Faculty Spotlight: Hagit Arieli-Chai

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Faculty Spotlight
Hagit Arieli-Chai (she/her)
Director of Hebrew Language

Headshot of Hagit Arieli-ChaiPlease tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I was born and raised in Israel in a traditional home. I only knew Jews, and growing up, I thought that the entire world was Jewish. I came to Los Angeles to attend school and it taught me about the multiculturalism and diversity that exists in the world. I realized I didn’t know as much about Judaism as I thought I knew.

Teaching Hebrew as a Jewish educator exposed me to what Judaism is in North America. I was working in a Sunday school teaching Hebrew, and I said, “Oh, wait, this is a temple. What is a temple for me?” Temple wasn’t part of the vocabulary I knew. I knew that it relates to the ancient temple Beit HaMikdash. I began to learn about the different styles of practicing Judaism, of which I knew nothing. I did my Master’s at the American Jewish University in Education, Hebrew, and Jewish literacy. I was taking classes such as Mishnah and Jewish Philosophy — the first time that I learned in an academic setting. Afterwards I searched for a job in some Jewish settings, and I found a job as a part-time Jewish instructor, working with adults. I became the coordinator of the program a few years later. I teach USC students through HUC-JIR’s Louchheim School of Judaic Studies. I interact with HUC-JIR students, preparing them before they go to their Year-In-Israel programor before they enter HUC-JIR, reinforcing some Hebrew skills.

What is it like living in Los Angeles as a native Israeli?
Los Angeles is one of the most comfortable cities in America to be an Israeli. There are vast Israeli and Jewish communities and you feel very much connected to your community here. I play an Israeli volleyball game called Mamanet with other moms. There’s so many teams and it’s a big league and growing. Decades ago there weren’t that many Israeli products, but now you can buy almost everything here. The weather is also similar. I don’t feel like I’m an outsider. This is a place that embraces all cultures and all ethnicities. Los Angeles feels like a second home.

What is most rewarding about your work?
The most rewarding part of my work is to see my students excited when they speak Hebrew, putting sentences together, and wanting to learn more. Hebrew is a difficult language to learn, and it’s rewarding to observe them grow. Some students have taken several courses and independent studies with me, and I see how they go more in depth with the language, such as exploring Hebrew poetry, short stories, news, and insisting on conversing in Hebrew. I also love to see their passion when they visit Israel and come back to class and talk about it. The Hebrew language is their direct channel to their identity. My job is to help them learn the language skills, but it empowers them to feel proud to be a Jew and be part of the collective.

Please tell us about your recent work and achievements.
I’m a doctoral student working on my Ph.D. My research focuses on language acquisition, culture, and identity. I’m looking at some stories from my students that I collected over the last couple of years to study how the language changed their identity. I have a couple of students that came with no background or from a different religion, and I’m really interested to see how they have developed their language, their discourse developing, how this changed something in their identity, how they perceive themselves today, and how they view themselves adding the impact of Hebrew language. I’ve also given talks at a European Hebrew studies organization in Strasbourg, France. My last article was published here, which was about to what degree motivation and emotion affects the learner of a second language. Additionally, I recently published a book about Hebrew etymology, entitled A Journey of Hebrew Words from Genesis to the Rebirth of Homeland (Hakodesh Press).

Describe HUC-JIR in one word.

What do you enjoy in your free time?
Yoga, hiking, and music concerts as much as possible.