Synagogue Schools are experiencing a crises of faith. Just about everyone believes that they are “broken” and that a big fix is needed. Usually, that fix is imagined to be a “process” fix where words like “camp-like” emerge. We at Torah Aura have long argued that it is a change in “content” that is most needed. Recently, in conversations with Josh, I have come to a different conclusion. Synagogue Schools aren’t broken, American Jewish life is. It isn’t the school, but the Judaism they are teaching that has the problem.
We know a couple of things. There is indeed a great movement towards synagogue renewal. Rock and Roll services, early study sessions, Syn-a-plex and dozen other initiatives are busy reinventing communal events in synagogues. We have meditation services, healing services, early Shabbat services and a lot of ther innovations that seem to be making a difference for in those places that implement them. In addition, the universe of alternative minyanim and other innovative Jewish programming like Storahtelling and Reboot are also succeeding. When you look in the right places there is a lot of dynamic Jewish life in America. Most of this never makes it to the ordinary synagogue in the ordinary suburb.
But, schools have a different problem. Underneath these technical innovations that are shifting the synagogue marketplace, there are actually tectonic shifts. The meaning of Judaism is changing. Let me give you a few examples. For people who go to healing services (and I am not one) there is a great new belief that prayer and other religious activities can make a huge personal difference. This is very different from the public belief that services are good social and cultural gatherings. For those engaged in the Reform Movements great innovation, the Saturday morning Torah study group–there is an innate transformation from passive participantion to active control of the learning. As opposed to “I can listen and evaluate a sermon,” we now have “I can shape the meaning of the Torah that all of us are learning together.” For those involved in the best of family events (and we are not talking about the coloring a pillow case with the Shema for the third grade every year kind of program) there is a renewed sense of the power and importance of family.
There is a bright future for religious schools, just as there is a bright future for American Jewish life, once we begin to think about the Judaism we are teaching. Once the sense of ownership that has been given in all these synagogue reformations and all of these alternative settings, are transfered into the learning that goes on in the classroom–then success is only a step or two away. But the question we really need to ask is simply, “Is the Judaism we are teaching the Judaism that our learners need.” Given the realities of a larger community that is intermarried, unaffiliated, and operates out of the “sovereign self,” there is a great need to go far beyond time shifts, sitting on floors, and technology–towards asking ontological questions about the actual Judaism we are sharing.
Once we do that, I am going into the sunglass business.