and for ordination to the ministry.  Gloria then surprised me and asked whether I could tutor her son, David, so that he could begin studying for his bar mitzvah.  The nearest synagogue was 100 miles away in Portland.  Intrigued  and challenged by the request, I told her that I would give it a try.  I explained that I loved Hebrew in seminary but had not read or studied it since I graduated 10 years ago.  I would have to locate my grammar and dust it off.  Several years later, I read a note, which I had just received from David, to my Hebrew class at SFTS.  It was a thank you note and an invitation to his Bar Mitzvah.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Hebrew”

  1. Cal, What a sacred calling you had to teach Hebrew! To me, one of the most exciting events to attend is a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. To prepare for it, the youth must spend many, many months learning Hebrew in order to recite the Torah and speak in Hebrew. They do this in the midst of heavy academic load from regular school and extra-curricular academic and athletic participation to get the GPA’s needed for college entrance. One day you see this adolescent and the next day at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, you see this handsome, beautiful caterpillar has become a vibrant butterfly.
    I have a first cousin who is married to a Jewish gentleman and they have five children. All five children had a Mitvah. As icing on the cake, this first cousin’s sister (therefore also my first cousin) is a Rabbi now in the East Bay.
    Now some of the grand-children have taken that journey.

  2. Those were the days, whether the 1960s or the 1980s. I’m pretty sure that MDiv graduates from SFTS nowadays no longer depart with any knowledge of Hebrew in their repertoire of skills. It would be nice if I were mistaken.

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