I recently visited my old school, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington, or JDS for short.
It's a K-12 pluralistic Jewish school in the DC suburbs; the "pluralistic" part means the kids there come from all walks of Jewish life — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or no affiliation at all. I started at the school when I was in second grade.
All the kids at JDS learn Hebrew, but I was there to find out about the school's Arabic program.
Courtesy of Carol Zall
Abo Awad, who's 35, came to Washington, DC, as a graduate student in 2011. It was a big change for him. "Especially in DC," he says, "the multi-culture, the diversity, and the food. Oh my gosh, the food." He told me he'd never had Chinese, Jamaican or Mexican food. "For the first year, it was amazing, just to explore everything."
In 2013, Abo Awad started teaching at JDS. At first he just taught Arabic, but he now teaches Hebrew classes, too. As he and I strolled the halls of the school, kids came up to say hi, some in Arabic and some in Hebrew. "For me, it was normal to work in a Jewish school, with Jewish people — people who speak Hebrew, too," he told me. "I came from Israel so it's normal, nothing weird for me in this situation."
Still, he says, teaching in a Jewish school is not "just a job" for him. "I can teach anywhere, but here it's unique. ... I think I feel a responsibility to represent something."
Students at JDS choose to study Arabic for a number of reasons. For some, it's a heritage language. Eitan Cohen, a senior, says his mother's family came to the US from Syria, and he still has relatives who speak Arabic. "I wanted to make that cultural bond with my ancestors."