HILLSDALE - Six-year-old Avi Cox wasn't listening to the lesson on the Hebrew letter 'tet.' He would rather pay attention to the photographer in the back of the room.
But asked about his class, he quickly responded in a stream of Hebrew.
'We love Kochavim, all the time that there's Kochavim,' he said as his teacher translated.
Kochavim ('stars') is an after-school Hebrew immersion program for 4- to 7-year-olds at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Hillsdale. Now in its second year, the program recently received a $7,500 Innovation Impact Grant from the Jewish Federation and has expanded to include a music program for parents and toddlers called Notz'tzim ('sparkles').
Director Mel Berwin said she started the program when she realized her children would have to wait until third grade to receive formal Hebrew instruction at Neveh Shalom. Berwin, who is herself fluent in Hebrew, felt that would be too late, as many of the speech centers of the brain are primed for learning language at a much earlier age.
But to teach children that young, Berwin knew that they wouldn't stand for rote memorization, and she didn't want them to. An immersion program that incorporated games and activities with a Hebrew curriculum would be the fastest - and most fun - way for children to learn.
'It's just a more natural way that kids, or anybody, learns a language,' she said.
With the help of certified teachers and several native speakers from Israel, Berwin's program has expanded to three classrooms, with another class starting in April.
Children from Jewish families all over Portland come to attend the program and parents say they like the way Hebrew has become a fun part of their lives.
'At this age, it's so much easier, obviously,' said Jen Weprin as she watched her daughter, Sofia, run around. 'She will soon know more Hebrew than we do.'
Sarah Greenstein, who brings her 7-month-old baby to the Notz'tzim class, says she wishes she had a similar program when she was growing up.
'I never had a program like this that taught you how to speak it,' Greenstein said, 'which is one of the reasons this is so exciting.'
Berwin echoed the sentiment of many of the parents saying, 'Hebrew is one of the most foundational building blocks for living a Jewish life.'
To that end, she'll keep pushing the program to be better. She's looking to hire more teachers, keep the class sizes small and even take her original curriculum on the road.
'It's a new kind of model, and it's different enough that we want to get the word out nationally,' she said.