The biggest Hebrew school in the world

You don’t have to be Jewish to want to learn biblical Hebrew, according to Israeli online learning company, eTeacher, which is opening a new course ever month to satisfy demand from the American Christian community. Learning a new language is …

You don’t have to be Jewish to want to learn biblical Hebrew, according to Israeli online learning company, eTeacher, which is opening a new course ever month to satisfy demand from the American Christian community.

Learning a new language is something most people would love to do… if only they had the time. True, there are podcasts, CDs and online courses but for many, the absence of a classroom situation makes learning difficult. Israeli company eTeacher identified this problem early on and for eight years has been bringing teachers and students together over the Internet.

“We are the first company in the world to develop synchronized live lessons for foreign language learning,” says eTeacher co-founder and co-CEO Boaz Binnun. The Ramat Gan-based company offers modern and Biblical Hebrew, English and Chinese, taught live online via video conference, giving students real-time interaction with their instructor and peers.

Face-time characterizes the program, Binnun says. “We believe that learning a language requires the traditional teacher-student relationship,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “The traditional structured method – teacher, textbook, homework – is the only way to learn a language. Other courses may give you a vocabulary but they can’t teach grammar.”

Using technology to access ancient sources

The biblical Hebrew course, organized under Dr. Ohad Cohen of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, is particularly unique, Binnun notes. “Today, there are only a few places in the world to learn biblical Hebrew. And there’s a great deal of interest, particularly among Americans wanting to connect with the ancient sources. US residents make up 60 percent of our biblical Hebrew client base.”

“The goal for this course is to understand the original source language. Reading the bible in English is like reading Shakespeare in translation — you miss out on the subtleties. Our students come to us for a variety of reasons: religious, spiritual, research or general interest. For some, it’s the fulfillment of a dream,” Binnun says.

The course is growing fast, Binnun adds, with applications coming in from the ClassicalHebrew.com website every day. “We open a new course cycle every month, and we know we have a high level of client satisfaction because 50% go on to the advanced courses.”

eTeacher’s course structure comprises small groups of six to eight students that meet once a week over nine months, a total of 30 classes. In addition, teachers hold weekly visiting hours. Courses cost about $900, including an $85 non-refundable registration fee that entitles students to two trial lessons, (after which they can decide if they wish to continue), plus books, study kits, and headphones that are all sent by mail to the student’s home.

The company has 150 employees of which 90 are call center representatives handling service, sales and support, plus another 50 comprising the marketing, operations and the all-important pedagogical staff that oversees a team of 300 teachers.

“We have a global teaching staff – Australia, the US West Coast, East Coast, Europe and Israel – so we can work ’round the clock,” Binnun explains. “In particular, our Sunday classes have people from every time zone. It’s a real international atmosphere. Ten percent of these students aren’t Jewish but are interested and want to visit Israel.”

The online medium has other advantages, too. “There are taped lessons if you miss a class. And there is multimedia supplemental content available on the website,” says Binnun. There are also special interest blogs and a newsletter written by teachers to which anyone can subscribe.

The Ebay of private lessons

eTeacher was founded by brothers Yariv and Boaz Binnun in 2000, when the Internet was still young. Yariv was running a private tutoring company and Boaz had set up one of the first Internet companies in Israel, providing websites for major clients such as Amdocs and Bezeq. “We had an idea to set up ‘the Ebay of private lessons’, as we called it, tutoring over the net,” he says.

The company got a major push in 2002 when it won the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) contract for remote instruction for children of diplomatic corps members posted abroad. “Once they would hire locals or fly teachers in from Israel,” explains Binnun. “The MFA was unique in that early on, it provided a technological solution to a real problem with minimal resources and cost.”

Today eTeacher runs a structured K-12 program for the MFA with a principal, teaching staff and also prepares students for the Israeli matriculation examinations.

Because of the tender win, eTeacher was obliged to enter the field of structured language instruction. As they began developing courses, “we saw there was a business here.”

By 2004, Binnun says: “Israelis around the world heard about us and wanted to join the school program. So we opened it to them. Then we got applications from the Jewish community. We then noticed that there were non-Jewish students who joined because they wanted to read the bible in Hebrew. And we discovered that in almost every class there was at least one student who was there for this reason. So we set up the school for biblical Hebrew in 2007.”

The company launched its Chinese language course in 2008. “We found there were many qualified local teachers in China. We offer a high-level course with teachers who are bilingual Chinese/English, which is hard to find. We’re getting a few hundred students per [nine-month] cycle with eight cycles running per year. We see a positive trend and we’re very optimistic,” says Binnun.

eTeacher is also looking at other languages that fit its model. Market analysis shows its advantage is in niche languages where there is demand but not critical mass. “This is the Long Tail nature of the Internet,” says Binnun, referring to the concept of selling large numbers of unique items in small quantities. “You can find courses for Chinese in New York, but not in Nebraska.”

In that sense, eTeacher is, perhaps, achieving the goal of becoming if not the Ebay of its field, then the Netflix or Amazon. Not bad for a little company from Ramat Gan.
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About Rachel Neiman

A veteran media professional who has lived in Israel since 1984, Rachel has been part of the ISRAEL21c organization since 2008. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Globes Online, the English-language edition of Israel’s leading business daily, and before that, at The Jerusalem Post, as a business reporter, feature writer, and consumer columnist. Rachel began writing about Israeli technology companies at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine and is a professional Hebrew to English translator. In her spare time, she is an active member of the Havurat Tel Aviv congregation, and the Holyland Hash House Harriers, part of an international running and drinking disorganization.