Local program keeping Armenian culture, heritage alive

Karinne’ Andonian’s father wanted to pass the Armenian values he grew up with down to his children, so he created a little school of sorts where Andonian and her cousins all gathered together to learn the Armenian language and traditions. 

When Andonian had her own children, she wanted to keep the tradition going. Given the closest Armenian lessons are in Philadelphia, Andonian, who lives in Moorestown, and her friend Nadia Soghomonian, a Marlton resident, wanted to offer something located in South Jersey. So, two years ago, they created Armenian Hour, a Armenian language and cultural education program they hold once a week at Trinity Episcopal Church. 

Andonian said shortly after they hatched the idea for Armenian Hour, word spread throughout town, and 31 students signed up their first year. She said they were thrilled when families they didn’t even know reached out to join, and in their second year, approximately the same number of students returned. 

The program is called Armenian Hour because it takes place on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to around noon. Students are broken into three groups based on age and Armenian speaking abilities. They have a mommy and me format for those under 4, a 5- to 8-year-old group and a 9- to 15-year-old group. 

The first half hour is focused on language lessons and engages students in conversational Armenian. Andonian said they focus on different scenarios the children might find themselves in. They’ll recite animals if they’re discussing a trip to the zoo, or they’ll name foods if they’re talking about a trip to the grocery store. At the end of each unit, they hold a “family dinner” where they eat and speak in as much Armenian as possible about whatever topic they’ve just covered. 

The second half of the hour focuses on a cultural lesson, which could include anything from Armenian history, art, cooking and even dance. Andonian said Trinity Episcopal has been kind enough to offer them kitchen access, so they’ll teach students traditional Armenian recipes. 

“The overarching theme is family and community, which are very important values in Armenian culture,” Andonian said.

The teachers are entirely volunteers, and they ask for only enough tuition to cover the cost of books and supplies for the school year. The program runs from September to May. Each year, they hold a Christmas party celebrating Armenian Christmas traditions, and in the spring, they host an end-of-year recital where children perform Armenian speaking skits for family and friends. 

Much like the school she grew up with, Armenian Hour continues to be a family affair with Andonian teaching the 5 to 8 group, her husband teaching the youngest and her cousin teaching the oldest age group. Her mother and aunt have also joined and teach the cultural lessons on art or dancing.

She said thus far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The organization is not currently registered as a nonprofit or any other kind of group, but she said they’re not ruling it out in the future should they see enough growth.

Andonian said for local families, there aren’t many Armenian churches close by, and so over time, the traditional Armenian culture she grew up is being lost a bit. She said whether these students are 100 percent, half or a quarter Armenian, they want to teach them the history and important stories and help preserve the old Armenian culture. 

“We are hoping to stay with a strong momentum to keep our culture and heritage alive with the next generation,” Andonian said. 

Registration is open for the 2019-2020 school year. Armenian Hour will run from Saturday, Sept. 21 to May 9, 2020. Registration is $100 per child to cover the cost of materials. To learn more or to register, contact Andonian at karinne.hov@gmail.com or Soghomonian at nadia.soghomonian@gmail.com.