By Kathy Day
Connecting children with the Hebrew language and their Israeli heritage became such a passion for Del Mar resident Jennie Starr that she turned her drive into the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center in Carmel Valley.
Nearly eight years ago the mother of two decided she wanted her children to learn Hebrew proficiently, but there were no programs in San Diego to come to her aid.
Today there is one that offers not just language classes for children and adults, but cultural programs such as dancing and singing, Hebrew story time, speakers, a movie club and a book club.
“Even though my father was Israeli, he did not speak Hebrew at home,” said Starr, who grew up in Chicago. While her dad was born in Israel, her mother was an American who did not speak Hebrew and neither did Starr.
When her grandmother would visit, she added, “I had no clue what they were talking about. I was not connected to these people ... ”
Starr compared the experience to going to Italy “where you love the food and love the sites” but don’t understand the conversations around you.
When her first child was born, she said, she had a similar experience all over again.
Her American husband was fluent in Hebrew and spoke the language to their daughter. In an effort to increase her own skills, she said she decided to read Hebrew translations of books like Dr. Seuss with her child for an hour a day.
“I struggled ... I could read the words but I didn’t understand them,” she said.
So she tried to learn by being around other Hebrew speakers.
“When I heard someone speaking Hebrew, I would ask for their phone numbers,” she added.
Then she started a Hebrew-speaking play group – which is now part of the Tarbuton program — and established her own cultural-social network. Even then she only understood about 30 percent of what was being said and would have to call friends to ask what was said.
Knowing that her children had no option to become proficient at Hebrew at home, Starr built on her own experience as an attorney and entrepreneur as a software product manager to start the Tarbuton.
Much like San Diego’s Italian Cultural Center and the Persian Cultural Center, Tarbuton focuses on immersing the students in language and culture.
Working with Maya Cohen, a child development specialist who was born in Israel and attended university there, they started with just a few children in one class. Now the Tarbuton has 200 to 300 people who participate weekly or monthly in its programs.
Offerings include classes at the Ken Jewish Community Center on the San Diego Jewish Academy campus in Carmel Valley each Sunday and Monday evening, as well as after-school programs in the Del Mar and Solana Beach school districts. They also offer classes in which high school students can earn foreign language credits at their schools and are considering offerings in Encinitas, Carlsbad and La Jolla/Golden Triangle or Poway (all areas where people also come from to participate in the center’s programs).