Yeshivat Frisch is happy to welcome accomplished Hebrew educator Yair Shahak as its new Hebrew language department chair. Previously, Shahak taught for five years at Yeshiva University, where in 2013 he won the distinguished Professor of the Year Award, an honor chosen by the student body. In 2016, Shahak made headlines worldwide when he won the International Chidon HaTanach for Adults in Jerusalem, becoming the first American to earn the title. Shahak joined the Frisch Hebrew department in September 2018, and succeeds previous Hebrew Chair Dafna Zilberschmid, who recently retired and moved back home to her native Israel.
Shahak intends to stress practical Hebrew skills from ninth through 12th grade for all academic tracks. He says his goal is to enable students to communicate with Israeli friends and family, digest Hebrew media, understand the siddur and learn Hebrew sefarim independently throughout their lives. Part of his approach involves getting students to learn cohesive vocabulary units that allow them to focus on one area of life at a time—for example, nouns, verbs and adjectives that relate to food, weather, specific professions, etc.
“I am planning to have the students be able to express themselves in all forms: written, oral; continuing the tradition of excellence and love for Israel that was upheld by Morah Dafna [Zilberschmid]; and making sure that every student grows at their own pace and at the level that’s appropriate for them,” he explained.
He has already made exciting waves with the students he taught over the past year. “Rabbi Shahak gave me a new appreciation of the Hebrew language,” said Talia Gellman, a student of Shahak’s this year at Frisch. “Although I have had Safah [Hebrew language class] since elementary school, Rabbi Shahak taught me how to speak Hebrew in a practical way. His engaging style made his Hebrew class so enjoyable.”
Students often enjoy the occasional reference to Akkadian, Yiddish, Italian and even Icelandic that Shahak throws in for good measure. “Being in Rabbi Shahak’s class is such a great experience because his knowledge of Arabic and [many] other languages gives us a look at the roots of Hebrew words in a way we have never seen before,” said rising Frisch senior Zachary Wolf.
“Rabbi Shahak’s immense intellect and passion for teaching shows through in every class of his,” added rising Frisch junior Dylan Speiser.
Shahak will be incorporating new, innovative and proven methodologies to promote Hebrew speaking skills. “Hebrew is often viewed as a very complicated language with many grammatical exceptions, yet for the most part it is a highly intuitive, straightforward language,” he insisted. “When I teach, I try to demonstrate Hebrew’s internal logic to my students every day.”
Previous students of his from Yeshiva University attest to how successful his approach has been, and to the care Shahak displays toward his students. “Rabbi Shahak is an incredibly clear, motivating teacher who sees the development, understanding and application of Hebrew language as his top priority for his students,” said Rabbi Andrew Israeli, a current Judaic Studies faculty member at Frisch who took Shahak’s class at YU. “As a former student of Rabbi Shahak in Yeshiva University, I can testify firsthand to his patience and student-first teaching style.”
“He was among the most attentive teachers that I had, making time for students both inside and outside the classroom to ensure their command of Hebrew,” said Rabbi Dov Lerner, another former YU student. “He had a way of making the most intricate grammatical and linguistic principles accessible—opening up the vistas of Jewish textual tradition to everyone privileged enough to enter the doors of his classroom.”
“I can say without hesitation that Professor Shahak has mastered the art of teaching Ivrit and not only conveyed the technical aspects in an easy and natural way but also made me excited to come to class and learn,” said Rabbi Efrayim Clair, another former YU student.
Shahak’s Hebrew instruction has proven valuable for students in professional settings. On one of his medical rotations, pulmonary critical care fellow Dr. Jonah Rubin—who took Shahak’s class at Yeshiva College—once encountered an Israeli who was alone in a New York hospital. “Thanks to Professor Yair Shahak and his year of superb Hebrew instruction, I was able to interpret for him,” said Rubin.
Shahak holds a B.A. with a triple major in Hebrew language and literature, Bible and music, an M.A. in Bible and cantorial ordination, all from Yeshiva University. In addition, he earned a master’s in music degree in violin performance from the Aaron Copland School of Music in Queens and is currently completing rabbinical ordination.