Letter to the Editor: On the Departure of Professor Plotkin

Dear President Smith and Provost Willie-LeBreton,

Professor Helen Plotkin, who taught me ancient Hebrew at Swarthmore and continues to be a mentor to me, told me that her contract with Swarthmore is being terminated on the grounds that she does not have a master’s degree in pedagogy or a Ph.D., but rather only has a master’s in Hebrew and eighteen years of experience teaching Hebrew at Swarthmore. Furthermore, when I expressed my concern to you about this, you did not indicate any intention to hire a replacement Hebrew teacher, but rather suggested that students could study ancient Hebrew at UPenn.

Are eighteen years of teaching at Swarthmore not an adequate substitute for a master’s degree in pedagogy? Professor Plotkin was one of the best teachers I had at Swarthmore. On the first day of Hebrew class my freshman year, Professor Plotkin baked cookies in the shape of every Hebrew letter. The cookies welcomed us to the sweetness of learning, but they did not signal that the class was going to be easy. The cookies were also Professor Plotkin’s way of introducing students to the language’s nuance. She included in her sugar cookie alphabet the often-overlooked “dagesh,” the dot that distinguishes a “v” sound from a “b” sound. While most Hebrew instructors mention the “dagesh” only in passing, Professor Plotkin wove for us a rich understanding of this little dot. She taught us that it is a vestige of dropped letters, signaling the linguistic origin of a word and the historical context in which its meaning arose. This is how Professor Plotkin teaches Hebrew. Every dot on the page is a window to a universe of meaning and millennia of scholarship. And Professor Plotkin made sure we nailed it—any “dagesh” in the wrong place lost you a point on a test. 

What is Swarthmore if not a place that cherishes the ancient written word and cherishes our Swarthmore family? Professor Plotkin is a Swattie through and through. She graduated from Swarthmore as an undergrad and pursued computer programming and Mandarin Chinese before becoming a rabbi, earning a master’s degree in Hebrew, and returning home to Swarthmore to teach.

Swarthmore is not a corporation that can simply prune departments for the sake of modernization. We are a community, and pruning injures the entire tree. Eliminating Hebrew instruction will reduce Swarthmore’s academic prestige, particularly our linguistics department’s ability to attract aspiring linguists interested in Semitic languages. It will cut away the opportunity to study ancient Jewish texts, which are fundamental to the Judeo-Christian world. They hold particular relevance today as antisemitism rears its ugly head; students may need to look to these books for their deep wisdom in the face of evil and suffering.

Most importantly, perhaps, to eliminate Professor Plotkin’s position is to doom her lovingly created library, the Beit Midrash. Although you have said that the Beit Midrash will remain even after Professor Plotkin’s termination, your assertion is based on a flawed understanding of the Beit Midrash.

The Beit Midrash is far more than a collection of books. It serves as a gathering place for students to study Torah, do biology homework, and observe Jewish holidays. I spent hundreds of hours and did some of my best learning there. And while we students rushed in and out, Professor Plotkin was our rock, bringing guest speakers, teaching us to use the books on the shelves––Torah commentary is impossible to decipher with an untrained eye––and cultivating a space where we felt welcome to come and learn.

I am guessing that the books will soon be transferred to a room in McCabe after Professor Plotkin’s departure. I have no doubt that the lovely library staff will do a good job of keeping the books safe and clean, but to be frank with you, the books will go unread. They will fall into obsolescence. Professor Plotkin keeps these ancient texts alive by creating a community environment where students want to learn. Unless you hire another Hebrew teacher interested in cultivating this spirit of learning, Hebrew study at Swarthmore will die.

You have said that students are welcome to take Hebrew classes at UPenn and that you will maintain Professor Plotkin’s collection of books. But I don’t think Swarthmore would justify cutting astronomy instruction by telling students, “You are welcome to take astronomy at Haverford, and we are committed to maintaining the telescope atop the Science Center for you to use.” The telescope has little relevance if students have no instructors to teach them to make sense of the stars. The books in the Beit Midrash have no relevance without a teacher.

In Hebrew, numbers can be represented by letters in a system called gematria. The number eighteen is denoted by a “chet” and a “yud” together, which spells “chai,” the Hebrew word for “life.” Professor Plotkin has taught Swarthmore students for a full eighteen years, and to terminate her would be to terminate the flourishing “chai” that she has created for the minds and spirits of all who come to learn. While it is admirable that Swarthmore is seeking out high-quality instructors, the time for using a master’s degree in pedagogy as a proxy for teaching skill is at hiring, not after eighteen years.

Why are you cutting Hebrew instruction at Swarthmore?

Sincerely,

Rachel Flaherman ’16

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